VIDEO: Truckee man finds solace in surfing after devastating spinal injury
TRUCKEE, Calif. — Jeff Andrews knives his surfboard down into a cresting wave.
Lying on his stomach, propped up by his elbows, Andrews begins riding the current — carving back and forth across the blue-green waters — as it rises and rolls toward shore.
Andrews feels weightless; he feels free.
It’s Aug. 25, 2016, and the 27-year-old Truckee resident is in Waikiki, a beachfront neighborhood of Honolulu, Hawaii, competing in an adaptive surf competition.
Despite having only a few months of surfing experience under his belt, Andrews makes a splash at the two-day event, placing first in both heats of the Assisted-A Division to capture the title.
A yellow lei around his neck and a first-place plaque in his lap, Andrews, sitting tall and proud in his wheelchair, flashes a wide smile and raises a celebratory fist as he soaks in the applause from the crowd at the 10th annual Adaptive Surf Competition during Duke’s OceanFest.
“Being able to compete in something and feel like I was back in a competitive atmosphere was just so good mentally,” Andrews said last week. “And to just feel happy to be doing something again — something I really enjoy doing.”
The fact is, two years ago, Andrews wasn’t sure if he’d compete in anything ever again.
Two years ago, the Santa Rosa native was blinking back to consciousness in a hospital bed, seeing only white walls and whiter fluorescent lights, hearing only the sound of a soft rhythmic beep — like a muted alarm clock pulling him out of a deep sleep.
A life-altering jump
It’s March 15, 2014, and, like any other year, Jeff Andrews is at Sugar Bowl Resort to attend the Rahlves’ Banzai Tour.
“I was just really going to meet up with some friends, have a drink or two, watch the downhill (competition) and hang out,” said Andrews, who started skiing at the age of 3 and snowboarding at 12. “And I got there a little early and just decided to take a lap through the (terrain) park.”
As Andrews carves through the park to the jump line, lipping into the air and sticking smooth landings, he decides to “go big” on his upcoming jump.
“I felt good on the first two jumps, so I figured I’d try a little flat-spin 540 (degrees),” he said.
But Andrews is going too fast.
He attempts to rotate one and a half times through the air before landing, but doesn’t have enough air beneath him. In mid-spin, gravity yanks Andrews violently to the terrain. He lands headfirst; the back of his skull smacks hard to the snow.
Everything goes black.
“I don’t remember anything from there — I just remember waking up in the hospital after surgery,” said Andrews, who was rushed to Renown Regional Medical Center in Reno.
The uphill climb
Once he crawled back to consciousness, Andrews — pumped full of painkillers, viewing everything through a hazy lens — heard the doctor utter words no person wants to hear following an accident.
“I was told that I was a complete quadriplegic, and I’d be lucky if I moved my arms again,” said Andrews, who broke his neck in the fall. “I was so high of painkillers that it didn’t really set in for a few days.”
Eventually, Andrews — who said he “couldn’t move a thing” the first week in the ICU — absorbed the life-altering news.
Anger. Sadness. Fear. These would be common emotions to feel churning inside upon the realization that your life has become cluttered with countless hurdles that weren’t there days ago; that your independence and physical capabilities have been stripped away.
This, however, was not the case for Andrews.
“I was OK with it,” Andrews said. “I didn’t really let it get to me that much. I just kind of had it in my head that I would get better and be fine. So, I’ve just kind of stayed positive. There’s always somebody out there who’s got it worse than you.”
Following a two-week stay at Renown and a two-and-a-half-month residency at Craig Hospital (which specializes in spinal cord injuries) in Lakewood, Colo., Andrews began slowly regaining movements in his arms.
However, when he returned to Truckee, Andrews immediately faced the reality that the life he once had in his beloved mountain town was going to be drastically different.
“I couldn’t move back to my house in Truckee, because it wasn’t accessible at all,” he said.
With that, Andrews moved in with his parents in his hometown of Santa Rosa for a four-month stint until he moved into a remodeled house at the top of Tahoe Donner, where he currently resides.
