How core are you? Fabrizio Passetti made his own artificial leg so he could surf
With so much emphasis on adaptive surfing and wave pools, it’s easy to get the impression that any surfing amputee can do it. But, there are so many things that enter the equation beyond sheer drive and determination. You have to find the right equipment for one, which means being equal parts athlete and inventor. Many prosthetics are simply designed for walking, maybe running – surfing is a whole other realm.
Fabrizio Passetti broke and lost his first prosthetic when he tried to surf on it. He then spent years refining the equipment with both success and failure. But he persevered and recently made the trip to Alaia Bay in nearby southern Switzerland. Here’s how it went…
Tell us about yourself: Age, job, how you started surfing and why you
kept going after the amputation.
I work as a chef. I am Italian, born in Genoa, and then I moved to Varazze at the age of 11, and at that age and in that area I started surfing. Varazze is the most beautiful wave we have here in Italy. When I started surfing, it was not just a sport but my whole life. After a year I started competing, even if I preferred free surfing. I continued surfing until the day of my motorcycle accident. Following that incident two just months after my 18th birthday, I had my leg amputated. This was in 2000. Unfortunately, after my accident, I had to stop surfing for 13 years because in those years there were no prosthetics at, least in Italy, that allowed me to enter the sea to do my sport. Right from the start, I tried, but it had always been useless. I lost my prosthesis at sea, it broke immediately after a half-hour session, plus the prostheses were very expensive since I had no health insurance, and then after a few years I gave up. I tried to forget about surfing, but I couldn’t. Surfing was everything to me. I was too hurt not to be able to practice, so much that a couple of times I tried to kill myself. Then my son was born, and he was my strength and I found, especially in him, the will to fight and live.
I try to explain a concept that I find difficult to explain in English, and difficult to understand for those who do not have a leg prosthesis, it’s the difficulty of surfing for those who have a prosthesis. Non-adaptive people think leg amputations are all the same, but they’re not. My amputation is one of the most difficult to fit with a prosthetic. My amputation is very short and I have steel splints that block my knee from bending. I have only 30 percent capability for knee bending.
For this reason I had to make and invent many changes over the years to get to find the perfect prosthesis to surf. My prosthesis for surfing is 7 centimeters lower than my real leg. I had to invent an ankle to compensate that my knee doesn’t bend. I had to find lighter and stronger materials.
What do you do in summer when the Mediterranean is flat?
In the years since I started surfing again I spend all my summers in Indonesia, in Bali. But unfortunately with COVID I lost my main sponsor who supported me with prosthetics and a small salary that helped me keep surfing, so for two years in the summer I was stuck in Italy and I used my time to work all day every day in the kitchen. But the hardest thing is that in summer in Italy the sea is always flat. For this reason, my intention is to move to live in Bali, so I can do my job and at the same time be able to continue surfing.
Which wave pools have you surfed?
I managed to surf a few hours in Alaia Bay and it was a fantastic experience. I was supposed to come back a month later, Alaia’s guys were really nice and they gave me the chance to come
back. I wanted to try to be the first amputee to get barrelled in the pool, but then my working season started, and I never got a chance to travel again. In September when the season ends I hope they give me another opportunity to come back. Among other things my surfboard sponsor “Black Magic” made me a perfect board for this event, so fingers crossed.
How was your experience at Alaia Bay?
Fantastic. It’s a wonderful place in the middle of the Swiss Alps, a place nothing short of surreal. We were invited before the official opening so I and the publisher of 4Surf, an Italian surf magazine, along with athletes from the national team. We had so much fun. I was very agitated, the water at first felt very heavy in comparison to the sea, and not having the knee joint I really felt very this difference. I had to change my ankle material to make it softer, and then I was very anxious. I did not try any maneuvers for fear of getting in the way of the surfers taking the next wave. The Barrel setting creates an awesome slab – really fun!
Do you compete in adaptive surfing events?
I participated in the first and second editions of the World Championship in California, and I will also participate in the one this year. I would like to participate in all the surf contests but unfortunately, the Italian federation only supports para-athletes for a single competition in California. I hope that from that moment on they will support the athletes for other contests and that they will give the right value and importance to this sport because it could inspire many people, not so much for me but for future generations that will come after me
How can wave pools facilitate adaptive surfing?
Once surfing seemed like an unattainable goal for a disabled person. Now, with wave pools, you can adapt any disability to a certain type of wave. It is an interesting point to consider. While everyday surfers might view wave pools as a place to repeat, adaptive surfers are offered safer places to learn, train, and ultimately prepare for the unpredictability of the ocean – something that takes on a new world of meaning when you are doing everything without the use of a major limb. Surfing could really change, if wave pools had been around in my day I would not have had to spend so many years to improve and experiment with different prosthetic mechanics.