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SURF'S UPLIFTING: Disabled veterans hang 10

Irwin Gisler tried surfing once or twice in high school but couldn’t stand up. Now, he can’t stand up ever.

“I guess I should have tried harder back then,” said the retired electrician from Fallbrook.

Gisler, 69, served in the Navy from 1968 to 1972. But that’s not how he lost the use of both legs. That was due to a 2011 car accident that crushed his T12 vertebra.

“I went up over a center divider,” he said. “Life after that has been a bit of an adjustment.”

Gisler is one of about 100 disabled veterans who took part in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ (VA) 11th annual Veterans Summer Sports Clinic, held at venues across San Diego from Sept. 16-20. La Jolla Shores hosted the surfing portion.

“Surfing really epitomizes what we’re doing here,” said Leif Nelson, the VA’s director for adaptive sports. “Our responsibility is lifelong care of veterans. And we’ve found that integrating surfing and other adaptive sports has an incredible impact on both physical and mental health for veterans. It allows them to take control of their health and life and move forward.”

Gisler said he heard about this event through a paraplegic friend who surfs entirely on his own — without the phalanx of lifeguards, instructors and assorted other volunteers required to help Gisler out of his chair and into the ocean during this sports clinic.

“I don’t know how he does it,” Gisler said.

Gisler catches a wave, sits on top of the world.
Gisler catches a wave, sits on top of the world. COREY LEVITAN

Out on the ocean, Gisler wiped out twice. But his third and final attempt was the charm. A small but solid wave took him all the way into the sand, with his legs extended in front of him and only instructor Canyon Grove holding him upright from behind.

“That was great,” Gisler said afterward, smiling. “Salt water tastes good.”

The next time he sees his paraplegic surfing friend, Gisler said, “I’ll have something to talk about with him.”

— For more information about the program, visit summersportsclinic.va.gov. To contact the VA San Diego Healthcare System, visit sandiego.va.gov

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