Wiltonian pilots surf retreat
Mark Morris photos
Sara Pollak will begin her junior year at Wilton High School this fall with memories she’ll never forget.
Over summer break, Sara held a five-day surf retreat for girls like herself, with disabilities, in North Carolina.
Sara has Apert syndrome, a rare cranial genetic disorder that causes abnormal skull development and is commonly accompanied by abnormal fusion of hand and foot bones.
In addition to facial surgeries, Sara has undergone 28 surgeries on her hands and feet. Her mother Susan said the disability made “ordinary things difficult” for her daughter to do, but not all were impossible.
Interest in surfing
Sara said she became interested in surfing after watching a movie called Endless Summer. She started surfing about a year ago while visiting her grandmother in North Carolina.
As Sara and her mother were leaving a beach in Topsail Island, they stopped in a surf shop to see if there were any available surfboard rentals or lessons.
One of the shop’s owners, Brian Bedson, told them about the shop’s Surf City School and said he knew “the perfect guy” to teach Sara how to surf — Cody Leutgens, co-owner of the shop and longtime surfer.
Sara’s first surf lesson was the next day at 4 a.m. — a time when waves “usually aren’t good for surfing,” said Sara, but when she got to the beach, “the waves were perfect. It was like a miracle.”
Although the lesson was supposed to be an hour long, Sara wound up surfing for close to two.
She spent the next day practicing but was unable to get up on the surfboard, so she scheduled another lesson with Cody for the following day. Sara said it was during that second lesson that she had her “first great ride.”
“I rode the wave for 17 seconds, which doesn’t sound like a long time, but it was amazing,” said Sara. “I felt on top of the world.”
Susan said seeing her daughter on the surfboard, accomplishing her goal, brought tears of joy to her eyes.
“I felt her energy and drive to overcome all the challenges she’s ever faced,” said Susan, adding that “Cody found Sara to be incredibly unique and a real inspiration.”
Experience to inspiration
When Sara returned to Wilton, she wrote a paper for her English class about her experience in North Carolina.
“The paper wasn’t supposed to be important, but it turned out to be,” said Sara, whose mother sent the paper to Cody, who then sent it to his own mother, Donna Leutgens.
The Pollaks learned that Cody’s mother had severed her foot when she was 20 years old and knew what it was like to have to undergo numerous surgeries.
“The puzzle pieces finally connected [as to] why Cody was so nice and sweet and generous with his time,” said Sara.
Inspired by her story, Donna reached out to Sara and suggested she start a surf camp down in North Carolina.
Donna’s suggestion soon became a reality when the Pollaks piloted Cowabunga Surf Retreat in Surf City, N.C., July 6-10.
However, there was much work to be done before then, including creating and distributing brochures, getting people involved and figuring out dates.
Although getting all that done within a two-month period of time, Susan said, everything managed to fall into place.
“The process itself was a challenge,” she said, “but people canceled plans to attend the retreat because they were so blown away by Sara’s experience.”
To make the retreat “official,” Sara said, she designed and created T-shirts for the retreat, which she sold to relatives, neighbors and teachers at school.
“Everybody that I could think of bought shirts,” said Sara, who also gave the shirts to volunteers at the retreat as a thank-you for their time and assistance.
More than a camp
Sara said she wanted Cowabunga Surf Retreat to be “more than just a camp.”
“I wanted it to be more than just a place to have fun,” she said. “I wanted it to be a place to grow and develop. I wanted it to be different.”
Five girls — ranging in age from 14 to 18 — attended Cowabunga Surf Retreat, three of whom also have Apert syndrome. Donna and Susan lived with the girls in a four-story townhouse owned by a friend of Donna’s.
Donna gathered a team of volunteers for the retreat, which included surf instructors, a nurse, physical therapist, artist, photographer, creative writing instructor and yoga instructor.
Over the course of the five days, the girls took part in activities — from therapeutic yoga, photography and creative writing to stretching, stand-up paddle boarding and, of course, surfing.
“The second day of the retreat was the first day of surfing,” said Sara. “There were so many surfers and volunteers there — it was great.”
“There were eight surfing instructors to handle the release of the girls out into the water and four on shore to get them so that there were no injuries,” said Susan, “which also helped expedite the process so they could get many rides in.”
Although she felt sick the first surfing day, Sara said, she didn’t let it stop her.
“I didn’t want to do anything, but I didn’t want to miss out on seeing my friends’ emotions,” she said. “I didn’t want to miss out on seeing them experience the thrill that I had talked so passionately about [prior to] the retreat.”
As she sat under a tent, watching her friends, Sara said she couldn’t fight the urge to go out and join them.
“My mom said, ‘Go for it,’ so I did. I put on a hat and long-sleeved shirt and practiced my pop-ups on the beach,” said Sara. “It had been a year since I last surfed, but it felt like I had never stopped.”
“The girls surfed for three days and all stood up for at least a second or two,” said Sara’s mother. “There was a huge crowd of cheering strangers.”
Sara said the best part about the retreat was “the whole experience.”
“Just seeing the girls, who have gone through so much, experience their dream and conquer waves that were hard for them,” she said. “They did something that not every teenager would have the nerve to do.”
In the end, Sara said, Cowabunga Surf Retreat turned out even better than she had expected.
Through the retreat, the girls not only developed self-empowerment and awareness of their own inner strengths and hidden talents, but they also made new friends and left with confidence in knowing that they accomplished unique challenges.
To contact Sara, send an email to: email@example.com.