Last year, Kai Colless, a 16-year-old from Burleigh Heads was on a surfing holiday in France with his family when he started to lose function in his legs. Kai was diagnosed with a rare condition called Arteriovenous Malformation (AVM) that caused swelling of his spinal cord and a lack of oxygenated blood to his lower limbs causing some nerve damage and muscle atrophy.
Two weeks ago, Kai won a World Title at the US Adaptive Surfing Championships in his division and has now qualified to represent Australia at the ISA World Para Surfing Championship at Huntington Beach in California next month.
Kai only got out of hospital in December after lifesaving surgery and is currently in a wheelchair and working on gaining more leg function. Fast forward a few months, Kai is now a World Champion and is looking forward to being part of the Irukandjis Team next month.
Q: Kai, congratulations on your incredible achievement at the US Adaptive Surfing Championships! Can you share with us what winning the World Title in your division means to you personally and for the adaptive surfing community as a whole?
“Winning a World Championship is still sinking in I think. It felt pretty awesome being an Australian and one of the youngest competitors in the comp to have the chance to travel the world surfing some of the most iconic spots and coming away with the win against some other really great competitors from all around the world”
Q: Your journey from a surfing holiday to being diagnosed with Arteriovenous Malformation and then undergoing lifesaving surgery to winning a World Title is truly remarkable. Could you tell us more about the mental and emotional challenges you faced during this challenging time, and how surfing played a role in your recovery?
“Yes it’s been a rollercoaster. From the highest of highs to the lowest of lows really.
My parents have had me in the ocean since I was 6 weeks old. I’ve been tandem surfing with my Dad since I was two and I love all things ocean – surfing, bodyboarding, foilboarding, spear fishing jet skiing, Surf Life Saving etc. my mates or family and I are never far from the water. I was in hospital in Brisbane for months and being locked inside those four walls was pretty depressing. Im very fortunate to live by the beach in Palm Beach on the Gold Coast. My parents knew that getting me home and back into the ocean was going to be the best thing for my mental health whilst also helping me get stronger. When we got home from hospital they gave me the goal to get back into the water surfing laying down, and that if I did that a few times a week that they would send me on a trip to Hawaii for the Adaptive Surfing Championships. They thought it would be good for me to meet other people in similar circumstances as me still doing what they love! It’s a lot more difficult to just go Surfing these days. I’ve needed someone to carry me into the water but being back out there feels pretty awesome. There’s something unexplainable about being in the ocean for me, a calmness. So that’s where it started, I got back in the water, went to Hawaii and unexpectedly won!”
Q: Being part of the Irukandjis Team and representing Australia at the ISA World Para Surfing Championship must be a dream come true. Can you describe the level of excitement and how you’re feeling as you prepare for this competition in California?
“To be honest, I never imagined representing my country at surfing. I used to compete at Snapper Boardriders when I was younger but since then I’ve only surfed for the love of it. I’m pretty competitive though and have always been involved in competitive sport so to find competitive adaptive surfing since my injury has been awesome. I’m pumped to be putting on the green and gold and to be competing for my Country over at the ISA Worlds alongside a team of legends”
Q: For those who may not be familiar with adaptive surfing, could you explain some of the adaptive techniques and equipment you use to surf competitively? What advice would you give to others who may be facing physical challenges and want to pursue their passion for surfing?
“Woody from Wood Surfboards in Lennox has helped me design a couple of boards that I’m super happy with. One for smaller conditions and another a little more aggressive for bigger conditions. Both boards have a strap across the front that I can hold onto with one hand that gives me more maneuverability. To anyone thinking of getting into adaptive surfing, I would say do it! There is a division for everyone, the community is really inclusive and welcoming and its super fun.
Q: Looking ahead, what are your future goals and aspirations? Are there any messages or inspirations you’d like to share with young athletes facing obstacles on their journey?
“I’m still on my own journey, but I guess my biggest goal is to keep strengthening my legs to hopefully get back up walking again. As far as my surfing goes, I’ve won the Professional Prone Adaptive World Championship Tour Title and have made the Irukandji’s team…. it doesn’t get much better than this… unless Adaptive Surfing is added to the Olympics, that would be pretty awesome. I hope that my journey might have inspired other young athletes to chase their dreams. Life doesn’t have to end because you suffer a set back. One of my trainers recently said to me “You had the choice to sink or swim. You swam. Then you surfed. Then you won and now your a World Champion”. We all have points in our lives that we get to choose to sink or swim. I’m so glad my family and friends have pushed me to swim.”