You can’t help but smile when you see a quadriplegic athlete wakesurfing behind a boat—the smile beaming from their face is contagious. And thanks to the work of Lexi Youngberg, founder of Brave the Wave, more disabled people are getting the opportunity to learn how to wakesurf and see firsthand why it’s so popular.
“To me, water sports are healing and something that can bring so much life to anyone,” she says. “Getting someone out on the water and seeing them accomplish something that they don’t think they’re capable of is really rewarding.”
Lexi grew up on the water, spending her summers on Spring Lake in Michigan with her family. At the age of 16, however, her life took a drastic change of course. Lexi was riding on a Sea-Doo with two friends. It was Labor Day Weekend, and she was the middle passenger when the PWC was struck from behind by a boat running 40-plus knots. After impact, one of the boat’s propellers severed Lexi’s left leg below the knee. The rear passenger on the Sea-Doo sustained only minor injuries, but her friend driving the Sea-Doo was killed.
“My friend passing away was more impactful than becoming an amputee,” she says. “I was thankful to be alive, and I wanted to get back to doing what I did before.”
She wasted no time. The following summer, she was back on the water.
While in college, Lexi, now 27, spent her summers teaching wakesurfing for Tommy’s Slalom Shop, which has dealerships/stores in Florida, Colorado and Michigan. She enjoyed sharing her passion, and an idea sparked.
“As I taught more and more people, I realized this is something that I can teach to just about anyone,” she says. Lexi pitched Tommy’s the idea to create an adaptive sports event where people with various disabilities can meet with prosthetists, try out the gear and learn how to get up and ride the wake. Tommy’s didn’t hesitate to support her—Brave the Wave was born. At each event, all of the boats and equipment are provided free of charge, and professional instructors help the riders achieve their goals.
Now in its third year, it continues to expand. The organization recently partnered with Malibu Boats, and Lexi and her team will join Malibu over the summer, traveling the country, hosting demos and teaching people how to wakesurf.
“This program is more life-changing than I ever realized it’d be when I started it,” Lexi says. “For me, as an amputee and growing up on the water, wakesurfing and being out on the water is so important to me. It’s who I am at my core.”
Brave the Wave works with individuals who have a wide spectrum of impairments. Each athlete is coached depending upon his or her abilities. The instructors may ride side-by-side with them, or start them on their knees: “Whatever the level of ability, we will figure out a way for each person to surf,” she says.
For paralyzed wakesurfers, that means surfing from a “cage,” which is a custom, adjustable chair that mounts to the board. To get up on a wave, the rider starts by using a tow rope behind the boat. Once up, they drop the rope and can ride the wake. “A lot of seated riders pick up the surfing aspect quickly. To stabilize the cage in the water, though, takes some time. Everyone has to drink a little water to learn how to wakesurf,” she says with a laugh.
Being able to share the joy of spending time on the water is a gift that Lexi is happy to pass along. “There is something special about seeing them get up for the first time—it’s a really cool moment,” she says. “It’s not just about getting them in the water and teaching them to surf, it’s about showing them what’s out there and what they’re capable of.”
Brave the Wave hopes to host 10 to 15 single-day clinics around the country this coming summer (2021).