Imagine this: going to sleep with 20/20 vision and waking up the next morning in complete darkness. This is what happened to Zac Adair on the morning of May 7, 2004, about a month after his 29th birthday. While riding his bike home one evening, Zac, an avid surfer from North Carolina, was hit from behind by a drunk driver. On life support for a week with his cervical spine broken in four places, Zac woke up without paralysis, and all bodily functions in tack. Six months after leaving the hospital, his optic nerve collapsed and Zac woke up without his vision.
Thankfully this story doesn’t end as tragic as it began for Zac. Through courage and a strength that many of us might never have to dig deep for, Zac Adair is truly a comeback kid. He’s now back on his board, wearing a rash guard that reads, “Blind Surfer”.
On the land, Zac’s guided by his seeing eye dog “Alfred”, a gorgeous white lab who’s as sharp as a GPS system. On the ocean, Zac’s guided by his fiancée Celine Russo, an avid surfer who’s ironically trained in Wilderness Therapy, a program at Prescott College that Zac is currently getting his Masters Degree from. (And of course all you MSGs out there know and love our one and only Celine!)
The three of them make an amazing team! The way they navigate through the world is truly amazing — you’d never guess that Zac is blind. They surf daily in Carolina Beach, North Carolina, with Alfred pulling Zac on his skateboard, wetsuit on and surfboard under arm, they scream towards their local surf break. Then it’s a tag team once at the beach. Alfred sits on the beach, while Celine guides Zac through the beach break and out to the line up. She paddles next to Zac, replacing his eyes as she says, “OK Zac, turn your board around – here comes a wave. Paddle, paddle, paddle…3, 2, 1 up.” They’ve been perfecting their wave catching system each session. Once Zac is up, he’s rippin’ down the line like any other surfer. He remembers that exhilarating feeling of surfing a wave that goes beyond sight.
What’s even more inspiring about Zac, is his ability to continue pushing his limitations. On a recent trip this April to the Dominican Republic, I witnessed Zac first hand take on the extreme sport of kite surfing. This sport has always intimidated me, and now watching the way Zac flew the kite fearlessly, I no longer have an excuse to not learn this sport.
Here’s an interview with Zac Adair to shed more light into his inspiring story.
For how long have you been without sight?
May 7,2004. I went to bed the night before with 20/20, when I woke up the next morning I could not see……bummer.
What was the turning point for you that inspired you to get back on the board again? When?
I don’t think there was any one thing in particular. It was more about taking my time and figuring out my new limitations, and accepting that. It took me about 6 months to just feel comfortable walking out the front door of my house. Surfing wasn’t an option at this point. I needed to re-learn normal survival and life skills.
Spring 07 I took a trip to Cali. That’s when I all began. Yeeeeeeehaaaaa. Since then I’ve been on surf trips to Costa Rica, Mexico, Hawaii, Dominican Republic and Panama.
What is it like to paddle out in the line up and not rely on your vision. What other senses do you tap? And how do you calm your nerves in bigger surf?
Ha Ha….It sucks sometimes. Just depends on the swell and the tide. It’s a little less stressful when the waves aren’t folding over and dumping, but I manage. It’s all about listening and feeling. Timing is key for me. The size of the surf doesn’t really affect me, it’s more about figuring out how the wave is breaking, which never happens on the first ride. It might take a few waves or it might take a few days, depending on where I’m surfing. Once I have a good idea of how the wave is breaking and where I need to be, it’s a walk through the park.
What’s your worst wipeout? What’s your best ride and where?
My worst wipeout without my vision was in Avieaness, Costa Rica. Overhead gapping barrels. I was riding a 6’6 single fin, I dropped in, made a bottom turn and was thinking I was going to get barreled…….nope! The lip of the wave felt like a sledgehammer to the head and I never saw it coming. Stuck on the inside with no communication with anyone was a bit frightening to say the least.
My most fun ride at this point was Scorpion Bay, Mexico. If you’ve never seen this wave, take a look and you’ll see why.
What kind of reactions do you get when others learn that you are a blind surfer?
No matter where we are in our lives we always run into someone that has a pessimistic attitude. I believe the surfing culture has created a family that I fit into just fine. Most surfers really like to pass the stoke on to me.
What was it like to fly the kite? Any other extreme sports you’d like to learn?
I felt I could really connect with the kite and the wind. It’s all about feeling it out. Looking forward to pursuing the kite board. Surfing, Skiing, Paddling and Kiting — I don’t think I’ll have the time for anymore. I’m already pushing it out.
You are inspiring many blind and other physically challenged folks by continuing to pursue your passions and surf. What kind of advice would you give others in similar shoes?
It’s not just blind/visually impaired or physical handicapped. Everyone has their own disability or disadvantage they’re trying to work through. And at some point in our lives we all have barriers that need to be broken through. It’s just different level of them. Take some time for a little soul searching to rediscover what’s most important to you. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
What’s the future hold for Zac Adair?
I’ve got a little something up my sleeve, I can’t share my secrets right now. Just trying to make it through Grad. School. Pursuing a master’s degree in Adventure Programming.
If there’s any one lesson that Zac has shown me and the rest of the surfing community and beyond, it’s in his own words: “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” If you’re a surfer, and you’d like to walk in Zac’s shoes for a day, close your eyes during your next surf session and try to catch waves. You’ll know what kind of will it takes to paddle into waves and surf the tides of ones life visually impaired.
Here are some great photos from our time together in the Dominican Republic.