Getting a ‘High Five’
Shortly after resettling back into the Sierra Nevada, Andrews was embraced by a community of people that made him feel at home: the High Fives Foundation, the nonprofit organization in Truckee that serves athletes with life-altering injuries.
Instantly, Andrews was drawn to spending a bulk of his days and weeks at the foundation’s CR Johnson Healing Center, a 2,400-square-foot training facility for athletes in recovery.
“High Fives has been huge,” Andrews said. “Having this facility here is really the reason I came back — knowing there was a place I could come in and feel comfortable being in.”
Adding to Andrews’ comfort, his trainer at the CR Johnson Healing Center, Jack Powell, the facility’s head trainer, doubles as his best friend.
Powell, who’s trained Andrews for more than a year and a half, said he always knows what kind of effort he’s going to get from his friend.
“The way he puts so much into his workouts directly reflects how his attitude is,” Powell said. “He always comes in positive; we always have good workouts. A lot of things are frustrating when you can’t do something or something’s difficult, and he always wants to push to do those things.
“He always wants to do things that are really hard for him.”
‘I was hooked’
With a series of grants from High Fives, Andrews also got the opportunity to dip his toes into something that was completely new to him: surfing.
The process started in 2015 with Andrews spending two months in Maui, Hawaii, with Alejandra Monslave, a world-renowned healer who works with spinal cord injuries. Monslave, Andrews said, helped him get comfortable being in the ocean water.
Roughly a year later, in March 2016, Andrews went back to Maui and delved into surfing upon the suggestion of Bond Camp, a fellow High Fives athlete who lives in Maui. Camp introduced Andrews to Hobart Dickinson, an experienced waterman who assists quadriplegics with surfing — primarily, he pushes surfers as waves approach.
“I just met up with Hobart out at the beach one day and he took me out surfing,” said Andrews, who proceeded to catch waves multiple times a week for his ensuing three months in Maui. “Once I dropped into that wave, and carved back and forth, I was hooked.”
Specifically, Andrews felt the familiar rush and “weightless feeling” on his surfboard that he used to experience while strapped on a snowboard in the Truckee-Tahoe mountains. He felt a connection to the waves, just as he had the slopes.
“When I was on my snowboard coming down a steep pitch in powder, you kind of just lean back and keep your tail end and feel like you’re floating down the mountain,” Andrews said. “It’s the same kind of deal when you’re dropping into a wave.”
Roy Tuscany, founder of High Fives Foundation, was elated to hear Andrews had taken to a new a sport.
“He told me he started surfing and I was like, ‘Oh, this is awesome,’” Tuscany said. “Since his injury, he really hasn’t had a sport to truly dive into like he was into snowboarding.”
Fostering this new passion, Tuscany, while surfing with Andrews in May, asked him if he wanted to compete in an adaptive surfing competition in August at Duke’s OceanFest in Waikiki.
Andrews didn’t think twice — “I said, absolutely.”
Solace in surfing
Hosted by Hawaii nonprofit AccessSurf on Aug. 24 and 25, the adaptive competition annually brings 60 surfers with disabilities from nine nations to compete in nine divisions.
“I didn’t know the level of the field or where Jeff would finish — I didn’t think he was going to win,” Tuscany said. “But it became very apparent that Jeff had a skill-set in place.
“I kind of had that prickly feeling — where every sensory motor that you have all fired — when I watched Jeff catch four amazing waves.”
Simply put, Andrews was locked in a groove, riding the waves like a seasoned veteran to a first-place crown.
“It felt great,” he said. “I’ve always been a competitive person my entire life, and since my injury, I got so sheltered. I was such an outdoorsy person and then — boom — you’re in a wheelchair. It’s like, I want to do stuff, but what can I do that I actually enjoy doing again?”
For Andrews, that proved to be surfing.
“Being in the water, not having to fight gravity, I feel like I have complete control over my body again,” said Andrews, who plans to compete in the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship Dec. 8-11 in San Diego. “If I want to roll over, I can roll over; turn this way, turn that way. I’m not in my chair. There’s nothing holding me back.”