From 6–11 December 2021, surf haven Pismo Beach in California, USA, will host the elite of the para surfing community. They will be there to battle the waves and show off their skills for the sixth edition of the International Surfing Association (ISA) World Para Surfing Championship.
Among them will be Bruno Hansen (DNK), who comes with a pedigree like no other: he has taken world titles at the competition every year it has ran since its debut in 2015, accruing a neck-straining five gold medals.
This year, he will be looking to extend his unbeaten streak, increasing his own record for most golds won at the ISA World Para Surfing Championship to six.
Surfing has been a part of Bruno’s life from a young age, having first climbed onto a board at the age of seven.
In the 1990s, he worked as a surf charter captain, taking professional surfers to off-the-beaten-track “surfbreaks” (the submarine features that cause ideal waves to form) that the masses didn’t know existed.
Suffice it to say, he had plenty of “wave time” under his belt.
At the age of 25, Bruno’s life was changed for ever when he was car-jacked while travelling in Cape Town, South Africa. Although the armed bandits were not successful, during the course of the attack – which involved guns being fired and the car rolling over – his spine was irreparably damaged and he was left paralysed.
Until 2015, when Bruno spotted the first ever World Para Surfing Championship being staged, the notion of returning to surfing hadn’t entered his mind.
“I had no idea what adaptive surfing was or any idea about other athletes. I arrived for the 2015 competition with no board, no uniform, no team and no idea.
“I certainly did not think I was going to win the first competition – never mind five in a row!”
The expression “citizen of the world” is bandied around a lot these days, but nobody could question Bruno’s credentials. He was born in (and competes for) Denmark, grew up in South Africa and has resided for long spells in Indonesia, among other places.
“I have spent my life living out of a bag and constantly on the go, trying to experience life to the fullest,” Bruno told us.
“I’m always being drawn back to the ocean in the end.”
Surfing is a blessing and beautiful curse at the same time, always dictating the travel plans – Bruno Hansen, five-time gold medal winner
Entering a contest as such a favourite can be a double-edged sword, but Bruno is trying to focus on his own preparation and getting the job done.
“I do feel the pressure in competitions as I know all eyes are on me to see if ‘he can do it again’,” he admitted.
“Although winning has given me confidence in other areas of my life, knowing I am the best in the world at what I do.
“I have learned to combine the confidence and the pressure of winning to keep razor sharp and disciplined so as to ‘stay in the zone’.”
As much “in the zone” as Bruno might be, he is taking nothing for granted when it comes to what will happen at this contest.
“Challenges for 2021 will be recovering from six months of hospitalization and illnesses and so not much training – particularly against fellow athletes that are used to the cold water, wetsuits and have much more muscle and leg movement than myself.
“Cold water affects my system more than some others due to the nature of my injury. But challenge is what makes me grit my teeth and strive harder.”
Bruno isn’t the only one heading to Pismo Beach with golden ambitions…
Currently the female record for most golds won at the ISA World Para Surfing Championship is shared by six surfers: Samantha Bloom (AUS), Victoria Feige (CAN), Alana Nichols (USA), Kazune Uchida (JPN), Melissa Reid (UK) and Ann Yoshida (USA). They all have two golds to their name.
Four of these will be gunning for the top spot at the upcoming event in a bid to take the record outright: Bloom, Feige, Nichols and Reid.
British hopeful Melissa Reid has been surfing since she was eight, but only started competing in para surfing in 2018. The two-time Paralympian (she claimed a bronze in the visually impaired triathlon event at the Rio Games in 2016) is blind in one eye and partially sighted in the other.
“It feels pretty surreal going for a third consecutive world title,” she told GWR. “I’m just going out to enjoy the sun and surf and do my best.
“I didn’t realise I [could] have the most women’s world titles… I’d love to get six and try to break the overall record for para surfing!”
The atmosphere [at the World Para Surfing Championship] is amazing. It’s unlike any other competitive sport in the world. It’s like a big family, everyone is there to support each other and make the sport grow – Melissa Reid, two-time gold medal winner
Surfing made its debut as an Olympic discipline at Tokyo 2020, with Brazil and the USA taking the inaugural golds in the men’s and women’s categories, respectively.
Now the ISA is leading the charge calling for para surfing to be designated as an official event at the Paralympic Games.
“Hurry up and make it happen!” is Bruno’s message to the International Paralympic Committee.
“There’s enough money and ability. We may be physically disabled, but a lot of us feel too many able-bodied people are making the decisions for disabled people.
“Para surfing in the wave pool would be the way to go and I can see it happening in the future.
“There are a few of us old dogs that have been involved from the beginning that would love a shot at the Paralympics before we become decrepit and too long in the tooth!”
Former Paralympian Melissa, who participated in triathlons at Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020, echoed Bruno’s enthusiasm: “It would be amazing for surfing to be in the Paralympics. It would be the first ‘extreme sport’ at the Summer Games.”
“It would also be an amazing demonstration that you really can do anything, by having a non-mainstream sport on the biggest stage in the world. What could be more inspiring to the next generation?”
You can follow along with all the action at the 2021 Pismo Beach ISA World Para Surfing Championship via the ISA website where you’ll find all the latest news and a live webcast.