Injured vets take to the waves at LJ Shores


By Matthew Gilson

Twelve members of Team Titan - together with their entourage of instructors and supporters - waded into the waves Sept. 29 morning at La Jolla Shores to kick off the surfing competition of the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic.

Team members ranged from Joe Rukavina, the event’s youngest competitor and a veteran of a tour in Iraq, to Jim Miller, a Korean War veteran and long-time San Diego resident.

The athletes received personalized coaching on how to manage the board and then headed out - to try to manage the water. It’s all part of a new program sponsored by the Department of Veterans Affairs aimed at teaching the vets - who have injuries from amputations to post traumatic stress disorder - new athletic skills and get help with stress and coping skills.

“On the board I felt good,” said Miller. “The rough part was getting out there.”

An ovation of whistles, claps and cheers greeted every successful ride.

A big boost

“It’s definitely a motivation booster,” said Rukavina, shortly after completing his first session. “You can see everyone having a blast out there. It’s a low-stress, fun day.”

Rukavina, from Buffalo, N.Y., was one of the most mobile participants. After escaping with just bumps and bruises from a lifetime of ice hockey and football and a deployment at Iraq’s Camp Taji, he crushed his meniscus and ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament with one bad step on a run.

Mostly recovered, but a first-time surfer, he was able to reach his feet - and occasionally stay on them - while riding the waves.

Others, such as Charleston, S.C., native Robert Clegg, had to take a different approach.

Clegg, who was injured two years ago and does not have feeling below his chest, served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Riding the board for him meant staying balanced with his arms - not an easy task.

“I’m loving it,” said Clegg. “The people are great. The food is great.”

New challenges

Clegg said he was looking forward to track and field, which will be held at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista. One of his goals is to work toward competing in future wheelchair competitions.

Nearly all of the participants were new to surfing.

Miller, who has lived in the South Park area since 1972, used to windsurf - but not this.

“With windsurfing, there’s none of this falling off or learning to pop up,” said Miller. “There’s a little more agility required here.”

The main portion of the competition occurs each day from 11:15 to 11:45 a.m. Teams are scored on how many successful rides they accomplish in that time frame.

Participants for the clinic-who have all have served and been injured in military service - were split into five teams. The squads will travel together and compete in a new sport each day, and will all visit the Shores once throughout the week.

Veteran Mark Schreiber (center) and instructor/professional surfer Buttons Kaluhiokalani (right in white holding surfboard) participate in the National Veterans Summer Sports Clinic surfing event at La Jolla Shores on Monday.

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