ADAPTIVE PADDLING PROGRAM INTRODUCING SURFSKI TO VETERANS
Eyal Abro knows the feeling.
He knows the feeling of flying down a run on his surfski, diving from swell-to-swell in pristine conditions off the Israeli coast.
But he also knows the feeling of hardship, one that is felt by returned veterans all over the world.
“When I finished my service, I suffered from a certain level of post-trauma,” Abro says.
“I don’t suffer from it today and haven’t for quite a few years, but it never ever really leaves you.
“When you’ve been in those situations and those places, you feel the powerful connection that grows between you and your colleagues – it’s very difficult to explain.
“It’s a very clean and honest relationship that is based on a lot of trust… and it’s very difficult to find in everyday life.”
Difficult, but not impossible.
It wasn’t until after his time in the Israeli Special Unit that Abro discovered surfski paddling.
Having spent his childhood in South Africa diving and playing waterpolo, he was naturally drawn to the sport’s rhythm with the ocean.
But he soon found that paddling also strikes a rhythm with everyday life.
“What’s special about surfski is that you need to find balance,” he says.
“For guys at the beginning, if you stroke too hard you’ll fall in, if you stroke too soft you won’t have enough anchorage.
“It’s all about the feel.
“Finding that balance is a practice that they don’t really have in their daily lives.”
“It’s either very high, or very low – often very low – but in paddling, you’re forced to find it.”
That’s where SEASU United was born.
Based on the Finnish concept of sisu, a term that denotes extraordinary courage, undying resillience and resolute purpose, it stands for:
Once a week Abro, who runs Surfski Israel – a paddling club with more than 150 members – takes a group of returned veterans out on the water.
There are around a dozen “regulars” and just as many passionate volunteers.
The skis and paddles are supplied – making it as easy as possible for people to be introduced to the sport and the sense of community it carries.
“Once you finish in the military, you feel like you’re on your own,” Abro says.
“After having that team relationship, this takes a long time to get over… being back in the big world.
“I said to myself, one day I would like to build a project that has a social responsibility to where my heart lies.
“We don’t look to open up wounds… it’s an open conversation and they will decide what they want to share.
“We don’t treat post-trauma and we don’t cure it, but we are something that adds a bit of value to people’s weekly life.”
And SEASU United isn’t just limited to those suffering emotionally.
“Surfski is a craft that suits people with certain disabilities,” Abro says.
“Some guys are amputated below the knee, some above the knee, others have PTSD and suffer anxieties on the water… everyone needs something a little bit different.”
“I’ve got guys that paddle with one leg and steer with one foot and they paddle at 10 kilometres an hour.
“When you see them paddle, you don’t see the disability.”
SEASU United has reached the very top of the sport, too.
Two-time world champion Sean Rice has been travelling to Israel for the past nine years, coaching the nation’s emerging surfski scene.
But after meeting the paddlers in the SEASU program, he was inspired to do even more.
“I used to coach them every time I was there and it was a really motivating, fulfilling thing for me.” Rice tells The Paddler.
“I never actively decided to be involved, it’s just been this progressive journey.
“It’s never been pushed and it’s never been pulled – it’s just grown organically.
“You create this environment where people find a bit of support and they invite a friend of theirs, and that’s how it’s grown in Israel.
“I’ve coached thousands and thousands of people around the world, but some of my really special experiences have been with people dealing with trauma and being with them in the water to see the difference it can make for their physical and spiritual wellbeing.”
“I find these experiences really beneficial for my own wellbeing… it’s for them, but it’s for me too.”
Rice’s involvement has now grown into a more official capacity.
SEASU United is expanding and the world champion will lead a program in the United Kingdom.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a number of people who are ex-service people and are dealing with trauma and I believe that having a base here would be hugely beneficial,” Rice explains.
“We all bring our own strengths to the table.
“I have not been part of a service, but I am providing coaching and my experience in the sport of surfski.
“It definitely won’t be the last location either.”
There are already plans to establish an outpost in the United States, with the long-term view that the groups will eventually combine to meet and train together once a year.
“We want to try and create a bond and a unity that crosses international borders,” Abro says.
Rice knows that sense of unity – and sense of belonging – better than most.
“Paddling has helped me to see the world, achieve all of my greatest goals in sport and to meet amazing people.” He explains.
“Just about all of the things I have achieved in life have in some way been attributed to sport. It’s something I want to share with everyone.
“Here in London we paddle in the mornings before work and it’s just this hidden gem… people don’t realise how incredible it is.”
That daily routine doesn’t just provide a physical boost.
Even as one of the sport’s greatest paddlers of all time, Rice values the mental exercise it provides just as highly.
“I have to paddle,” he explains. “It’s not like I need support, but just being around water is something I find so calming.”
“Sometimes I use the example with people where you go out into the water as a paddler, and even if the ocean is sometimes chaotic, once you have those skills it is always a really calm place to be.
“It’s a huge part of my wellbeing and I can say that about sport as a whole, but being around water is what helps.
“What we’re doing with SEASU is just incredible. There’s various ways of dealing with trauma – and by no mean am I an expert – but getting into learning a new sport like paddling is hugely rewarding.
“By progressing through that journey, you end up with more confidence and better off for it.
“You meet likeminded people who are on a similar journey… I just don’t think there’s any limit to it.”
The vitality of surfski paddling is something that’s already resonated with SEASU United’s participants.
Once complete foreigners to the sport, it now forms a crucial part of their lives.
“It has made a huge difference,” Abro says.
“I asked one of the guys who suffers from PTSD who it means to him, and he said, ‘if there’s one thing that holds us during the week, it’s knowing that we have a place to come to and paddle out on the sea.’
“You see it on their faces – the way they walk in and the way they walk out, they’re just two different people.
“And it’s amazing to see what it does for the volunteers who are part of the project too.
“The world is round.”
For more information on SEASU United, and to learn how you can help support it, head to: www.SeasuUnited.org