Building a Foundation after Tragedy

Charles Webb, a paraplegic, lived with chronic pain for years before finding hope on the water

Its roots are seeded in the dream of a 19-year-old boy, a desire that never disappeared despite a life-altering accident, and the help of some very innovative individuals. Stoke for Life is a nonprofit that brings awareness to the rehabilitative benefits of adaptive water sports through clinics and education. The Stoke for Life Foundation has three main goals: hosting free, open clinics to produce further education of adaptive water sports for those with disabilities, increasing beach access for the disabled, and furthering the advancements in adaptive water sports equipment to help people with all levels of disabilities and ailments.

At 19 years old, Charles Webb, the founder of Stoke for Life, had plans to become a professional surfer. He’d travel the world on the Bud Pro Surf Tour, which at the time was the most prestigious surf tour in the world. (It was also run by his brother.)

But on February 7, 1986, Charles was run over by a 1967 Buick Skylark and pinned under the back tire. The accident broke his pelvis, fractured his spine, and pinched his spinal cord. Charles became an T7-8 incomplete paraplegic, meaning that while he has no mobility from the middle of his stomach down, he still has sensation. The sensation, however, is extremely painful; it feels as if there is burning and pins and needles in his feet and legs. Charles also suffers from severe chronic low back and pelvis pain as a result of the accident.

For the next 30 years following the accident, Charles struggled with his identity. He didn’t know who he was without surfing. Doing everything from dealing and using illicit drugs and playing in a band to working in corporate America, Charles could never find the passion and drive he felt when he was in the water. He often contemplated who he was if not a surfer. That is where our Q & A begins.

So, who is Charles Webb without surfing?

The same guy he was with surfing. The sad part of it is that people don’t realize you’re still there. You don’t change—your circumstances change. You have to mutate with them and you have to change and be open to that change. I’m still Charles Webb. I still possess all the things that I possessed before, except for the ability to run the stairs or jump up and down. Those things I lost, but I gained a whole community of people and a whole bunch of other things that I didn’t realize I had gained until 30 years later.

How did the transition from corporate work to Stoke for Life happen?

What really happened was I got injured. In 2010, I tore my left rotator cuff in two places and after about a year and a half of rehabbing it, I tore my right rotator cuff and detached my right bicep. It was honestly more painful than half of the time I spent in the hospital [after the accident]. My shoulder injury was probably the darkest time in my life because I was working, I was self-sufficient, and that all disappeared in an instant. It was through that rehab process that the journey of Stoke for Life began. During my rehab, my brother met [Hawaiian surfer] Kawika Watt, who had created what’s called an “Onit Ability Board”—basically just a wheelchair on top of a paddleboard with outriggers on the sides. He had never met anybody that would ride it. So I did it; basically it was just me thinking I could get back on the water.

What was your first experience on the Onit Ability Board like?

It was instant. Paddling for me was instant relief, instant healing—a whole change in my life and what could happen. It was relief of pain, relief of stress, relief of any mental anguish that I had. It just all faded, and on top of all of that, it was healing my shoulder.

After that first experience paddling, did you continue regularly?

I did. It was part of my rehab for my shoulder and Watt, who became my coach, would always be next to me while I was paddling. After about four months, he sent me an email saying I should participate in a paddleboard race. I didn’t really know what paddleboard racing was, but the race that they suggested was called Battle of the Paddle, and it was at a beach that I had paddled before. So I said, “Sure, why not!” Unbeknownst to me, Battle of the Paddle was the biggest, most elite paddleboard race in the world. When I showed up, there were almost 500 people there to participate in the race. I was the only paraplegic there—in fact, to this day, I am the only paraplegic to compete in an open water paddleboard race. I was actually the first paraplegic to complete a closed water paddleboard race as well.

What was it like to race with all able-bodied people?

It was hard. My coach wasn’t right beside me the entire time because the group was so large and everybody’s paddles were banging together. It took over two hours to paddle the five-mile course and after I fell in, I just went into complete survival mode. It’s really a blur looking back on it now but it was really intense. It also completely changed my life. Some of the best water athletes in the world were coming up to me and saying they were inspired by me. It took my breath away. It was in that instant that I knew everything had changed. I was emotionally unprepared for the response I received—I literally just got in my car and cried. I was overwhelmed by the response of people, that they were so loving and so caring; they were so nonjudgmental, it was liberating. It’s hard to explain the type of freedom it brought to me after I had been stifled by my disability and that I let it define my life and lead the way I was living before then. I was finally defining myself, outside my disability.

Aside from inspiring thousands of people on the beach and meeting some lifelong heroes of yours, how did the Battle of the Paddle change your life?

The entire surfing and stand-up paddleboard community were on the shore that day, so literally hundreds of pictures were being taken of me. All of these pictures went viral, in magazines and on the internet. Then hundreds of disabled people began contacting me asking how they could do something like that and asking where they could get the Onit Ability Board. That really fueled this passion and desire to get other people with disabilities and pain on paddleboards and allow them to experience what I was able to experience.

How did Stoke for Life come to fruition?

I met a guy named Ryan Levinson, who was the first disabled athlete to compete in Battle of the Paddle. Ryan has muscle dystrophy, but he’s an elite athlete and is still not confined to a wheelchair. When I sat down to do an interview with him, he said to me that if I could help these people who were reaching out to me, I would help myself. He said I would fulfill myself in giving back. Ryan really opened my eyes to helping people on a higher level… he said to me, “Help everybody you can. Help the people that ask, help the people that don’t ask. In giving back, you’ll fulfill yourself and you’ll find a new purpose in life.” I also began working with Wesley Stewart at Urban Surfer Kids and began volunteering with foster kids, and he planted the seed of giving back. Ryan planted the seed of giving more.

It was the birth of Stoke for Life, and we took a year to plan, get our 501(c)(3) nonprofit, get a business plan, and a budget. In 2015, I began pitching myself to people. I explained the three areas we wanted to focus on: ocean therapy, advancements in adaptive water sports equipment, and advocating for easier access in our beach and waterway communities. There are so many people on so many levels who, without their help, without their guidance, without their mentorship, I’d still be sitting on a beach with a dream. I’m the face, but I don’t do this alone and never have.

What type of individuals are best suited to work with Stoke for Life?

We have a big disabled community that we work with, and it’s absolutely not just the wheelchair-bound community. Stoke for Life has been able to develop the U.S. Open Adaptive Surfing Championships. In 2018, we hosted 75 adaptive athletes from 14 different countries. We have 13 different divisions in the championships that include paraplegic and quadriplegic, but we also have a division for the blind, one for the deaf, and even a stand-up assisted division for individuals with invisible disabilities. Stoke for Life is a foundation that doesn’t discriminate based on disability. Whether you’re a quadriplegic or a chronic pain patient, Stoke for Life welcomes you and believes the work we are doing would be beneficial to the disabled, or differently abled, community as a whole. Whether it’s for physical or emotional therapy or just to be a part of a great community of people similar to you, people who understand you—it’s a place that can provide all of those things. •