Parasurfer poised to catch a wave to world stardom

By Leila Dougan

At the South African Parasurfing Championships held at New Pier, Durban from 28 to 30 May 2021, Noluthando Makalima came fourth in her division. It’s a growing sport in which people with disabilities compete on the world stage, and Makalima, a Khayelitsha resident from humble beginnings, has her sights set firmly on 2028 Summer Paralympics where parasurfing will be introduced for the first time. 

Makalima scrunches up her face as volunteer Zuzana Matousova-Done slides her legs into a soggy wetsuit. “It’s cold!” Makalima complains, but she lets Matousova-Done zip her up and help her to the beach on her crutches. 

It’s a cloudy March morning and she shivers while her mentor, parasurfing champion Antony Smyth, gets her board ready. As Makalima’s toes touch the water she ditches her crutches and shimmies belly down onto her surfboard. Smyth pulls her into the break and her teeth are no longer chattering. “Which wave, Nolu, this one?” Smyth can be heard shouting. “No, not this one,” she says, concentration firm, “the next one.” 

Makalima has had cerebral palsy since birth, a condition that affects her speech and the left side of her body. She uses a wheelchair and walks with crutches. The athlete started parasurfing (formerly known as adaptive surfing) in 2014. Back then she heard about a beginner surfing class and her curiosity led her to Blouberg beach in Cape Town. “I just went for fun. I did not enjoy waves at that time, I was still scared. But the funny thing is, I came back again,” she says. 

Cerebral palsy is a lifelong condition that affects people in different ways, including muscle control and coordination, muscle reflex, posture and balance. According to the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Foundation, the incidence of cerebral palsy is one in 500 births and there are as many as 18 million people in the world who have the condition. But it hasn’t stopped Makalima from excelling in a sport she’s come to love.

“I was like a celebrity. Everyone 

was saying, ‘you are so brave.'”

At her home in Khayelitsha she shows off her medals and a trophy received at the ministerial recognition of excellence awards ceremony in Johannesburg in 2020 alongside the top sportswomen in the country, including Banyana Banyana coach Desiree Ellis and wheelchair tennis star Kgothatso Montjane.

“I went there and it was like I couldn’t believe it,” recalls Makalima. “I don’t remember what I was saying in that speech. I watched it afterwards and thought ‘is this really me walking on a red carpet?’”

But beyond the lights, being a cash-strapped sports star has serious limitations. Her only income is a measly R1,050 government grant. She does not own a wetsuit and forks out about R70 for each practice session. When she cannot afford an Uber to and from Muizenberg she catches a taxi, putting herself at risk of crime.

One afternoon she caught a taxi home after training and was surrounded by three men at the Wynberg taxi rank who demanded her phone and sports bag, which contained her passport – which she would need just two weeks later to travel to California for the biggest competition of her life. “That day I was so brave. I said you must kill me, I won’t give you my bag. They pushed me and I fell and they ran away. They took my phone but not my bag.”

Over the years she’s found a coach and a mentor in Smyth and their hard work led them to the US where Makalima represented South Africa at the 2020 World Paralympics Surfing Championships in California hosted by the International Surfing Association. Parasurfing champs are gruelling and require months of sacrifice, courage and in those final moments, flair. Sixty-five athletes from 17 countries met in La Jolla, San Diego in March 2020 and Makalima bagged a silver medal, making her second in the world in her category. Her first time abroad felt like “a dream”.

“I was like a celebrity because everyone was saying ‘you are so brave,’” she says.

“Deep down I was not okay.

 I thought I’m not ready for this. 

What if I fail?” 

The competition was tough physically and mentally. She did well in her first and second heat, but the pressure was on. “Deep down I was not okay. I thought I’m not ready for this. What if I fail?” 

In those moments, Smyth was the only person on her mind. “Ant always says I must be calm. I must think of my family, I must think of my daughter. I stayed calm and I came number two. I am so proud of myself and my teammates because for me to be here where I am now is because of their support.” 

“World champs, I’ll describe it for you. It’s a big, big thing,” says Smyth. “There are cameras pointing at you all the time, there are people from all over the world. It’s really built up to this moment where you paddle out and everybody on the beach is watching you. All the cameras. And people will either fold or they will shine. Noluthando just shone.”

 

Noluthando Makalima during the ISA World Parasurfing Championships in California, USA. Her silver medal is, thus far, the highlight of her 7 year sporting career. (Photo: The International Surfing Association)
Noluthando Makalima with the rest of the South African team during the ISA World Para Surfing Championships in California, USA. (Photo: The International Surfing Association / Pablo Jimenez)

Smyth is not only Makalima’s mentor, he’s a two-time world parasurfing champion. He’s been in the game as long as he can remember, riding his first waves as a toddler with his Bentley Belt, his parents keeping watch from the shore. He was born able bodied but a car accident at the tender age of five left him with a brachial plexus nerve injury, a paralysed right arm. As a teenager growing up on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal, surfing was “just done”. His older siblings surfed, so it was natural to follow them into the ocean. He’s been surfing competitively for the past six years. He paddles out with his left arm and uses his elbow to stand. “I basically do everything with my elbow and my left arm. So my adaptation is just my physical way of changing the way I surf,” he says. 

It doesn’t matter whether you’re in a wheelchair or whether you’re very mildly disabled, Smyth says parasurfing is accessible to everyone and coaches are well versed in helping athletes with various disabilities. 

