Seven-year-old Reilly Hoagland stepped confidently into the ocean, wading through the swirling currents and breaking waves. He reached up to grab the hand of Hawaiian surfer CJ Kahuna, who was pushing Hoagland’s surfboard through the water.
The second annual Ben Bourgeois Surf Experience Day, Aug. 10 at Wrightsville Beach, offered children like Hoagland, who has cystic fibrosis, the opportunity to ride waves with surf instructors and professional surfers from the Mauli Ola Foundation.
The Mauli Ola Foundation originated as a group of surfers that wanted to introduce surfing as a natural cure for cystic fibrosis. Doctors found cystic fibrosis patients who surfed were healthier than those who did not because the salty spray from the ocean helped clear mucus from the lungs.
The foundation created Surf Experience Day, an event that allows cystic fibrosis patients to surf for three hours alongside professionals like Kanuha, Kala Alexander and Hawaiian champion Sunny Garcia. Volunteers with the Mauli Ola Foundation travel around the United States, bringing Surf Experience Day to coastal communities.
“Since 2009 we’ve done a national tour,” said Hans Hagen, Mauli Ola Foundation executive director. “Every summer we do a tour up and down the East Coast and spread aloha.”
Reilly Hoagland’s mother Laurie Hoagland said surfing helps the children both physically and mentally.
“It’s fun for them because they get a break from their treatments being in the ocean all day,” she said. “Reilly came down here last year and had a little bit of a cold, and after being in the ocean, it cleared up within a day or two instead of having to go on antibiotics.”
Many children learn to surf during a Surf Experience Day and then come back year after year for the opportunity to surf with the professionals who introduced them to the sport. Hoagland said her son might not have found the courage to catch his first wave during the 2013 event had it not been for the bond he formed with Kanuha.
“He went out a couple times with someone else and he fell off his board, he just wasn’t having it,” she said. “CJ saw him and sat with him for a good long time and said, ‘I promise, just go the one time and you can come back in.’ CJ took him out there and he didn’t come back in for three hours.”
Hans Hagen said one of the greatest parts of Surf Experience Day is watching surfing transform the lives of the kids who come back year after year, like 10-year-old Bree Labiak.
“She wants to be the first pro surfer with cystic fibrosis,” her mother Lynn Grayden-Labiak said. “She goes surfing four or five times a week, lifts weights to help build strength for paddling. [She’s] doing phenomenally, happy and healthy, and I credit surfing.”
During the Ben Bourgeois Surf Experience Day, Labiak caught a wave to shore, carving smoothly down the steep, choppy face.
“Oh yeah, I would totally go surfing every single day, no matter what the conditions,” she said while taking a break on the beach between waves. “I love just the stoke that you get from everything that happens [in the water], just being out there feels amazing.”
“You learning anything today?” Grayden-Labiak called out as Bree turned to run back into the ocean. At that moment, Sunny Garcia’s son, Stone Garcia, Mauli Ola volunteer and Hawaiian surfer, walked up.
“She knows it all already,” Garcia said.