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The Region

Ex-Surfer Teaches Respect for Ocean's Dangers

June 17, 2002|SANDRA MURILLO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The weather was warm and the waves were low on a sunny day in 1995 when Chris McAleer's life as a surfer came to a jarring end.

He remembers somersaulting off his board and splashing into the small waves off 48th Street in Newport Beach. His head hit the ground. He heard something click

"I was face-down in the water and I could move my head, but I couldn't move my arms to start swimming," McAleer said. "I just started praying."

The impact of hitting the unseen sandbar had shoved his head into his shoulder, crushing his spinal cord and breaking several neck bones.

Seven years later he remains in a wheelchair. He has movement in his arms but can't move anything else below his collarbone. On a recent morning at the Newport Beach Pier, he did his best to shake a visitor's hand although his no longer functions.

Now a spokesman for Project Wipeout, an outreach program developed by Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach to prevent neck and spinal injuries at the beach, McAleer has become accustomed to telling his story.

He was 23 and working night jobs in order to spend his days surfing. June 10, 1995, started off as a typical day: He grabbed his board and ran to the beach. He felt happy. Carefree.

That changed when he flipped off his board and hit a sandbar. Unable to move, his body dipped under the waves and floated until someone rescued him. At the hospital, he was told that he'd be paralyzed.

"You know, it took awhile before those words began to sink in," McAleer said. "I could still move my arms, so I thought I was going to be OK eventually.

"My family just rallied around me and told me I had to get moving," McAleer said. "I realized that I might not be able to hold hands or walk on the beach, but I can hear, taste, smell and see. You can either give up and be a hermit or get out and explore life."

At the hospital, McAleer agreed to be interviewed for an educational video for Project Wipeout. He has worked with the hospital ever since.

As each summer approaches, McAleer visits schools and warns students of the ocean's power and danger.

His presence in a classroom is usually enough to catch the attention of even the most jaded student, he said. "There's kind of a shock effect because I'm this young guy, in a wheelchair, in their face," McAleer said. "I was very active, into all these sports and all it took was one wave."

For more than 20 years, Project Wipeout at Hoag Hospital has worked with schools. Upon request, Hoag Hospital representatives, Orange County lifeguards and people such as McAleer visit schools and speak to its targeted group--teenagers.

According to the National Spinal Cord Assn., there are 200,000 spinal-cord injury cases in the United States every year, and 7% to 8% of those injuries occur during sports-related activities.

At Newport Beach alone, there are about 40 spinal and cervical injuries every summer, said Kris Okamoto, the director of Project Wipeout.

McAleer works as an aide at an after-school day-care center in Tustin, his hometown. Lately he has developed an interest in remote-control cars, but surfing still holds a special place in his heart.

"I can't knock the sport," McAleer said.

"I can say I almost died enjoying what I love."

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