[Tickets are selling fast for the Blue Earth Summit, taking place this Wednesday the 13th of October in Bristol. The event sees business founders, adventurers and activists convene for two days of talks and workshops tackling the question of how we can live more sustainably. Find out more about the event here.]
Cornwall-born athlete Melissa Reid’s list of sporting accomplishments is long enough to make your jaw drop, including but not inclusive of her paratriathlon Olympic Bronze medal in Rio Brazil in 2016, her 2 World titles in the AmpSurf ISA World Para Surfing Championships (making her Britain’s only ever surfing World Champion), being named Cornwall’s Young Coach of the Year in 2012 and the BBC’s South West Disabled Athlete of the Year in 2013. Make no bones about it, whether it’s dropping into bombs at Aggie or passionately working to widen the opportunities for people with disabilities in surfing, being born with a visual impairment hasn’t held Melissa Reid back one jot. We catch up with the decorated Champion ahead of her appearance at the Blue Earth Summit.
SE: The list of your accolades is incredible and isn’t just limited to surfing, with your Paralympic medal, European and World titles for paratriathlon, plus swimming and surf lifesaving backgrounds too. Has sport always been such a massive part of your life?
MR: Sport was a big influence in my upbringing. As soon as someone tried to exclude me and go, oh, you need to go over there with the other kids who are visually impaired, I basically just gave them the finger and said I’m not going to do it. My parents were like, you’re going to learn to cycle, I’m not having a child that can’t ride a bike. And that was pretty much the start of it.
And then living in Cornwall, I loved going in the sea…My dad went to this surf lesson and said, here’s where you can have a surf lesson with me. That was when I was about eight. Literally, the first time I just stood on a board that was that, I fell in love with it. But again, we just didn’t tell anyone that I couldn’t see. If they told anyone, I got treated differently. They thought you wouldn’t be able to do anything.
We also did surf life-saving growing up, and used to play on skateboards. You know, just everything that an outdoorsy kid would do. There was just kind of like, no limits. Then you’d go into education and school, and that’s where I really struggled, like, you can’t see the board, the printouts and things like that.. But when it came to sport, there was always a way around it, and you’d figure it out.
SE: It seems like you had a really dogged determination. Do you think access to surfing now versus when you were a child has improved for people with visual disabilities like your own or other individuals that are working with different disabilities?
MR: I think some things have definitely improved for people with a disability to try and get involved. Now, with the coaching side of things, they’re training coaches to be more open and more accessible, instead of just the mainstream coaching of being able-bodied. There’s adaptive equipment available now, everything is readily regularly available. The more we do that the easier it’s going to be for everyone to take part. At the moment, it’s not perfect, but it’s certainly getting better. And then you use The Wave which is amazing for getting anybody into the water on a board.
SE: What would be a change for the better that would help people better access surfing?
MR: I think it’s just knowing about it more than anything. If you were to just pick any random disability which would potentially require a little bit more assistance, like for wheelchair users, having boards in each town, then everyone can take part. It’s an equipment thing more than anything. Looking at the instructors which are around at the moment, everyone’s so inclusive, and so willing to learn, you’ve kind of got rid of that stereotype of people being scared to try something new. I think that’s really good, especially having younger coaches because they’re like, well, why not? Let’s try it. It’s fine!
SE: Is it just in competitions that you’d have a spotter with you? Or is that in every kind of surfing situation?
MR I just have them in competitions. I think the first time we did a contest, I think I’d known him (my spotter) for five minutes before we got in the sea. I’m not joking, he gave me a blackeye the first day we met! I’d done the worst wave ever, I just face planted the sand. But it was so funny because he just apologized. Still, now I just rip into him. Like, no matter what happens you’re never going to injure as much as when you gave me a black eye! But it’s about that trust with each other. We have worked together since and are more in tune with each other. Basically, he just gives me the verbal cues of what he can see. It’s like having a script on the TV, for example, he’ll just tell me how big the set is, which way the wave is breaking, if it’s steep, if it’s shallow.