Some parasurfers have prostheses, others surf on their knees, seated or lying down. Makalima surfs in the prone division and her adapted board is slightly broader and has handles on either side – a set for her and a set for her support team. They take her to the beach in a special wheelchair that can manage the sea sand and from there she gets onto her board. They pull her out to the waves where she decides which to ride. She can’t swim, which means volunteers are close by in case she falls off her board. The International Surfing Association has developed technical classifications where the strength, flexibility and balance of competitive parasurfers are assessed in order to group athletes so that those with similar adaptations compete against one another.

The first Parasurfing World Championship was held in 2015 with 70 athletes from 18 countries. In 2020, there were more than 130 athletes from 22 countries. “We want to give athletes with physical challenges a platform to shine, perform, and compete against international competition,” says International Surfing Association president Fernando Aguerre. 

Able bodied surfing is set to make its Olympic debut at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics after its inclusion was approved by the International Olympic Committee in 2016. Parasurfing will soon follow, according to Aguerre, with the sport being considered for the 2028 Summer Paralympics in Los Angeles. 

“We received record numbers of competitors and national teams at our World Championships. Additionally, we saw non-traditional surfing nations more interested in investing in the growth and development of the sport. From grassroots level to the highest level of competition, the joy of surfing spread around the globe,” says Aguerre. 

But with growth comes change and classifications can become quite contentious despite the intention to create a level playing field for competitors. As a result, Aguerre says some adaptive surfers would not fit into the framework of the parasurfing classification system. “This does not mean there are not adaptive surfers who enjoy surfing as therapy and exercise, just that they do not meet the minimum impairment criteria for Paralympic-style competition.” An example would be someone with a hearing impairment or post-traumatic stress disorder. 

“At the end of the day there is great variance and nuance in the challenges that every athlete faces. We have to come up with the best system that creates the most level playing field for all parties involved. So far, I think our classification system has been very successful in accomplishing that goal,” he says.

 

“I lost my mom in 2012. 

That was the worst year of my life.”

The sport is still small in South Africa, with about “25 parasurfers who keep returning”, according to Smyth. A handful met in Muizenberg in 2016 to hold the first national championship with just 13 competitors. 

“Parasurfing requires people and cash to make surfing available and accessible to people in wheelchairs, for example. You can’t just arrive in a wheelchair and go surfing. You need help and you need support and you need training. And the people who train need training. So it’s a long process of building that network up and we’re getting there,” says Smyth. 

Makalima is a single parent and her daughter, Iminathi (6), joins her for practice sessions and catches a few waves herself while her mother trains.

International adaptive surfer Noluthando Makalima stands outside her home in Khayelitsha, Cape Town, 11 January 2021. (Photo: Leila Dougan)
Noluthando Makalima's daughter Iminathi, lies on her mother's surf board at Muizenberg beach, Cape Town, on Saturday 8 May 2021. (Photo: Leila Dougan)

“I never thought I would do sport. That was the last thing on my mind, but look at me now, I’m a world champion,” says Makalima. Her only regret is that her mother is not around to celebrate her success. 

“I lost my mom in 2012. That was the worst year of my life. She was so strong and didn’t take me as someone who can’t do anything; she would tell me that you are stronger than your brothers. She would always tell me that. You are strong, you mustn’t give up,” she says. 

Surfing has also helped Makalima keep fit, healthy and stress free. “It’s the best therapy. Just surf. If you are stressed, surf. Surfing is my therapy. When I am surfing my body gets relaxed. Water is kind of my massage.” 

The physical and mental advantages of surfing are well documented, with injured veterans being one of many groups that benefit, along with those who suffer with depression, panic attacks, high anxiety and burnout. The Roxy Davis Foundation in Muizenberg offers surf therapy programmes where children from all walks of life can be seen enjoying the waves with trained volunteers glued to their sides. Smyth keeps a close eye on new talent coming in through the foundation, thoroughly aware that the “surf bug” can bite at any moment and more talented youngsters could head his way. “I want to show them how to win a contest,” he says. “It’s one thing to be a good surfer but another to win a competition.”

“Your heart is in your throat

because everything has led up to this.”

“It’s a stressful situation. You need to go to a competition prepared and ready. When you get there and you need to paddle out that first heat, your heart is in your throat because everything has led up to this,” he says. 

With Smyth’s help Makalima’s plan is to bulk up her medal collection and go for gold at the next international championships. She studies videos from her time in California, watching for her mistakes and those of her competitors. 

“I always watch how people surf in my division. I look at how they turn, how they are riding the waves, and I think, ‘Ha I can do better than that!’ So now I can see my mistakes. I can see where to improve. I can see which wave I must take if I am with someone who is my competitor,” she says. 

“If you’re not under stress [at a competition] you’re not learning and you’re not pushing yourself. You need to go there prepared and ready. If it’s not stressful, you shouldn’t be there because on the other side of stress comes success and learning. It’s those moments that make surfing so fulfilling. During the competition it’s down to business. You really have to focus,” says Smyth. 

Says Makalima: “I’ve surfed in Strand, I’ve surfed in Blouberg. Ha, Blouberg is so cold. You can’t even enjoy the waves because it’s so cold there. The best surfing spot is Muizenberg. I want to do more competitions. I have so many hopes. Now, I see myself as a star.” DM