Duke And The Disabled Surfer

Ron Mizutani
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Wednesday - September 09, 2009
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Somewhere out there Duke Kahanamoku is smiling right now.

The world’s best watermen and women recently competed in the weeklong Duke’s Oceanfest, a series of ocean events held annually in honor of Duke Kahanamoku. Kahanamoku would have been proud of everyone who competed, but chances are he’d have a special place in his heart for several athletes who inspired many at Waikiki Beach.

For the second year,AccesSurf held a division for challenged athletes. This year eight athletes, including two amputees, three with spinal cord injuries and three deaf surfers, competed in multiple heats. Specialized judging criteria were developed for these athletes from Hawaii and California.


But the inspiration didn’t stop there. For the first time, a challenged athlete participated in the Hawaii Paddleboard Championship, a 10-mile sprint from Hawaii Kai to Waikiki Beach.

“It was great being out there and continuing the work of AccesSurf,” says Mark Matheson, who lives with a spinal cord injury. “I know Duke would have enjoyed seeing us compete.”

Kahanamoku was one Hawaii’s greatest athletes. The father of modern surfing won several Olympic gold medals in swimming. He also served as sheriff of Honolulu for nearly 30 years. But what few may know was his involvement with Hawaii’s disabled. During the early years of Easter Seals Hawaii, Kahanamoku invested his time with the organization because he believed in providing those with disabilities the best opportunities to achieve.

AccesSurf is a nonprofit organization dedicated to empowering people with disabilities by providing access to the beach and ocean through adaptive equipment and therapeutic instruction. Matheson used a specially developed lay-down paddleboard in the race.

“I’d been training for the Molokai race, so I was prepared physically,” says Matheson, who suffered a spinal cord injury in 1993 after falling from a balcony. “The conditions were favorable, and I accomplished my goal by finishing in two hours and 29 minutes!”

Matheson was shadowed during the race by AccesSurf president and CEO Mark Marble.

“Mark and I crossed the finish line together and what was amazing is we had a pod of dolphins following us to the beach,” Matheson says proudly. “I got choked up and I said, OK, just keep paddling. It was an emotional moment to see my wife, friends and complete strangers there to welcome us. It just added another dimension to what’s available to those with disabilities.”

Matheson knows all about the passion to serve. He is currently on the board of directors of AccesSurf and Easter Seal Society of Hawaii and will soon be the board’s chairman at Easter Seals.

“When I look up pictures of Duke at the Easter Seals office I often think how perfect is this,” says Matheson. “When I was at Oceanfest, I got the chance to meet his great-nephew and his biographer, and I told her, ‘I think if Duke was here he’d be a big supporter of AccesSurf and what we’re doing.’

“I had two choices, cry in my beer or move on. I chose to move on,” he adds. “It took 12 or 13 years, but AccesSurf got me back in the water. My goal now is to do the Molokai next year. I want to raise the visibility for folks in Hawaii with disabilities that you can do anything you want.”

Mission accomplished, Mark.

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