Interview by Stephanie Travers
Christiaan “Otter” Bailey is an American professional surfer, known for his experience as a surf safari guide and skill as a big wave surfer and skateboarder. Bailey grew up in the Santa Cruz, California area and excelled as a semi-pro surfer and skateboarder. On July 23, 2006, during the filming of a skateboarding video, Bailey crashed on his skateboard, fracturing several vertebrae in his back (L3,L4,S3), damaging his spinal cord in the process, which left him paralyzed from the waist down as a result.
Bailey was the first paralyzed person to win the WSA National Championships (Trestles 2009), as well as the first paralyzed person to surf “Mavericks” (Half Moon Bay, California). Bailey is currently one of only two professional “chairskaters”, and currently remains the “only” paralyzed professional big wave surfer in the world.
I came across your name when someone ‘shared’ a picture of you on Facebook dropping in on a seriously steep vert at the Nike US Open in Huntington Beach. Needless to say the picture made an impression. When you roll up to an edge like that, what goes through your mind?
Well to be honest, in a drop like that with so much vert, you think of it more in terms of a mathematical equation than anything else. It was a 10ft “volcano” drop with 3ft of vert and pool coping. The tricky part there is the pool coping, because unlike your standard vert drop, you have to roll up and over the overhang. Basically it was more like 6ft before my wheels actually touched down on the transition, so it’s essential you angle your wheels properly, otherwise you’ll face plant. A SUPER sketchy drop but A LOT of fun!!!
You were injured six years ago, but obviously continue to live a very active lifestyle with your surfing and skating. Was there ever a moment when you thought you wouldn’t be able to continue doing the things you love?
No, not really. From the get go, I’ve always been driven to adapt and overcome my injury so that I could pursue what I love doing. That’s been the greatest form of rehab for me–working with my sponsors to push the limits of adaptive surf and skate technology. The way I see it, it’s critical a person continue to pursue their passions in life and push the limits of their abilities, otherwise what’s the point?
What achievement are you most proud of and why?
Oh, I don’t know. There are quite a few moments that come to mind. Um, I would probably say surfing Mavericks again would probably rank pretty high up there, just because the task was so monumental and took so much training and equipment R&D (research and development) in order to achieve. That was an incredibly special moment for me!
Our foundation is committed to bringing a rehabilitation center to the Northwest that will specialize in activity-based therapies—we believe in getting people out of their chairs to work out and regain mobility. What have your rehab experiences been like, and what do you do on a daily basis to keep in shape?
My experiences haven’t all been good. Every spinal cord injury is different; by in large, I’ve seen many incomplete quads get back to standing/walking with a hardcore training and rehab regiment. But for paras that number drops through the floor. I’d say from what I’ve seen, maybe 2 in 10 paras ever escape the chair in everyday life. I think it is important for rehab facilities to be honest with their therapies, and not give false hope, because I have seen that take people to very dark places. There is so much more to rehab than walking again. I have found through experience that rehab, REAL rehab, is far more a mental perspective then a physical one. If you have the drive and focus to pursue what you love in life, what you’re passionate about, no matter the challenge or amount of adaptation, then you will come out WAY ahead in the end!!!
Modify your thinking toward your disability and visualize accomplishing your goals. I was able to accomplish what I have because I occupied all of my spare time with goals that allowed me to do what I love without walking or standing. The quicker you accept the cards life has dealt you and your “disability”, the quicker you can adapt, overcome, and embrace your abilities!
As far as activities go, I surf every day, chairskate, sail, scuba, and skydive. I also really enjoy yoga in the mornings. A good stretching regiment is perhaps the best thing you can do for your body; I spend 30 minutes in bed every morning stretching and it helps quell most if not all of my muscle tightness, spasms and nerve pain for the whole day.
What are your biggest daily obstacles post-injury?
Muscle tension and spasms are always a fairly big issue for me in the mornings. However I’ve found adhering to a good morning yoga routine in bed helps a great deal! Bladder issues can also be pretty problematic at times, but that is something that has to be addressed on an individual level as it applies to the level of injury and can’t really be generalized.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges the SCI community faces?
The social stigma that post-injury, people in chairs should aspire to walk again in order to be “normal” in society’s eyes; personally, I’m happy in my chair. Why should I be standing next to someone upright in order to be considered worthy of their approval? I think in recent years, we’ve come a long way in regards to changing the general public’s perception of disabilities and what we’re capable of accomplishing, but overall there’s still a long way to go in the media before these kinds of stigmas become socially taboo.
You are involved with several different nonprofits and foundation; tell me a little bit about the work you are committed to, and how people can find out more about it.
In 2007 I met someone who would play a pivotal role in my life, and over the past five years, my business partner Frank Bauer and I have gone on to create the first and only international, adaptive surf adventure program in the world called Ocean Healing Group. We’re based in Costa Rica and provide all inclusive adaptive sports adventures for kids age 7-17 and their parents. The program is largely free of costs to its participants and lasts between 7-10 days. In that time we engage the kids in activities ranging from adaptive surfing & snorkeling, to zip lining over the jungle, quad nature tours, and beach horseback riding! All the while, the parents get to relax and have a real vacation! It’s an absolute blast for us to be able to share out passion and give back in this way and it is one of the most spiritually fulfilling things I’ve done post injury!
Our blog title and rehabilitation philosophy is “Mind, Body, Spirit.” What does that mean to you in your own personal life and recovery process?
I’d prefer to look at it in the order of Spirit, Mind, Body. If you have the Spirit to pursue what you love no matter the cost and train your Mind to focus on your goals, you can triumph over any challenge the Body can throw at you…