My Trip to Hawaii with the High Fives Foundation

By Lindsey Runkel

Editor's note: This post is reprinted with permission from the author from The Paraplegic's Guide to Adventure. Lindsey is a spontaneous adventurer who loves the outdoors. She was injured in a downhill mountain bike accident, but doesn't let that stop her from adaptive mountain biking, skiing, and having a good time, no matter what. She's unapologetically herself and is excited to share her story.

As the trip got closer, the nerves started to set in (although I never second guessed my RSVP). The plane ride alone was 13+ hours, I was going to be at least 2000 miles from the mainland, and I didn’t know most of the athletes on the trip. What if something went wrong? What if I didn’t get along with anyone? What if I sucked at surfing and hated it? All of these questions flooded my mind as I shoved bikinis and rash guards into my suitcase but never once did I stop packing and let my nerves call the shots.

I recently had the great fortune of getting to go to Hawaii with an amazing group of athletes and an even more amazing foundation -- High Fives Foundation. High Fives has given me my life back and supported me from the beginning of my injury. They strive to get athletes (mountain athletes specifically) back out and doing what they love and so far, they've done just that. They are the reason I am back out on my mountain bike, I learned how to ski, and most recently, they are the reason I was able to learn how to surf in the mecca of all surf spots. 

Each year, they host an adaptive surf trip and invite some of their athletes to come. This year, I was lucky enough to receive an invite and immediately confirmed my spot on the trip without even checking my calendar. At first, the invite was amazing -- I was going to Hawaii with a bunch of adaptive athletes and some of the greatest recovered athletes/sponsors that I have ever met. 

As the trip got closer, the nerves started to set in (although I never second guessed my RSVP). The plane ride alone was 13+ hours, I was going to be at least 2000 miles from the mainland, and I didn't know most of the athletes on the trip. What if something went wrong? What if I didn't get along with anyone? What if I sucked at surfing and hated it? All of these questions flooded my mind as I shoved bikinis and rash guards into my suitcase but never once did I stop packing and let my nerves call the shots. 

Then, I heard the dreaded words as we rolled up to the house “how are you with stairs?” and “I hope you don’t mind but the house isn’t very accessible.” Being new-ish to my injury, not accessible is a pretty scary statement. It means having to rely on other people to help me and while I know that everyone there was more than willing to help, I am pretty hesitant to ask because I want that sense of independence and I hate people thinking that I am helpless.

My flights were seemingly uneventful. Most people ask me how I fly and it's simple -- I go to the bathroom before I get on the flight so I don't have to worry about it midair, I get taken onto the plane in an aisle/airplane specific wheelchair, I transfer into my seat, and I hope to the airplane gods that I can fall asleep and not have to endure 6+ hours of shifting around trying to get comfortable. On my connecting flight I met up with one of the athletes that I had talked to but never met before. It was like we had known each other for years and my nerves about not getting along with anyone subsided. 

When I arrived in Hawaii, I was met at baggage claim by some familiar faces and some not so familiar faces but all were smiling. I could not believe the beauty of the island already and I hadn't even left the airport. My nerves set back in as I knew I was going to a house where I would know about 5 out of the 23 people there but I was in Hawaii, I couldn't be anything less than happy and pretty stoked. 

Then, I heard the dreaded words as we rolled up to the house "how are you with stairs?" and "I hope you don't mind but the house isn't very accessible." Being new-ish to my injury, not accessible is a pretty scary statement. It means having to rely on other people to help me and while I know that everyone there was more than willing to help, I am pretty hesitant to ask because I want that sense of independence and I hate people thinking that I am helpless. Nevertheless , it was a barrier that I had to break down within my own head. Nobody was judging me for not being able to get up and down stairs by myself. Everyone wanted to help. 

The group as a whole was awesome but it was another barrier that I had to overcome. The majority of the athletes had been on the trip together the year before and being the introverted girl that I am (surprise surprise), I felt a little bit out of the loop. Everyone had their jokes and was bonded, I was the odd girl out -- not to mention, the only girl in a wheelchair AND the newest to my chair. But again, that "problem" was all in my head. Nobody hesitated to invite me into their circle and everyone was more than welcoming of my presence. We talked, laughed, and got to know each other over the course of the night and got ourselves stoked for surfing the next day. 