SE How close to you is he sitting?
MR He’s pretty close to me, like in touching distance. He’s a very good surfer himself, so it works out really well. He’s like, I know you’re just going to go for whatever you need to go for so, it’s fine, I can send you down at the last second.
SE When the surf gets bigger or it’s more testing conditions, it can be gnarly even with full vision. How do you tackle the extra challenge of your visual impairment?
MR It depends who’s taking you in the sea. A guy I’ve gone surfing with quite a bit since joining the team is Pegleg. We went over to Aggie last winter, I was like, oh, how big is it? He said it was only a couple of feet. I was okay, cool, let’s go. We paddled out using the rip so then you have no concept of how big it is. The first two waves I said why am I stacking it? He’s like, oh, just commit a little bit more. And I did and then it worked. And Sarah Bunt was taking photos, she goes what did Peg tell you?! I was like he told me it was a few feet, why? She said just wait ‘til you see the photos when you get home. I looked at it, I literally said Holy shit. I was like, Peg did we seriously go out in that?! It was 8 foot.
SE: You must be so in tune with the wave and the ocean.
MR I do have a quite a good sensation of what the water’s doing around me. I guess it’s quite hard to describe because for me it’s second nature, it’s natural. Because I was always visually impaired, I’ve not had to learn to adapt. Not being able to see so for me is normal. I have no depth perception so I don’t know how big the drop is. It’s a case of just taking the drop, and when you slow down, going back up to the top of the wave.
SE: You’re a double World Champion, right?
MR: Yes, hopefully triple by the end of the year.
SE: How did that feel for you to win those world titles?!
MR: That was a weird contest because I’d kind of just got back into surfing. I probably had about five years off, just really just focused on triathlon. I couldn’t get my dream job because of my vision, which was the reason I got into triathlon. I thought well, what else am I going to do? And then I got a really bad back injury, and I wasn’t allowed to cycle or run, but I was allowed to swim and surf.
I got into the women’s final, and we just had an amazing surf. It was fairly close on points up until the last wave, and then the scores went in, (my spotter) he was like dude, everyone’s running into the sea, you’ve won! I was like, are you kidding me? He’s like no, everyone’s running into the sea cheering. It didn’t really sink in at the time how big it was. The first visually impaired female to have a surfing world title and also the first British person to ever win a world title in surfing.
SE Incredible! Surfing obviously kicked off in the Olympics this year. And there are rumours on the grapevine about the Paralympics. Is that something you would be targeting?
MR I mean it’s not going to be in Paris. The chances of it going into LA are looking quite high. I’d love to compete in LA in surfing. I’d like to do both sports at the same time if I’m honest.
SE There’s some amazing visually impaired surfers like Derek Rabelo, who has glaucoma and he’s surfed Pipeline and apparently he’s targeting Jaws, I’m not sure if he’s done it yet. Athletes such as yourselves are achieving so much, what else is on the horizon for you?
MR To be honest, I’m trying to work towards creating a company to get more visually impaired people surfing. If you want to go skateboarding, go skateboarding, if you want to go rock climbing, let’s go rock climbing. I was speaking to a guy last week, he was saying that his cousin’s a blind DJ and everything’s just verbally through his MacBook telling him what to do. The thing I want to get across to everyone is that actually where there’s a will there’s a way. You just need the right support. We’re just in the process of setting a few things up to really provide that and just getting rid of that stereotype of going oh well if this is wrong, you can’t do this, you can’t do that. No, we can do it. .
SE You’re also a speaker as well at the upcoming Blue Earth Summit. Why was it important for you to be part of this event?
MR Do you know what? They asked me if I’d be a part of it and do a speech and I was like are you sure you want me? I am sure there’s better people than me to do a speech, haha, I thought everyone else is just like head and shoulders above what I’ve done!