Para Surfing on the way to the Paralympics

Johannes Laing-Para Surfing World Championships 2021

Surfing made its debut at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Sorry for the confusion, but Covid is known for turning things upside down a bit. With surfing’s inclusion in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the ISA is now promoting surfing’s inclusion in the 2028 Paralympics in Los Angeles. As the president of the ISA Fernando Aguerre emphasised: Surfing as the official sport of the state of California and the strong surf culture, appeal, and infrastructure in LA 2028, Para Surfing can offer amazing value and energy to the Paralympic programme. The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) board recently confirmed that Para Surfing has demonstrated the competitiveness and integrity of the sport, as well as the strategic benefit to the Paralympic Games. This does not mean that Para Surfing is already confirmed in the program. However, the LA28 Committee is considering the impact that Para Surfing’s inclusion in the program could have. The final decision is expected to be made by the end of the year. Regardless of the outcome, para-surfers from around the world are hoping to make their debut on the Olympic stage. We spoke with two members of the German Para Surfing Team which is part of the German Surfing association. Christina Paetrow, the team manager and Johannes Laing, the athlete representative and athlete himself, shared their thoughts and let us know what preparations are on the way. Credit: Ben Reed/ISA Surfer: Johannes Laing ISA Parasurfing Games Pismo Beach  Last year in December 2022, the annual ISA World Para Surfing Championship was held in Pismo Beach, California. With a new record – more than 180 athletes from 28 nations came together to surf the waves. Since the beginning, the sport is constantly growing and has evolved, Johannes mentioned. He has the feeling that especially in the last couple of years and with the inclusion of surfing in the Olympics, the para surf movement and its community has grown  and strengthened a lot. The ISA World Para Surfing Championships have been around since 2015, Christina told me. And since 2017, the German Surf Team with Johannes Laing as one of the pioneers in German Para Surfing is part of it. There are different classes in the Worlds, as Christina explains: There are five main classes, the lying or prone, the sitting, the kneeling the standing and the visually impaired class for surfers with visual impairment or complete blindness. Some of them are divided into sub-classes. In the prone class, there is Prone 1 and Prone 2, for example. Prone 1 is for surfers who are able to surf unassisted, like Johannes and Antonio from our team, which means they paddle and surf independently on their belly. Prone 2 is for surfers who need assistance in the water. A “pusher” pushes them into the wave and a “catcher” receives the surfer at the water’s edge and helps them to get out in the line-up again after the surfer has ridden the wave. Surfers in the Visually Impaired classes – there are two as well depending on the level of eyesight – are joined by a guide in the water who supports the surfers with verbal signals, for example when to start paddling and and with regards to the direction of the wave. For the visually impaired the assistants do not touch the surfers compared to prone. There, so to speak, the surfer or the board is allowed to be touched. And in the standing class, there are three different classes. The standing class is not exclusively reserved for amputations. There are also other diagnoses, but otherwise, that’s right. So: Upper body respectively, lower body and below the knee, Johannes Laing added. The categories and each classification also compete among themselves. So there is no overlap. For example, prone 1 and 2 are different classes, and so to speak, also two gold medals that can be won. Johannes said that there are also different contest formats around though, where classes are mixed and compete against each other. But that’s not the case for the World Para Surfing Games, there it’s divided into different categories. Judging in para surfing  Johannes explains the difficulty: Mixed competitions in para surfing make the judges’ job difficult because they have to adapt to physical limitations and physical abilities.These can vary quite a bit within one class.The judging criteria are more or less the same as in non-adaptive or non-para competitions, so speed, power and flow. These are the three most important. But you have to realize that the sport is still young and still developing. That means that the level increases from year to year. Each year, I am amazed how the surfers, skills, and equipment develop. It’s getting better and better and the criteria are more effective than they were three or four years ago. Qualification for the Paralympics The qualification process of surfing for the Olympics 2024 in Tahiti is a mix of the WSL tour ranking and the ISA Worlds’ outcome. For the Para Surfing Championships, there is no qualification process announced yet. As Johannes says: So far, they are all open, which means that whoever has the financial means and who can pay the start fees, can also start. The ISA Games are so far the only ones where you have to go through the association.  In all other competitions, you are allowed to participate, and that makes sense because the numbers are not so big. So, if the WSL would say, everyone can participate, then they would not be able to save themselves from people who are professional surfers or think they are. That would be different with the Para Surfing League, if you introduce restrictions there, it would probably hurt more at the beginning. Therefore, practically everyone can participate. How does the German Para Surf team train  Until now, it’s been a very individual thing. Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the financial resources to organize regular and professional training camps – something we’re working on, tells Johannes. The current active team is spread across Germany