Then I was hit hard with one of the ocean’s cruel lessons. The waveski had rubbed a cut I had on my back raw and given the warm temperature of the water, there was a lot of nasty bacteria in there that would FEAST on a cut like mine if I dared to go in the ocean. I was sidelined. For the first time since becoming an adaptive athlete, I was forced to sit out of an activity, I was forced to fight off my mind and listen to my body.

The next day, we spent a couple hours going over the boards and waveskis we would be surfing with some safety precautions. Being one of two that hadn't surfed before, I decided to dive in head first to the experience and jump on the waveski in the pool, flip myself over a couple hundred times, and make sure I knew how to get back onto it before I faced the ocean. It didn't seem too terribly hard but then again, I was in a calm pool...the ocean isn't always as nice. But knowing that I was able to do just that gave me a little more confidence to get out in the water which was our next stop. 

The beach was incredible and the water was warm. Everything about it was welcoming. While I waited for one of the other athletes to get their surf on, I took everything in. The smells, the sounds, the nature of the beast I was about to face, the timing of the waves, the way the other athletes conquered each wave without any hesitation. As soon as it was my turn, I was more than ready. Once in the waveski, I learned how to paddle out (which I was terrible at the first day but 10 TIMES better the next day) and how to catch a wave which required a lot of paddling and perfect timing. Nevertheless, I was in the water and I was "catching waves" with the help of a few good watermen. For two days, I caught as many waves as I could and practiced paddling as much as I possibly could to try to improve as quickly as possible. 

Then I was hit hard with one of the ocean's cruel lessons. The waveski had rubbed a cut I had on my back raw and given the warm temperature of the water, there was a lot of nasty bacteria in there that would FEAST on a cut like mine if I dared to go in the ocean. I was sidelined. For the first time since becoming an adaptive athlete, I was forced to sit out of an activity, I was forced to fight off my mind and listen to my body. It was one of the hardest things that I had to face since becoming injured. I am an athlete and all I ever want to do is move, go, improve, practice, get out there. To watch others do those things and know I can't is a huge mental game for me and one I was forced to face. Lucky for me, that day was a rest day and our team took a trip around the island on the Road to Hana -- an incredibly beautiful and diverse drive that involves many different types of eco-zones from tropical rainforest to lava rock desert. We stopped at a few watering holes that I couldn't get in but I was okay with it or at least at convincing myself I was. I was doing what was best for my body and it was not worth sacrificing days of surfing to get into the water. Just simply rolling to certain spots was an incredible experience. Getting to go through the forests and come out to a beautiful ocean front was enough to keep my mind at bay for the day. 

The next day delivered the same news. My back was still not up to an optimal level for getting back in the water and I was once again sidelined. This time, I took it even harder but knew that I had to stay strong and be respectful of my body and those who were looking out for me so once again, I sat on the beach, soaked up the sun, and reminded myself of something one of the girl’s who was proficient in yoga had told me: “At this time, you are right where you need to be. You are beautiful. You are perfect, You are where you need to be.” I kept reciting that in my head knowing that I was in the place that I needed to be for my body.

The next day was my roughest. I was once again told that it would be in my best interest to stay out of the water. In an effort to remain composed, I wheeled off to the bathroom to change out of my bathing suit and cried in solitude returning to the group with a smile on my face -- after all, I was still on a beach in Hawaii so it was a little selfish to be upset. I laid on the beach with a group of girls helping out on the trip and enjoyed the beautiful Maui beach once again watching the waves, their timing, their spacing, trying to understand the ocean more deeply than I had before. While it was tough for me to watch all my newfound friends absolutely ripping out in the ocean, I had to keep reminding myself that I was doing what was best for my body. 

