USC PT Students Hit the Beach to Lend a Hand


It was a gloomy and windy Saturday for the annual They Will Surf Again event in Malibu. In spite of the chill in the air, Devon LeBlanc was all smiles as she sat, perched in her wheelchair, waiting for her turn to get immersed in the frigid water for a chance to catch a wave.

“I am super excited,” said LeBlanc, who was participating in They Will Surf Again for her third time on April 13 at Zuma Beach. “I like it because, even though I have a disability, it makes me feel like I can do sports.” 

Upward of 50 USC students from the Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy were on hand to help the nearly 40 surfers, all of whom had some kind of disability, experience the thrill of surfing. Making sure the event is safe and fun involves a huge group of volunteers and USC’s physical therapy students were one of the largest groups assisting with the event. 

They Will Surf Again is part of Life Rolls On, a series of quality of life programs affiliated with the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, for people with spinal cord injuries, most of them paraplegics and quadriplegics. They Will Surf Again was started about 13 years ago by Jesse Billauer, a Los Angeles surfer who was paralyzed in a surfing accident, and provides participants the opportunity to ride waves with the use of adaptive equipment. 

For participants, the day is largely about fun and taking advantage of the chance to experience mobility through surfing. But it also gives them the opportunity to network with other individuals and families facing similar challenges. Most importantly, perhaps, it is meant to inspire them to reach for new goals despite their mobility challenges.

USC’s physical therapy students have been active participants, as part of the Division’s service learning programs, with They Will Surf Again for several years. The service learning aspect of the Division’s curriculum aims to get students out of the classroom to practice the skills they learned during their coursework at USC. 

With They Will Surf Again, they assisted the dozens of surfers in all aspects of the day, from preparing them for the experience and helping to safely transfer them from their wheelchairs and onto the surfboards. They also got into the water, swimming or wading alongside the surfers, to make sure someone was nearby in the event one of the surfers fell off the surfboard. 

Courtney Sanford, a second year student in the Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) program, was participating in her fourth They Will Surf Again event. She got involved because of her interest in working with patients with neurologic disorders. “This is one way to get exposed to people with different conditions,” she said, adding that it serves as a reminder to consider each patient’s specific needs, even when it comes to simple tasks such as transferring them.

For Tim Chen, also a second year DPT student, it was his first time volunteering with They Will Surf Again. He said seeing the surfers braving the choppy water was inspirational. In the clinic, he noted, patients with severe spinal cord injuries are among the toughest cases for most physical therapists. Seeing them enjoy a day of sports and camaraderie reinforced in his mind that physical therapy is, at its core, about helping patients reach new heights in spite of their physical challenges.