[Tickets are selling fast for the Blue Earth Summit, taking place this Wednesday the 13th of October in Bristol. The event sees business founders, adventurers and activists convene for two days of talks and workshops tackling the question of how we can live more sustainably. Find out more about the event here.]
Cornwall-born athlete Melissa Reid’s list of sporting accomplishments is long enough to leave you speechless, including, but not including, her Olympic bronze medal in Paratriathlon in Rio, Brazil in 2016, her 2 world titles at the championships. Parasurfing World AmpSurf ISA (making her Britain’s only World Surfing Champion), having been named Cornwall’s Young Coach of the Year in 2012 and Southwestern Disabled Athlete of the Year. BBC in 2013. Don’t hesitate, whether it’s falling in bombs at Aggie or working with passion to expand opportunities for people with disabilities in surfing, being born with a visual impairment hasn’t stopped Melissa Reid all at once. We catch up with the decorated Champion before her appearance at the Summit of the Blue Earth.
SE: The list of your accolades is incredible and not limited to surfing, with your Paralympic medal, your European and World Paratriathlon titles, as well as swimming and surf lifesaving history. Has sport always occupied such an important place in your life?
SIR: Sport had a big influence in my education. As soon as someone tried to kick me out and go, oh you got to go there with the other visually impaired kids, I just gave them a middle finger and said I wouldn’t. . My parents told me, you are going to learn to ride a bike, I don’t have a child who doesn’t know how to ride a bike. And that was pretty much the start.
And then living in Cornwall, loved going out to sea… My dad went to that surf lesson and said, here is where you can take a surf lesson with me. It was when I was about eight years old. Literally the first time I just stood on a board that was that, I fell in love with it. But again, we just didn’t tell anyone I couldn’t see. If they told someone, I was treated differently. They thought there was nothing you could do.
We also surfed to save lives growing up and we played on skateboards. You know, anything an outdoor kid would do. There was just a bit like, no limits. Then you went into education and school, and that’s where I really struggled, like, you can’t see the board and the prints and things like that .. But when it came to sports, there was always a way around that, and you’d understand.
SE: It looks like you had a really stubborn determination. Do you think that access to surfing today compared to when you were a child has improved for people with visual impairments like yours or others who work with different disabilities?
SIR: I think some things have improved a lot for people with disabilities to try to get involved. Now, with the coaching side, they train coaches to be more open and accessible, instead of just the traditional coaching of being valid. There is suitable material available now, everything is readily available on a regular basis. The more we do, the easier it will be for everyone to participate. At the moment, it’s not perfect, but it’s definitely getting better. And then you use The Wave which is amazing to get anyone in the water on a board.
SE: What would be a change for the better that would help people gain better access to surfing?
SIR: I think it’s just knowing that more than anything. If you were to just pick any handicap at random that would potentially require a bit more assistance, such as for wheelchair users, having signs in each city, then anyone can participate. It is a question of equipment more than anything else. Looking at the instructors that are out there right now, everyone is so inclusive and so eager to learn, you kind of got rid of that stereotype that people are afraid to try something new. I think it’s really good, especially having younger coaches because they’re like, well, why not? Let’s try. Its good!
SE: Is it just in competitions that you would have a spotter with you? Or is it in all surfing situations?
SIR I just have them competing. I think the first time we did a contest I think I had known him (my watcher) for five minutes before setting out to sea. I’m not kidding, he gave me a black eye on the first day of our meeting! I had done the worst wave ever, I just planted the sand in the face. But it was so funny because he just apologized. Yet now I just tear it up. Like, whatever happens, you’ll never hurt me as much as when you gave me a black eye! But it is about this mutual trust. We have been working together since and are more in tune with each other. Basically he just gives me the verbal clues of what he can see. It’s like having a script on TV, for example, it’ll just tell me how big the board is, which way the wave is breaking, if it’s steep, if it’s shallow.
SE How far away from you is he sitting?
SIR He is close enough to me, as if within touching distance. He’s a very good surfer himself, so it works really well. He’s like, I know you’re just gonna go for whatever you need so, it’s okay, I can get you down at the last second.
SE When the surf gets bigger or the conditions are more difficult it can be gnarly even with full vision. How do you cope with the added challenge of your visual impairment?
SIR It depends who takes you to the sea. One guy I’ve surfed with quite a bit since joining the team is Pegleg. We went to Aggie last winter, I was like, oh, how big is it? He said it was only a few yards away. I was fine, cool, let’s go. We paddled using the rip, so you have no idea how big it is. The first two waves, I said why am I stacking it? He’s like, oh, just engage in a little more. And I did it and then it worked. And Sarah Bunt was taking pictures, she goes, what did Peg tell you ?! I was like he told me it was a few meters, why? She said to wait and see the photos when she got home. I looked at it, I literally said Holy shit. I was like, Peg did we get serious about this ?! It was 8 feet.
SE: You must be so in tune with the wave and the ocean.
SIR I have a pretty good feeling of what the water is doing around me. I guess it’s pretty hard to describe because for me it’s second nature, it’s natural. Because I have always been visually impaired, I did not have to learn to adapt. Not being able to see it for me is normal. I don’t have depth perception so I don’t know how big the drop is. It is simply a question of taking the drop, and when you slow down, to go up to the top of the wave.
SE: You are a double world champion, aren’t you?
SIR: Yes, I hope to triple by the end of the year.
SE: How did you feel when you won these world titles ?!
SIR: It was a weird contest because I had just gotten back to surfing. I probably had about five years off, just really focused on triathlon. I couldn’t get my dream job because of my vision, which is why I got into triathlon. I thought so, what else am I going to do? And then I had a really big back injury, and I wasn’t allowed to cycle or run, but I was allowed to swim and surf.
I qualified for the women’s final and we had an incredible surf. It was pretty tight on points until the last wave, and then the scores came in, (my watcher) he was like a dude, everyone runs overboard, you won! I was like, are you kidding me? He says no, everyone runs into the sea cheering. It didn’t really sink in back then how tall he was. The first visually impaired woman to have a world surfing title and also the first British person to win a world surf title.
SE Unbelievable! Surfing of course started at the Olympics this year. And there are rumors on the vine about the Paralympics. Is this something you would target?
SIR I mean it won’t be in Paris. The chances of him entering Los Angeles seem pretty high. I would love to participate in surf competitions in LA. I would love to do both sports at the same time if I am being honest.
SE There are some amazing visually impaired surfers like Derek Rabelo who has glaucoma and he’s been surfing Pipeline and apparently he’s aiming for Jaws, I don’t know if he has yet. Athletes like you accomplish so much, what else is on the horizon for you?
SIR To be honest, I’m trying to start a business to get more visually impaired people surfing. If you wanna skate, skate, if you wanna rock climb, let’s go rock climbing. I was talking to a guy last week he was saying his cousin is a blind DJ and everything is going verbally through his MacBook telling him what to do. What I want to make everyone understand is that in fact, where there is a will, there is a way. You just need the right support. We’re just putting a few things in place to really deliver that and get rid of that stereotype of being good if it’s bad, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. No U.S can do it. .
SE You are also a speaker at the next Summit of the Blue Earth. Why was it important for you to be a part of this event?
SIR You know what? They asked me if I would be a part of it and if I would give a speech and I was like you’re sure you want me? I’m sure there are better people than me to give a speech haha I thought everyone is right above what I did!