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Heart of a champion

Posted: January 12th, 2018 | Community Profile, Feature, Featured | No Comments

North Park amputee is a winner in adaptive surfing

By Lucia Viti

North Park is paying homage to a gold medal-winning resident, Dani Burt, recently crowned the female champion at the International Surfing Association’s (ISA) World Adaptive Surf Championships.

Burt stole the show at the competition’s maiden voyage in its first all-female final. Winning, however, is nothing new for the above-the-knee amputee. Burt has competed in adaptive surfing championships against men for years, simply because there were “no female adaptive surfers to compete against.”

Dani Burt of North Park is the reigning female champion of the International Surfing Association’s World Adaptive Surf Championships. (Photo by Chris Grant)

The fall 2017 hallmark event, hosted at La Jolla Shores, catapulted Burt into a groundbreaking legacy. Burt won the AS2 female division, placed seventh in the AS2 mixed-gender division, and finished third in Team USA. Pride and humility go hand in hand for this champion.

“Winning gold symbolizes how far I’ve come,” said Burt, who has a Ph.D. in physical therapy. “I’m grateful for this life. I’m proud and honored to have surfed with women from around the world. Coming out of the final, cheered by those who believe in me, was beyond words. My goal is to ensure equal opportunity for female para surfers in a male-dominated industry.”

Life-changing ride

Para surfing earmarks a journey for Burt that began during a Sunday afternoon motorcycle ride. Fourteen years ago, while riding with friends, the then-19-year-old rounded what she assumed to be a wide turn. There was no signage to indicate otherwise. Unable to “lay it down quickly,” the narrow curve caused her to crash into a guardrail. She blacked out. Unconscious, Burt soared 65 feet down a 400-foot mountain.

The impact of landing “woke” her up. Fellow riders “reacted quickly.” A nurse serendipitously driving by also came to her aid. An ambulance rushed her to Palomar Medical Center.

Burt coded twice during her first 12-hour surgery. Injuries included broken ribs, a broken neck at c6, a broken left humerus, collapsed lungs and an injured right leg. She “acquired” a mild brain injury during the procedure. Placed into a drug-induced coma for five weeks, she developed acute respiratory distress syndrome causing her to begin “drowning in my lungs.” As her body fought ferociously to protect its broken carcass, Burt developed gangrene in her right knee. As such, “my body worked to fix my legs instead of my lungs.” Doctors decided to amputate her right leg above the knee to save her life and “take me out of my coma.”

Bouncing back “super quick,” Burt was transferred to Sharp Memorial Rehabilitation Center, facing “life in a whole new world that was hard to put into words.” The New Jersey native said she had fled to San Diego to “escape” an unstable and troubled childhood. Now, a life of independence gave way to a life of dependence based on a choice “I never made.”

“The doctors chose to save my life,” Burt explained. “And I had to choose between giving up or putting in 100 percent. It wasn’t easy. Because I was in a coma for five weeks, I lacked strength. I couldn’t sit up. I couldn’t even talk. My leg was missing. I was now an amputee. I never even knew an amputee. I was depressed, angry. I had no choice in the amputation. Everything changed. Everything you do changes. Society looks at you differently. But because I never believed in giving up, I decided to give it my all and move forward.”

Burt had to “learn” how to ask for help. Vulnerable but determined, she created a support system that included a therapist to get her “mental game on track.”

“I knew that I had to talk to someone or I’d be in trouble,” she said. “Losing a limb was a lot for a young person to deal with.”

Within the year of learning how to walk again, Burt was skateboarding and snowboarding. The ocean beckoned — but a decade ago, surfing prosthetics didn’t exist because “amputees were not yet participating in action sports.” Determined, she made a new prosthetic surfing leg from old prosthetic parts. Touting wave knowledge, athletic balance and a surf board, Burt “found her sanity.”

With a lack of formal adaptive surfing competitions, “just expression sessions,” Burt competed sporadically. Surfing was sidelined while she pursued a doctorate in physical therapy — one class at a time — admitting that the accident served as her impetus.

“I had no idea what a physical therapist was before I had a whole bunch of them,” she said. “And I loved everyone. Physical therapy gave me back my independence. And my independence gave me strength.”

Helping other amputees

Today, Burt works in acute care physical therapy with new amputees at Sharp Memorial Hospital. Describing her work as “impactful,” she reminisced, “I wished I had someone who could’ve paved the road for placing my thoughts in a better spot. The visibility of being an amputee to other amputees offers insight. They see what they can do by seeing what you do.”

Patients are often surprised to discover that Burt’s an amputee. Donning scrubs that hide her prosthetic leg, “super-upset” patients become “stoked” and “comforted” to “talk to someone who really knows how it feels.”

“Losing a limb makes you feel like you’re done,” she said. “Life’s never the same. What you’re used to is gone. You think there’s no more going above and beyond. But when I show an amputee a picture or video of someone actually doing something they thought they couldn’t, it gives them hope. Visibility encourages and gives patients an opportunity to excel.”

Giving back is Burt’s reward.

“I pay it forward,” she continued. “It’s such a great feeling to impart knowledge that moves patients forward as quickly as possible. I’ve been helped so much. It’s an overwhelming feeling to give back.”

While Burt admits that surfing is daunting, she enjoys “large, challenging surf.”

“Competition’s made me stronger and more capable,” she said. “There aren’t many situations that make me nervous.”

No longer vulnerable, she’s happy to train, encourage and share her knowledge.

“Surfing’s a passion that’s enabled me to put the ghosts of my past to rest,” Burt said. “Everyone has their hard days. I have bad days. But I’ve developed coping mechanisms and skill sets, like surfing. Surfing in salt water clears your mind. Surfing places everything in front of you — but the water — on pause.”

Burt praised the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) and its Chief Executive Director Virginia Tinley for obliging her requests, “no matter how odd,” early on.

“Whether it was skateboarding or surfing, Virginia Tinley and CAF were always extremely supportive,” she said. “I’m truly grateful for everything they’ve done, not only for me, but for others.”

Sponsored by Stance (socks) and presented by Vissla (wetsuits) and the city of San Diego, the 2017 World Adaptive Surfing Championship noted its dedication to promoting gender equality in Para Surfing a.k.a.  Adaptive Surfing.

According to Burt, the championship acts like any other able-bodied, global competition. However, these participants have a physical handicap. Qualification is required through regional competitions. Six divisions classify surfers on their physical impairments. Championships now accommodate women adaptive surfers.

The event was also noted as the first World Adaptive Championship since ISA gained its landmark recognition from the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). More than 100 challenged athletes from 25 countries showcased their surfing talents. Athletes, sponsors and ISA are working diligently to include a para surfing championship in the Paralympic Games.

“ISA is proud to promote the development of women’s surfing around the globe,” said Fernando Aguerre, ISA president. “Adaptive surfing is a vibrant sport infused with youthful energy and high-performance qualities. The growth of adaptive surfing is just incredible. Under ISA’s leadership, we’re intent on taking the sport to the 2024 Paralympic Games.”

Vissla also laid claim to its support and excitement.

“Vissla is stoked to support ISA and the adaptive surfing movement,” said Paul Naude, president of Vissla Wetsuits. “The determination, courage, inspiration and fearlessness of these world-class athletes epitomize our principles as a brand and define our value of creative freedom. The future is looking bright for adaptive surfing and we’re excited to be along for the ride.”

— Contact Lucia Viti at luciaviti@roadrunner.com.

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