Warrior of the waves

Hanaa Kerchoff, 10, of Muizenberg sails onto shore with an ecstatic thumbs up.

There was yet another world first at the Smile and Wave, Empowering Adaptive Surfing event on Saturday November 12.

Just this month we shared the news that Muizenberg’s Ashtan Davids, 19, is the first person with cerebral palsy to take part in the World Adaptive Surfing Championships.

Ashtan made the South African team and earned his place to compete in December this year in La Jolla, San Diego, California. Ashtan is the co-founder of the Believe in Schatzi Organisations, a special needs NPO.

He earned himself this place in the South African Adaptive Surfing Championships, which were held in Muizenberg for the first time in October.

Well, in the waves at Surfer’s Corner on Saturday, was the next world first: the blonde-haired, blue-eyed 16-year-old Michael van Jaarsveldt. Michael is a qualified surfing coach who has a warm smile, incredible energy reserves; and autism.

His mother, Pam, spoke to the False Bay Echo, the Plainsman’s sister paper, while Michael put 12-year-old Ethan Potgieter, from Retreat, through his paces in the waves.

“Michael is the only autistic surf coach in the world – that we know about. He absolutely loves the sea,” Pam said.

Michael qualified as an adaptive surfing coach through Adaptive Surfing SA and now spends his time as a coach for Smile and Wave, the flagship initiative of Believe in Schatzi Organisation (BISO). Smile and Wave started as a small initiative led by Megan Cross and Shireen Davids with help from Kevin Rack and buy-in from various organisations, which is now leading the way for adaptive surfing in South Africa.

BISO is a registered NPO which gives young adults and children with special needs the chance to develop independence, social confidence and the necessary skills to live fulfilled lives.

With the help of experienced coaches and volunteers, young people who would never have had the chance to otherwise learn about the water, and later take to the waves. With Michael as a coach, this means Smile and Wave not only has children who surf who are on the autistic spectrum, have cerebral palsy, Down syndrome and/or various medical conditions; but also mentors they can relate to, for them to look up to.

Michael, a Plumstead resident, only started surfing in April this year. He loved it from the word go, says his mom. “We hired his boards for the first while, to make sure it would not be a phase, then eventually we bought him his own board. He hasn’t looked back since,” she says.

“In fact, that’s his dad out to the right. Since Michael has taken to the ocean and we are spending so much time out here, his dad tried surfing out and is loving it.”

In her younger days, Ms Van Jaarsveldt said, she had trained as a lifeguard – but laughs and says she’s happiest now watching her family enjoying their time out there. Ms Van Jaarsveldt says she cannot praise the initiative enough, nor Megan Cross who is the driving force behind it all.

“Megan also tutors Michael academically – he was at Vera School which was great for development and manners and obedience. Beyond that, he wanted to learn more, so Megan is teaching him. She’s amazing with him, and it is great to see how fulfilled he is, doing the surf coaching,” Ms Van Jaarsveldt says.

Megan confirmed that Michael is the first ever coach with autism.

“We, that is myself and Chrisjan Bredenkamp, trained him. We had to teach him using different methods with more visuals and one-on-one teaching. His course was six months. From a very young age Michael has always been fascinated by the ocean,” Megan says.

While at Vera School Michael successfully completed a Young Biologist Course for Grade 10 pupils hosted by the 2 Oceans Aquarium last year.

He has also volunteered at the aquarium over weekends. When Michael met Megan, from Believe in Schatzi Organisation (BISO), he started a combined education and junior surfing instructors course with Megan and team.

Michael successfully completed his surfing instructors course hosted by BISO. Through BISO Michael was presented with an Instructors Certificate from SA Surfing, which means he is now an accredited surf instructor with SA Surfing.

He has subsequently left Vera School and is being home schooled by Megan.

“Michael has made tremendous strides forward since joining BISO. Despite recent setbacks, Michael has grown tremendously in confidence, especially working with people since this has always been a hindrance due to his autism,” Megan says.

“Michael now works confidently with groups of people as well as individuals without supervision at times. Michael has grown as an individual who is learning to deal with life’s challenges better and better each day. Having Michael coach is wonderful for other children on the spectrum, he has a sense of understanding and relation. Ashtan and Michael are both an inspiration to other children and young adults with diffabilities(different abilities),”she says.

Michael has set his mind on competing in surf competitions, and is determined to represent his province and country.

“His current vision is to be a semi pro surfer and instructor, so that he can also focus on a career in the form of board shaping and repairs.”

One of the first children Michael coached was Hanaa Kerchoff who has, her mother says, become fearless. True to form, Hanaa caught a wave and sailed in to shore with a massive grin and one arm raised in an ecstatic thumbs up.

“Hanaa’s first session was with Michael, and she couldn’t wait to come back. Today she’s with another coach and Michael is helping Ethan out there,” says Hanaa’s mom, Shad Scheffers.

Preston Lewis, 6, from Pinelands loved his first visit on Saturday, November 12, and was wandering around with his mom, cloaked in sea sand, with an exhilarated grin. His first visit had been 40 minutes of glee in the ocean, and he was now ready for lunch. While the kids are in the water, the parents chat, share a laugh, or talk through some of their experiences. Some pull on wetsuits and join their kids in the waves, and they transform along with the young ones.

Ashtan Davids was – for once – not in the waves on Saturday, but spent time with the parents and kids on the shore.

His recent achievements have brought even more attention to the initiative.

To help get Ashtan to Los Angeles in December to take part in the World Adaptive Surfing Championships visit: www.believeinschatzi.org for details.