The next day delivered the same news. My back was still not up to an optimal level for getting back in the water and I was once again sidelined. This time, I took it even harder but knew that I had to stay strong and be respectful of my body and those who were looking out for me so once again, I sat on the beach, soaked up the sun, and reminded myself of something one of the girl's who was proficient in yoga had told me: "At this time, you are right where you need to be. You are beautiful. You are perfect, You are where you need to be." I kept reciting that in my head knowing that I was in the place that I needed to be for my body. My mind was still fighting me but the mantra helped me get through and luckily, our surf day that day was short as we spent the afternoon venturing up to the top of Haleakala, a volcano with an incredible view of the island. When I say incredible, I am making the biggest understatement of all time. At 10,000 feet above sea level, we could spot the places we had surfed and could pinpoint most places on the island. We watched the sunset and a sense of camaraderie came over me as all of us athletes hugged together for both warmth and for pictures. All of these athletes, knowing I had been having a rough time, were there for me and I had a new Ohana. 

I had two full amazing days of surfing like this and everything that I had gone through to get to that point was suddenly gone — all the tears over not being able to surf for a few days, all the reliance on others to get in and out of my bedroom or the shower, all the feelings of self-doubt over not being able to surf and therefore not being a part of the group — all of those feelings were gone.

I was finally able to get back in the water the next day and I finally felt like myself again. I was back in my element and while I wasn't back on a waveski for fear that I would cut my back open again, I was able to surf prone (on my stomach). I went out into the water with Bruce, a waterman that I had surfed with once before, and we had a killer time. I paddled myself out from shore, caught up to Bruce, picked out my own waves as I had finally figured out how the ocean worked, and paddled into them, traversing them like I had been doing it my whole life. I set new goals that day for prone surfing and each goal was hit first try. I was able to do switchbacks, catch myself before shore, and paddle back out, all independent of anyone else. The freedom I felt was indescribable.

Being in a chair, that sense of independence is sometimes lost, especially when you're spending days in a non-accessible house which requires asking a lot of help from other people. There are very few things that I can go out and do that don't require even the slightest bit of help. I had struggled all week with feeling dependent on others but getting back in the ocean and surfing gave me back what I felt I had lost. I had two full amazing days of surfing like this and everything that I had gone through to get to that point was suddenly gone -- all the tears over not being able to surf for a few days, all the reliance on others to get in and out of my bedroom or the shower, all the feelings of self-doubt over not being able to surf and therefore not being a part of the group -- all of those feelings were gone. 
 

I’m not quite sure how High Fives does it but they manage to pick the most incredible group of athletes to support and I could not be more grateful for them. Hawaii was a mixture of good, great, and learning. I am so happy that I never hesitated to accept the invitation because I feel as though the trip taught me a lot about myself and a lot about being thankful towards others even for the slightest things.

I have to admit that while amazingly fun, the trip was not the easiest for me. I faced a few challenges that allowed me a lot of personal growth and learning. I would not have been able to get through those challenges had it not been for the amazing group of people that I was blessed to be with. These people became my Ohana within just a few short days and I know that I can rely on each and every one of them to not only help me but to teach me how to better myself in situations that are hard. Each athlete went out of their way to be patient with me in my struggles, to be gracious to me, and to impart the wisdom that they had from other experiences onto me so that I could grow as a person and as an athlete.

I'm not quite sure how High Fives does it but they manage to pick the most incredible group of athletes to support and I could not be more grateful for them. Hawaii was a mixture of good, great, and learning. I am so happy that I never hesitated to accept the invitation because I feel as though the trip taught me a lot about myself and a lot about being thankful towards others even for the slightest things. 

Would I go back? In a heartbeat. 
Would I recommend this to others? Absolutely. 
Did I step out of my comfort zone? Yes and I recommend that everyone does the same.
Get out there, "step" out of your comfort zone, and discover who you truly are in the process. 

Am I adequately able to describe how grateful and thankful I am towards High Fives and the group I spent those ten days with? Not even close. 

Mahalo f*ckin surfers for an incredible time and I can't wait until next year. 


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