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Sun and fun show for Surf's Up for Down Syndrome
HUNTINGTON BEACH – John Fisher balanced on the teetering surfboard, planting his feet firmly as he rode the whitewash to shore.
"There he goes, he's standing up, he's standing up!" his mom Ellie exclaimed, watching as her 15-year-old son threw two fists in the air, claiming victory at his achievement with a smile splashed across his face.
Fisher would claim the "Wave of the Day" at the second annual Surf's Up for Down Syndrome event, held under sunny skies Saturday morning, an event that brought out about a dozen special-needs surfers to enjoy the thrill of catching a wave. Huntington Beach junior lifeguards, pro surfers, and volunteers came out to help.
The event was created by Rex and Jennifer Hudler, who started the nonprofit Team Up for Down Syndrome in honor of their son Cade, 16, who was among the surfers. Rex Hudler is a former pro baseball player and game announcer.
Rex said Cade – like many of the participants – couldn't wait for this year's event, asking about it for months.
"For the last three weeks, he's been wearing me out. 'Daddy, surf's up, I can't wait'!" Rex Hudler said with a smile. "This morning, he sprang out of bed and looked out the window, pointing to the ocean."
The event started with the junior guard volunteers meeting their designated surfers, and a safety briefing for those helping out in the surf. It was the first year the junior guards have joined the effort.
"I was pretty excited. I'm pretty pumped on teaching them. They seem pretty enthusiastic about surfing," said junior guard Joel Rivers, 15. "We make them see that they are not that different."
Lifeguard chief Kyle Lindo said this event goes along with the junior lifeguard mission statement to ensure that education is their number one priority.
"We all have challenges is life and this just kind of opens our eyes. It's just rewarding to be able to help people. Getting out in the water and catching a wave for them, for anybody, it really builds a foundation in you that lets you feel that you can be successful with anything you do," Lindo said. "If we can get them to stand up on a wave – or even if they don't stand up – it's a sense of accomplishment and achievement they'll carry with them for the rest of their lives."
Down syndrome is a genetic disorder that alters development and affects nearly 400,000 people living in the United States. Each year, 6,000 babies are born with Down syndrome, according to the National Down Syndrome Society.
Funds from the event will go to The Friends of the Huntington Beach City Junior Lifeguards, a nonprofit that raises money for the junior lifeguard program, which celebrates its 50th year anniversary this year. It will also raise funds for scholarships and a new surf program for youths with Down syndrome.
Pro surfer Courtney Conlogue, of Santa Ana, was excited to share her passion.
"To be able to help with something like this is absolutely amazing. You can see these kids are just glowing right now. You can see them pretty much jumping out of their wetsuits, they are so excited to go out," she said. "I look forward to just teaching them something that I've always loved."
Before heading out, Lisa Fraser asks her son Jeremy, 12, if he was going to catch some big waves.
"Duh!" he says, smiling.
He quietly whispers to her: "Are there sharks out there?"
When Lisa assured him the sharks were nowhere near, he wrapped his arms around her with a tight hug and said, "I love my mom!"
"He loves to take part in every activity he can," she said. "He loves it. I love it."
Any lingering fears dissolved as the children hit the surf and took on waves, some riding on their tummies while others stood on their feet. Others were knocked over by the waves, but came up from the frigid ocean smiling.
Tim Sibus watched as son Cole, 15, took on the waves. They spend time on their boat and Cole loves wake surfing, and any time they go to the beach, it's tough to get him out of the water. Tim and wife Kristi cheered as they watched their son surf.
"It was awesome to see him stand up, ride the wave in, and have to jump off the board because he literally rode it long enough that he had to get off of it before he hit the shore," Tim said.
Rex Hudler said the day is more than just surfing – it's also about educating people about people with "Up syndrome," as he calls it.
"It's spreading the word that these kids with 'Up syndrome' have a special life and a special enthusiasm for other people," he said. "It's an unconditional love that never burns out, the flame always burns – it burns even brighter when they do something they've only dreamed about doing."
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