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16 December 2018

'Adaptive surfing is the best thing that’s ever happened to me'

"I've learnt that you can't control life – stuff happens," says Elsje Neethling.

Sometimes you catch the good waves in life. Other times you get caught in the whitewash of endlessly tumbling with no sense of direction, all the time wondering what you did to deserve this bulls**t. But the true hero goes back for another wave…

Adaptive surfing

A few weekends ago, I had the great privilege of attending an adaptive surfing clinic, hosted by Surf Emporium. Adaptive surfing is a version of surfing that allows those with disabilities – anything from paralysis to blindness and cerebral palsy – to enjoy the sport. The aim is to show people living with disabilities that they can continue to follow their dreams.

Read more: 5 things i really wish people knew about surfing

One of these amazing surfers is wheelchair-bound Elsje Neethling – although “bound” is the wrong word to describe this inspirational woman. Elsje hasn’t let her disabilities hold her back in the slightest, but has simply adapted her way of living life to the fullest…

Elsje Neethling

Elsje comes from a family of swimmers, her brother being the Olympic swimmer, Ryk Neethling. “As kids, my brother and I used to spend hours in the sea. We’ve always loved the ocean.” But it was also in her childhood that Elsje was given some life-changing news…

Elsje was only 12 years old when she was told she had a brain tumour. “I always had headaches as a kid, so my parents took me to many specialist doctors to find out what was going on, but they kept misdiagnosing me,” she begins.

“In February 1994, I woke up one morning completely paralysed. My folks rushed me to hospital and after numerous tests and scans, they told my parents I’ve got two months left to live.”

Read more: These swimming hacks will make you less afraid of the water

“I had a choroid plexus carcinoma, an aggressive brain cancer that was inoperable,” Elsje explains. “I just remember everyone crying and coming to our house to say goodbye to me. I didn’t realise the extent of the diagnosis and I just went through the motions.” But then a hint of hope – a neurosurgeon in Johannesburg was willing to operate. The family was there in a flash.

And so began the battle against cancer: Surgery upon surgery, plus countless treatments and radiation. An unfortunate side-effect: The loss of her legs.

“After my last big operation in 2010, my body basically couldn’t cope with all the trauma inflicted on my spine,” Elsje remembers. “My choroid plexus carcinoma cancer is terminal. Cancer never really ‘leaves’ you. You always worry about any aches, but fear will mess you up. I choose life and to live fully – no fear.”

Here’s to living…

“I reckon brain cancer has made me so brave for life’s challenges,” Elsje says. “I get pretty bad shock pains in my left weaker leg at night, but I choose to look past it and focus on the nice things [in life] instead. I’m just happy to be alive – I’ve honed the skill of being relentlessly positive no matter what life throws my way. I’ve learnt that you can’t control life – stuff happens.”

Read more: Here’s the exact workout pro surfers use to stay in shape

But how you handle the whitewash, that’s what matters. “I just go with the flow,” Elsje adds. “Once you learn to do this, you free yourself from stress. Just live! Don’t try to control it, live it. We are here for a good time, not a long time – so be happy.”

Finding freedom riding the waves

“Last year I met a crowd from Surfer’s Corner in Muizenberg. They showed me [adaptive surfing],” Elsje explains. “I immediately fell in love with the experience.” She’s been practicing ever since with the help of her surf coach, Albert Millard. “He picks me up after work and we practice surfing for hours. It’s the best thing that has ever happened to me.”

And the learning never ends. Every time Elsje and Albert head in, the ocean has a few new lessons planned. “I just need someone to carry the board into the shallows for me,” Elsje explains. “Then I just let the stream pull me in. And then I paddle for my life! My arms are strong so it helps.” She can basically go out unassisted these days – what an absolute inspiration.

Read more: 5 surfing tips for beginners that’ll keep your stoke alive

“Surfing invigorates my soul,” Elsje says. “When I touch the water, I don’t feel the cold or think of the dangers out there. The adrenaline beats any imposing threat. It’s the best medicine for any ailment.”

And the water doesn’t distinguish between able bodies and disabilities. “Throughout my life I’ve been given limits by doctors regarding my health,” she continues. “Now, the waves have become my world where there are no limits. I’m getting stronger because of it. It just proves that life doesn’t have to stop just because you aren’t the same as everyone else… The water doesn’t judge, it treats us all the same. People should be more like that.”

This article was originally published on www.womenshealthsa.co.za

Image credit: iStock 

 
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