Surfing is a powerful thing. It connects surfer to self, to ocean and to other people; an addictive past-time that can act as a form of escapism. In the case of adaptive surfer Kyle Richardson, this humble hobby has become more than all of that, as he continued to push through adversity and become a two time world record holder.
What’s remarkable about Kyle’s story is surfing was actually the cause of his paralysis. He suffered a bacterial infection while in the water and had a reaction to the medication he was on, which caused the loss of core strength and the ability to stand or walk.
The 38-year-old commercial photographer, and passionate waterman, was left wheelchair bound and had four years’ worth of surgeries and rehabilitation, losing almost 100lbs in weight during the process. Despite all that, he wanted to return to the water and eventually learned how to swim again, and how to perform daily functions. This all led to him becoming the world record holder for biggest wave ever surfed on a waveski, and biggest wave surfed by a paraplegic.
Kyle, originally from Santa Barbara, California but now based at Nazare, said: “I was always an avid waterman and into extreme sports. It took a lot out of me to lose that ability of freedom and reward. For a while I dealt with depression and not knowing if I would get back to the physical condition to do things with help, let alone solo.
"We didn’t know what my recovery would look like as it wasn’t just an injury and it took years to treat, operate and stabilise me. I went from 180lbs to 88lbs and since fought other neuro damage and challenges even after stabilised and on some road to recovery.
“My friends and mentor Geene Cooperfish (a shaper out of Ventura California) encouraged me to try adaptive kayaking/surfski in flat water and surf. I started to surf prone and enjoyed it but never felt I had the same feeling, speed or explosiveness as I did from standing.
“It did however reconnect me to the ocean following my injuries and it got my brain thinking about how I could get back to the feeling I had pre-injury. I then got to go out tandem waveski with the legend Steve Boehne and it changed everything.
"From there my mind I would say was just wired differently. I started to look at how to vs how I couldn’t. Not everything was possible nor did it look the same as it use to. Each time I accomplished something whether surfing solo vs tandem or surfing a tougher wave or more narrow, smaller board, it fuelled me to question what more I could eventually do.
"After years training in the gym with specialists I had confidence that I never thought I would have. At this point I analyse challenges like a mission and goal. From there I train, try and work with people to make it happen. I could never have done this all alone, and without the support of friends, family, specialists and companies' support. I know I’ll always be trying to work with others to see what else is possible for me as long as companies give me the opportunity and support. It’s part of my reason for moving to Nazare full time to pursue this new chapter and goals.
“After that first session with Steve, I started to solo waveski more and more and picked it up fast. The first wave I caught one day though, I knew I did something bad for my injury level and neuro disabilities. I quickly broke my tibia-fibula in half and had to have five plates, a couple rods and 18 bolts put in the leg, all from using the wrong safety equipment for my injury.
“All the ways adaptive surfers push themselves is truly amazing, and I feel you have to find your way, just like which board to ride.”
So what can he tell us about the boards he uses? “I surf for a French company called Solamanzi who design and make the safety gear for the boards — they're making some really hi-tech boards for me for this winter. They are doing a lot of research and energy to make boards fast enough for here in uncharted territory. I surf a wide variety of boards depending on conditions just like stand-up surfers. Most of my boards are between 7’ 4” & 9’6” but we are creating a new paddle gun over the 11’ range specifically for Nazare this winter.
“With my tow boards, we have tried a number of designs and techniques since that big session in Hawaii. Some guys have paddled in large surf in kayaks and waveski’s before but the concept of towing and going that fast down the face hadn’t been done much.
“Pablo Arrouays and I were really wanting to advance this just like Darrick Doerner, Laryd Hamilton & David Kalama did for stand-up tow surfing years ago. We were definitely starting from ground zero since we have had to change how the safety equipment is attached to the board all the way to how they are made. Volumes, weight, and boards have to be specifically made for towing as they don’t float the same as our paddle waveski/sit-on surfboards for small to medium waves.
And how does it feel to be a world record holder? “A really special moment for sure. We didn’t plan for it to be that big that day either!
“We were mostly playing around in the 18-25 foot range. It was the last wave of the day and largest we had seen. It was a bit of a close out but really stoked I was able to position myself in a spot I could make the white wash and then get the reform another 100-150 metres towards Halewia. There are no official Guiness records for an adaptive surfer, but look forward to hopefully one day wrapping up the process and being able to have an official response.
All the ways adaptive surfers push themselves is truly amazing.
“With how much time its taken after my first editor/friend passed away from Covid, the footage was lost for almost 12 months after surfing the wave, we had hoped I would of already surfed a larger one but I had a shoulder reconstruction (shattered my humorous multiple pieces, torn bicep, torn rotator cuff and torn tendons and nerves in my right shoulder and brain injury the past 18 months that have kept me from being back out there at that size.) Hoping for big things this winter.
“My goal is to keep pushing my goals and safety in big waves while advancing the technology to do so. It’s a slow process especially for an adaptive big wave surfer as I don’t bring the same media attention or sponsors as a stand-up surfer. Getting companies interested in long-term sponsorship is tough but I’ve been lucky to have support with gear to some help on specific waves or projects.
What’s in store for the future for Kyle and moving adaptive surfing in the right direction? “I’m really excited about all the help and opportunity here in Nazare, and look forward to training hard and earning my place here while respecting the wave and the people.
“It’s been a fishing village for generations and has some of the sweetest locals. It’s truly an honour to call Nazare home now and to have been welcomed so warmly. I can’t wait to find my place here driving and training with various teams part-time, but look forward being able to have more full time training/surf partners here long-term and advancing my tow surfing and tow driving.
I knew being able to kayak or surf was a must for me to feel complete again, to regain a form of my past life.
“I have a long way to go to operate in XXL conditions and likely never will be in the impact zone at that size but I’m trying to just focus on the safety and not putting anyone else at risk because of my challenges.
“That said, in those conditions it’s a lot about staying calm, the right saftey equipment, breathing and obviously being a strong swimmer is very important too. There is so much water movement though you can’t swim much whether able-bodied or disabled. I definitely have the biggest respect for Nazare at any size… there is a massive amount of water moving about.”