An Epic Day with Paralyzed Surfer Jeremy McGhee

October is usually when the northwest swells start kicking in. Like a polar bear waking up from hibernation, the first swells of autumn bring an end to the sleepy doldrums of weeks on end flat surf.

But the first half of October has been a continuation of summer. Pacific Ocean? More like Pacific Lake.

Today, though, finally, was a different story.

Head-high surf. Glassy conditions all day. Relatively warm water. Clear and translucent as any mystic-Indo-reef break.

I paddled out with my friend and neighbor Jeremy McGhee.

Five years ago, Jeremy became paralyzed as a result of a motorcycle accident. He has no feeling in his legs. He believes very strongly that he will walk again one day, but for now, he is in a wheel chair.

I don’t feel sorry for Jeremy. Jeremy doesn’t feel sorry for himself. Nor should you. What’s done is done.

Jeremy wakes up each day with an attitude of gratitude.

Some people with spinal cord injuries have full use of their arms and hands; others aren’t so fortunate. Jeremy counts his blessings that not only is his upper body strong and highly functional, but that he can drive – his truck is adapted with special hand controls to accelerate and brake.

Jeremy doesn’t have a lot of help. He is fully self-sufficient. Some of his family lives in Colorado. He doesn’t have much of a relationship with his dad. Everything Jeremy has accomplished since his accident, including being hired as a restaurant manager, has been a result of his own volition.

An accomplished skier, Jeremy has conquered black diamond runs in Mammoth, California and peaks in South America, including premier slopes in Chile.

A skiing documentary, Common Thread, featuring a segment on Jeremy will be released in the very near future.

To commemorate the fifth anniversary of his accident, Jeremy rode his adapted recumbent bike 50 miles, traversing some grueling hills from Rosarito Beach to Ensenada in Baja California.

In his spare time, Jeremy works on his foundation, Fight2Walk.org, a non-profit that helps recent spinal cord injury patients with getting on with life post-accident.

Jeremy also surfs. I’ve had a few memorable sessions with him. Like the one time he got caught on the inside and nearly lost his board shorts to the outgoing tide. We still laugh hard at that one.

Our session today was a three-hour long marathon of head-high long lefts.

Getting to the lineup is always half the fun. It’s hard work helping Jeremy out to the water, but it pays off when I see the stoke on his face as he flawlessly positions his surf kayak and goes down the line, positions his paddle, races up the wave face, smacks the lip and carves back down for another 75 yards.

Here’s what it takes to get to the break – and then back to our apartment for some post-session ice-cold beers:

First, I maneuver Jeremy’s surf kayak, which is fitted with a back support, leg bolsters, and an emergency-eject seat belt. The board is heavy, weighing easily 50 pounds. I lug the board out of Jeremy’s apartment and into his truck.

We drive to the beach. I unload the kayak and walk down the 100 or so steps to our neighborhood point-break. Jeremy somehow manages to go down the steep steps in his chair, which he goes posterior side first, holding with one arm onto the rail.

After I lay the kayak on the shore, I sprint back up to get my board and then go back down the steps. Next, I carry Jeremy on my back, he usually squeezes my pecs real hard and talks in a girlie voice with a sweet lisp, saying sweet nothings like, “Ooooo … you’re so studly.”

When a lull in the whitewater finally comes, I drop Jeremy in chest deep water and he swims further out. I swim and bodysurf a wave back to the shore. Next, I take the kayak and pull it past the breakers and then try to hop on it and row it to Jeremy. (You can imagine the arduous journey back up the steps…)

Usually I fall off a few times before I can get it out to him. Even though Jeremy can’t feel his legs, he’s way more graceful at mounting onto the kayak.

I retrieve my board and then paddle out to Jeremy. We paddle around the crowded point break and paddle north what seems like a mile. The water is in the high 60s but the temperature today is sunny with not one cloud in the sky and warm. I’m in a full suit but I’m burning up so I peel off my arms and enjoy feeling the rays warm my back.

After we get to our less-crowded spot, I recognize a few faces, some other neighbors. But after a few minutes, I don’t see Jeremy. A few more minutes go by and I start to get nervous. This has happened before where a wave closes out and Jeremy gets caught on the inside.

I catch a shoulder-high left that takes me in all the way to the beach. I see Jeremy struggling to paddle back out. As always, he’s giving maximum effort and his rhomboids must be soaked with lactic acid.

I lay my board on shore (thankfully it’s low-tide), then I retrieve the kayak and tell Jeremy to swim back out.

By the grace of God, there is a lull in the sets. I manage to row the kayak back out to him. I swim back to shore pick up my board and then paddle back out and for the next two hours, Jeremy and I share long lefts all to ourselves.

The water is so clear we can see the orange garibaldi swim by. We can see every tidal undulation of the seagrasses and kelp.

We share stories about girls we’ve dated and girls we’d like to date.

During one memorable paddle-out this past summer with Jeremy, we took a little break at the half-way point of our paddle and shared a beer that I had kept in my board shorts pocket.

I’ve had lots of memorable sessions. Truth be told, I didn’t have that many great rides today, though I did get covered up for a second by one steep right-hander; still any session that I paddle out with Jeremy is one of the best.

Being friends with somebody with a spinal cord injury can’t help but give you a different perspective on life. Jeremy’s attitude of gratitude infects me on many different levels. Think you’re challenged in your own life? Try walking—check that—wheeling in Jeremy’s shoes for one day.

Do you think you’d have the perseverance to learn how to drive all over again? Or learn how to surf all over again? Or ski black diamonds? Or just wake up, get out of bed and have a positive attitude?

I’d like to think I’d have the drive to stay alive, stoked every day. But for now, I’ll count the blessings I have, and go eat some fish tacos and drink a couple cold beers with my inspiration and hopefully life-long friend Jeremy McGhee.

Please visit Fight2Walk.org and donate.

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