Multisport athlete Isaac Coulapides has wrestled, snowboarded, played volleyball and served on the cheer squad in high school, but the teen said surfing holds a special place in his heart.
"I love the whole feeling of being out on the water," said Coulapides, 17. "I can sit out there and enjoy how peaceful it is and be part of a great community of guys who are all my best friends."
Earlier this month, Coulapides made new memories and new friends as one of 11 youth participants in the two-day Junior Seau Foundation Adaptive Surfing Camp, hosted by the Challenged Athletes Foundation at Del Mar State Beach in San Diego.
While driving home from a school football game last October, Coulapides was in a single-car accident that severed his spine, fractured his sternum and left him paralyzed from the chest down.
As the reality of his condition set in, Coulapides said his greatest fear was losing his independence as well as the ability to continuing doing all of the sports he loved.
"I always knew that somehow I'd surf again. I just didn't know how," he said, before donning a wetsuit for the first surfing session. "I'm excited to be back in the water and I'm having a blast."
Over the past three years, Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) has hosted five Junior Seau adaptive surf camps each year. Most of the camps are staffed with CAF staff, lifeguards and rescue-trained volunteers, who accompany the youths in and out of the water.
This summer's camp has an added bonus: mentorship sessions with four of the world's most elite adaptive surfers. As Team CAF, the quartet will compete head-to-head with able-bodied surfers at the 14th annual Switchfoot Bro-Am Team Surf Contest from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas.
The team includes: 3-time Paralympics gold medalist Alana Nichols, who was paralyzed from the waist down in a snowboarding accident in 2000; Colin Cook, who placed fourth in the 2017 World Adaptive Surfing Championship just two years after losing a leg to a tiger shark; Mike Coots, a silver medalist at the 2016 ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship, who also lost a leg to a shark 20 years ago; and Christiaan "Otter" Bailey, who is the first paraplegic World Surfing Association national champion and the first paraplegic athlete to surf the epic Mavericks big-wave break in Half Moon Bay.
For most of his life, Bailey, 37, has been a professional skateboarder and surfer. While filming tricks for a skate video in 2006, he damaged his spine and was paralyzed from the waist down. It wasn't long before he was competing again as a wheelchair skater and adaptive surfer.
Now captain of USA Surfing, Bailey said he's thrilled to see how adaptive sports, particularly surfing, are being taught and celebrated in countries around the world. At many events like this week's camp, he volunteers as a mentor to young athletes.
"World titles and national titles are great but they're superficial compared to the impact I can make on the next generation," he said. "That's my real legacy."
Bailey teamed up with Coulapides to serve as his camp mentor.
"They're role models for me," Coulapides said. "If they can do it, I know I can set a goal and I can get there, too."
All of the youths are attending the camp on grants and many have received athletic equipment and travel grants in the past from CAF. Some are first-timers and others are veterans, like 11-year-old Luzi Ashley-Castillo, a competitive wheelchair skater from Irvine.
"I've been surfing for five years," said Ashley-Castillo, who was born with spina bifida. "I really love jumping in the waves."
Among the other campers is Liv Stone, 15, of Lancaster, Penn. Born with congenital limb deficiency, she plays soccer and is on her high school's rifle team. This is the second surf camp she has attended since October and she dreams of moving to California and becoming a Paralympian.
Kayla Bolnik, 17, of Wilsonville, Ore., was not only surfing for the first time Thursday, it was also her first-ever dip in the ocean. Born with spina bifida, she is active in a number of adaptive sports.
"It's changed her life for the better," said Brandi Bolnik, Kayla's mom.
Ella Rodriguez, 15, of Gilroy, had her right leg amputated below the knee when she was nine months old. She started surfing at age 7 and has competed in wheelchair basketball, cheerleading and track and field. She, too, dreams of being a Paralympian and a career in the medical field.
Rodriguez said adaptive sports have given her more confidence, self-esteem and a sense of independence. She hopes to serve as an example for some of the first-time surf campers this week.
"I think the best advice I can offer them is to not be afraid to ask for help and to just have fun," she said.
The team surfing competition is part of the free all-day Switchfoot Bro-Am Beach Fest. Started in 2005 by members of the San Diego-bred, alt-rock band Switchfoot, the event raises money for local charities, including CAF, Feeding San Diego and the Rob Machado Foundation.
Live music will be presented from noon to 5 p.m. by Switchfoot, Colony House, Sure Sure and the winner of the 91X Battle of the Bands. There is also a vendor festival.
All activities are at Moonlight State Beach, 400 B St., in Encinitas. For information, visit broam.org.