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Taking the plunge into a new challenge

A free program teaches the blind and visually impaired to surf. It feels like flying, one girl says.

August 07, 2008|Molly Hennessy-Fiske | Times Staff Writer

Lupita Salazar, 12, stood at the water's edge Wednesday in Manhattan Beach, flinching as cold waves lapped at her ankles.

Blind since birth, the slim girl wore a colorful swimsuit with a rhinestone flower applique. She was among the first in her group of 13 students from the Braille Institute in Los Angeles willing to give surfing a try.

Troy Campbell, a surfing instructor, guided Lupita's hands around the edges, or rails, of a blue 19-foot-long board set on the sand. Her best friend, Lorena Ortega, 13, who is also blind, stood nearby listening.

Lupita could feel the soft top of the board. At Campbell's instruction, she lay down on her stomach on the board, braced herself and popped up to her knees.

Campbell then took Lupita's hand and guided her out into the surf. Once again, she climbed atop the board. Although she couldn't see the waves, she could taste the difference from the chlorinated water in the pools where she normally swims. At first, she thought she could sense when a big wave was coming, but then a few small waves surprised her.

She could feel Campbell holding the back of the board to steady her. When he told her to stand, she did, and he kept holding on, bodysurfing behind the board as Lupita surfed to shore. She smiled at the feeling of the board bouncing under her.

On the shore, Lorena waited. The girls' mothers met at the hospital and became friends not long after their daughters were each born blind.

Since they were little, Lorena had often followed her more adventurous friend. Now it was her turn to surf.

Just like Lupita, she lay on a board on the beach and practiced popping up. Lorena was more tentative, whispering to the instructor. When it came time to surf, she paused at the water's edge, bent and felt a wave.

Most who came to the beach as part of the Kanoa Aquatics camp, a free program in its ninth year of teaching blind and visually impaired students to surf, were reluctant to get into the water.

Britnee Anis, 18, of Van Nuys, dragged her feet in the wet sand as assistants tried to lead her into the water.

Anis lost her sight two years ago and is also deaf. Talking through a sign language interpreter, Anis said she came to the beach Wednesday to make friends before she starts classes at the Braille Institute in the fall.

As much as the ocean scared her, new people scared her more, Anis explained.

She backed out of the water even as Lorena climbed up on a surfboard to give it a try. When the moment came to stand, Lorena made it up to her knees. Then she fell back into the water.

But she was not giving up.

Again, she floated out into the surf. Again, she climbed onto the board. Again, she heard the instructor telling her that this was the moment, time to stand.

For a brief moment, she popped up to her feet.

It felt like flying, she told Lupita afterward, clutching her friend's sun-warmed arm with a hand still wet and sandy from surfing.

"Don't do that -- you're making me colder!" Lupita said.

"I need sun," Lorena said, turning to face the light.

"I need a wetsuit," Lupita said, shivering.

On the beach under clear skies and a warm sun, the best friends said they have stayed close not because they are blind but because they have so much else in common.

Both love books (in Braille and audio), especially adventures such as the Harry Potter series. They watch Hannah Montana together, cruise shops at the mall and swim at the beach.

They are about the same height, with delicate features, rail-thin builds and long dark hair hanging down their backs. They both want to live independently one day, and realize that in order to do so, they have to push themselves to tackle new and sometimes scary experiences -- from crossing busy streets to surfing.

Lupita is louder. She dreams of traveling to Egypt some day. Lorena, the youngest of six children, is shy and quiet. Lupita, the fourth of eight children, often draws her friend out.

"My mother says I do stuff no one else dares to try," Lupita said with a shrug.

As nearby beachgoers dragged boogie boards along the sand and played volleyball, the girls talked about how big the waves seemed, how others might be afraid but the only thing that bothered them was the cold -- and the bulbous seaweed, which some children said felt like little lightbulbs.

When a teacher asked if they wanted to keep surfing, they said no. It was not that they were frustrated or tired or afraid. Their complaint was far more common for their age: They were bored. So they headed for their towels instead, more interested in talking about plans for Lupita's 13th birthday this Saturday than taking one more ride on the waves.

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molly.hennessy-fiske@latimes.com

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