Disabled surfer goes from wheelchair to waves following car wreck

Tiffany Giddes has been in a wheelchair for 11 years after she was injured in a car accident. She said she has no feeling below her knees.
Tiffany Giddes has been in a wheelchair for 11 years after she was injured in a car accident. She said she has no feeling below her knees.
Ashley Bailey/KPCC

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If you’d asked Tiffany Giddes 11 years ago if she thought she’d ever surf, she would have said, “Never.” But even though the Marina Del Rey woman ended up in a wheelchair after a car wreck, she hasn’t let her disability keep her from the sport she loves: surfing.

How life got a little different

When Giddes was 19, she was an athlete who loved swimming and softball. Right around that time, she ended up in a car wreck. She was in the passenger seat.

Three friends in the car walked away. Tiffany didn’t.

“My life didn’t end the day I broke my back. It just got a little… different," Giddes said.

Giddes is 30 now; she works as an actress and film producer. Her current project: kicking butt as an assassin on wheels.

Her spinal cord was bruised, not severed, in the crash. But the injury left her without feeling below her knees, so she needs a wheelchair to get around.

How to "roll" on the beach

“Where I grew up in Florida, there’s only one accessible area on the beach. That’s it. And you have to pray for your friends to take you on the beach. And when I got on the beach, I was stuck. You know, I had to crawl around,” Giddes said.

She doesn’t have to crawl when she visits the beach in Southern California, Giddes said. She rolls in a heavy-duty wheelchair called a “beach chair.”

Its wheels are about a foot wide and can roll over sand without sinking.

“Oh! There’s a beach chair right there. See that guy pushing? See how the wheels are nice and wide? That’s so someone in a chair can get down to the beach,” Giddes said.

Giddes doesn’t own a beach chair, but there’s usually one available near the shore in Huntington Beach. The city keeps eight of them at the snack bar, and it lends them out for free. There's a list of beaches up and down the coast of California that follow similar practices.

If you see Giddes in a beach chair, she’s probably getting ready to go surfing.

How "adaptive surfing" works

Giddes has been surfing for the past four years with Life Rolls On. Volunteers with the non-profit group help people who don’t have full use of their arms or legs learn how to surf with modified boards. They call them “adaptive surfers.”

Grant Kobayashi is a volunteer “water leader” who’s responsible for taking adaptive surfers out into the ocean.

“Two-foot, three-foot waves, to us, seem pretty small. To them, it’s pretty big. So it’s a little intimidating, it’s a little scary. I’m not gonna lie," Kobayashi said.

When she was learning to surf on her belly, Giddes says she was scared at first. Not now.

Now, when she’s ready to catch a wave, she holds tight to grips on the side of her board and uses her upper arms and the muscles in her trunk to push herself up on her elbows.

Kobayashi said the technique is different for each adaptive surfer, depending on their abilities. He's even taken a little girl out surfing who's an amputee.

“So, to figure out how I was going to get her to stand up and surf, I went surfing with one leg. I taped my leg up, went out, paddled…figured it out," he said. "I have a lot more respect for them — they surf way better lying down then I can surf.”

Adaptive surfers with Life Rolls On dropped in on some waves during the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach.

Eighteen-year-old Patrick Ivison surfed on his stomach. He says he has little feeling below his chest, but he does have some use of his arms.

"That was like the best waves ever, that was ridiculous," he said. "I just caught a rail, just went straight down. It was so much fun though."

Ivison wasn’t alone. He had help. Following surfing’s “safety first” mantra, Giddes said she doesn’t go out alone either.

One of the perks: surfing with cuties

Giddes said she usually goes surfing with about four guys. She mentioned that they're pretty cute.

It takes a coordinated team of “cute guys” to carry Giddes into the water, slide her onto a surfboard, swim her out, turn her around — and pitch her into the waves. And after the ride’s done, someone dives in to get her when she slides off — or falls off — the board.

“When I’m going on shore, and I can see my chair sitting there, I’m like, ‘Ahhh, I’m not in you,'" she said. "I mean, granted — don’t get me wrong — I don’t have any animosity or ill will towards my chair. But still, it’s like, ‘I’m not in you for 30 minutes.’ That’s cool.”

Giddes said she hasn't made any set plans yet, but she hopes to participate in the next Life Rolls On event for adaptive surfers. It's set for Sept. 15 in San Diego.