Ever since ESPN's E:60 profile of former Young Gun Clay Marzo's years-long struggle with Asperger's syndrome (a spectrum of autism that complicates social interaction) in summer 2009, the disorder has had a very public connection with the surfing. But long before Marzo's obstacles became public, the surfing community has gathered to heighten autism awareness and raise money for its treatment.
On Friday, roughly two-hundred athletes, including twenty-five elite racers, gathered at Pier 40 in Manhattan to kick-off the fourth annual Surfers' Environmental Alliance (SEA) Paddle NYC -- a benefit to raise money and awareness for SEA and autism non-profits. Participants in the event were responsible for providing a minimum amount of donations that were then spread across eight organizations. Prior paddles were merely casual, but 2010 introduced an elite race and cash prize for top paddlers.
But an environmental group fundraising for autism? There's a perfectly good explanation. Preserving and protecting the environmental element of surfing is one of SEA's key goals. Yet, lobbying government officials -- to whom surfing may be a foreign sport -- against development that could impinge a particular surf break can be difficult, admits SEA Executive Director Andrew Mencinsky. That's where the autism community comes in.
Citing Izzy Paskowitz's Surfer's Healing, a group that mitigates the challenges facing autistic kids by exposing them to the ocean and surfing, Mencinsky explained that by teaming up, both groups win.
"It's not just about us, but surfing has a much higher role in helping less privileged kids." If autism sufferers benefit from time in the water, then improving water quality and ocean access are crucial components of the cause. The autistic get wet; we all stay clean.
Some people were going to have to paddle to accomplish that goal. Surfers convened from all over the country -- Hawaii, California, and New York's own backyard. Long Beach, NY, local Justin "One Fin" Schwartz has been a Surfers Healing camp counselor since 2002. A paddler in the three previous New York events, he was ready to race this time.
"All I can do is surf," he told me while attaching water bladders to his board, "I might as well use surfing to do something good." Schwartz's ladyfriend, Stephanie Shideler, completed her first paddle -- each raising much-needed dollars for the cause.
Of course, it wouldn't be New York without recognizable faces. Olympic host Pat Parnell was reporting. Paddle hero Jodie Nelson arrived for her first circumnavigation of the city fresh from the U.S. Open circus. Last spring, she became the only woman to paddle the nearly 40 miles from Catalina Island to Dana Point, CA, to generate funds for breast cancer. After only an hour in New York, Nelson spotted a random woman in a t-shirt from her event. Smiling, she concluded, "I'm obviously supposed to be here."
From the media boat, renowned surf photographer Don King captured video while his wife, Julianne, told me about their son Beau, who was diagnosed seven years ago. They started the Beautiful Son Foundation, one of SEA's beneficiaries, in 2008, King said, "to help families in Hawaii find and fund treatments for autism." BSF gave away $20,000 in scholarships in July. Turns out, Clay Marzo is not alone in the Aloha State.
As the remaining paddlers washed up on a twenty-yard stretch of sand beneath the Brooklyn Bridge at the South Street Seaport, I talked with the race's first-place finisher, Thomas Maximus Shahinian.
"Twenty-eight miles on a stand-up board is something else. Looking at the New York skyline -- words just can't describe it. It's amazing," Shahinian lamented. He pulled in at just under four hours, while many paddlers posted times that didn't matter as much. For them, it was about finishing the course.
"We've been growing every year in both donations and paddlers," Mencinsky noted, "I see this being a huge event." And that, ultimately, is the name of the game.
(Visit the SEA Paddle site for more info on SEA and its friends in the autism community.)