On July 4th, 1993 life-long surfer Scott Leason (27 at the time) was working as a clerk at Circle K when two masked gunmen walked in and demanded money. Leason didn't put up a fight, he quietly and quickly followed their orders to empty his register and hand over the cash, somewhere around $50. With his hands-up and despite being compliant, one of the gunmen put a 9mm to Leason's head and pulled the trigger. The bullet entered his left temple, severed his left-eye's optic nerve and chipped his right orbital bone as it exited his head through his eye socket. Miraculously, the bullet missed his brain but it took his vision. Leason would spend the next few years learning the basics of living as a blind man and struggling with the anger of what happened to him. The thought of surfing being a part of his life again never crossed his mind.
A year later Swami's Surf Association member Larry Graff saw a local news report on blind waterskiing. Graff thought, "if blind people could waterski, they could surf," and immediately began developing a program for teaching them to do so—which his personal research included wearing blackout goggles while surfing. Shortly after getting the idea to share the gift of surfing with the visually impaired, The Swami's Surf Association held the first Blind Surf event at Ponto in Carlsbad in 1995.
Five years after the first Blind Surf event, in 2000, Leason was still unaware that surfing was a possibility for him. He had just hit rock bottom and was determined to take control of his life despite the unfair cards he'd been dealt. While visiting San Diego's blind community center, he heard about the Blind Surf event. Leason though about how much he loved surfing and was elated at the prospect of the sport once again being a part of his life. He went to the event. He’s since become competitive surfing champion.
Leason's personal mantra is "Never lose sight of your hopes and dreams," a lesson Leason considers more powerful than the bullet he took to his head. And at 52, it's a lesson that he exemplifies through his competitive surfing and the example of determination he sets, not only for the visually impaired, but for everyone.
Leason will be attending the Swami’s Blind Surf event this Sunday, June 3rd at 7:00am.
SURFER called Leason to talk about the importance the annual Blind Surf event played in his life and how it helped him regain sight of his hopes and dreams.
So you grew up surfing before you lost your vision?
Yeah, I grew up in Newport Beach and started surfing when I was 10 years old.
After you were shot, were you determined to get back in the water right away?
No. My determination was to learn to live as a blind person first. I went and learned all the skills I needed like typing, computers, braille, cooking and all that stuff.
I was training to be a self-defense instructor for the blind during my first vocational rehab contract with the state. I went through their training and everything but they didn't certify me or hire me. I moved on from there and tried my hand at college but couldn't keep up. Then I had four years of being an idiot where I thought I could party my way through being angry at what happened to me.
I ended up in conservatorship because people took advantage of me and my family was upset with me because of that. I ended living in one of those assisted living care facilities and that was my low point. At that point I realized that I just wanted to exercise so I went to the blind community center in San Diego and there I learned about the Blind Surf program and that's where I got to surf again, that was my life saver.
After that I went to the Challenged Athlete's Foundation and got grants. For the past 12 years I've been surfing, waterskiing and wakeboarding through the Mission Bay Aquatic Center.
After you got the basics down on how to live without sight, did the desire to surf come or did you not really think about surfing until you heard about the blind surf events?
The latter. Because I was so busy with everything else I didn't really think about blind surfing. But when I started going to the community center hearing about those events and going to them, that was my saving grace. I grew up doing water sports and they helped me realize I could do them again. I surfed all my life, up and down California's coast, in Hawaii. My favorite spots were Rincon and Trestles.
Did that first blind surf feel the same as it did when you were younger?
I felt comfortable right away. The way that they do it is that they have 4-5 people per blind person and they're touching the blind surfer at all times. I kept yelling, "No don't touch! Just tell me what's going on!" I only wanted verbal instructions because I'm an experienced surfer. Pat Webber, my old coach and owner of San Diego Surfing Academy, would take me out surfing one on one and would help me for the first three years of competition. Now I can basically surf with anyone who can verbally give me directions.
I like to paddle out by myself and crash through the waves. Then once I'm out there someone will tell me, "ok, little right or little left, lie down, paddle slow, half speed, alright PADDLE PADDLE!" and then they'll yell, "UP!" once I have the wave and can really feel it taking me.
I currently practice in the shorebreak at Mission Beach, which is good because it helps me practice popping to my feet faster so I don't get shoved nose first into the bottom.
Tell me about your experience surfing competitively.
Three years ago they came up with the World Adaptive Surfing Championships. The Challenged Athletes Foundation was involved with the event and I'm very involved with them so I kind of emailed my way in so I could be one of three blind surfers from around the world to compete. We had to compete against the sighted one-legged prosthetic surfers. After that, they realized they needed a sight-impaired division. I went to the Nationals and became the first US blind surfing champion.
When I compete at the World's, some of those visually impaired surfers have a little bit of sight. I have no sight at all so some have a little bit of an advantage over me. They're trying to level the playing field by making everyone wear black-out goggles but everyone bitched about it. They'll have to level the playing field somehow for the Paralympics.
At the first team competition of adaptive surfing we got silver and last year we got bronze. I've been the very first, current and two-time US blind surfing champion. I'll be defending that in June in Oceanside at USA Surfing. They're involved with the Olympics and Paralympics. We tried to go to the Paralympics in 2024 in Paris but they didn't accept parasurfing.
Congrats on everything you've won so far.
Thanks. At 50 years old I went to the Challenged Athlete's Foundation and got a grant so I could learn to waterski. I'm going to my sixth disabled waterski nationals in September. This year I'll be going to my first wakeboard tournament, I've been working on that for three years.
How have other visually impaired people's responses been to the Blind Surf events?
It's been awesome! The Swami's Surf Association had a couple of visually impaired attendees at events who can't even swim but they still had them out on surfboards. Even if they don't get to their feet, they still get to feel what it's like to ride a wave. It's such an awesome thing for someone who's never seen surf, or been in it, to come out and safely get to ride a wave. It's really cool for young visually impaired people to learn surfing because when it comes time for them to learn anything else in life, it's a piece of cake. It's an awesome program and they do a really good job. A lot of the visually impaired love to do it and look forward to the event every year.
Do you feel like the Blind Surf event helped return the gift of the ocean to your life?
After I was blinded, the first opportunity I got to surf was this program. It was really cool to just be back in the ocean, to paddle out and crash through the waves and to just sit and wait for waves. To have everything that is associated with surfing back in my life felt really good, like being in tune with Mother Nature and having respect for the sea.
Adaptive surfing is growing so fast and I'm privileged and honored to a part of the adaptive surf community. Being able to promote the sport of surfing, something I've loved since I was a kid, is an honor. I’m so grateful to Swami’s Surf Association for the opportunity.
For more from Scott Leason, visit Never Lose Sight.
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