How Adaptive Surfing Saved Parker Olenick’s Life

Parker Olenick © Shuji Izumo

By Allie Murray

Born into a family of ocean lovers and living in San Diego, Parker Olenick felt a natural draw to the water. Then, when he was two years old, he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, altering the way he could experience that personal connection with the water. He knew he needed to find a unique way to satisfy the love he felt for the ocean—and that unique way helped him find his calling in life—surfing.

When Olenick was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, he was given a list of things he wouldn’t be able to do—water sports being one of them. He took that as a challenge to work hard and persevere, and be able to do the unthinkable.

“Everybody has something unique about them,” Olenick noted. “Once we figure out that we are all unique, we can make a difference in this community and other communities around us.”

Olenick’s love for the ocean introduced him to the world of adaptive surfing, which creates a way for surfers with disabilities or challenges to take part in the sport in a way that works for them. Utilizing special equipment or adaptive technology, the surfer can find ways to match their abilities and grow a passion for the sport.

That passion is ever-prevalent in Olenick’s life. So much so that he is advocating for the sport to be added to the 2028 Paralympic Games in Los Angeles.

Earlier this year, the International Paralympic Committee announced that adaptive surfing was being considered as one of the 22 sports included in the international competition. This, Olenick believes, is an addition that would make the sport that much more popular among disabled athletes and spectators alike.

parker olenick
Photo © Courtesy of Parker Olenick

“I have a feeling that the more people we can introduce to our sport, the faster the sport will grow,” he explained. “The one thing I believe that the para surfing community is lacking, within the public arena, is publicity. We don’t have a lot of spectators, even at high-profile events, but once somebody does come to watch or volunteer, they come to everything, and they fully embrace this community.”

In addition to his love for the sport, Olenick has a passion for spreading positivity and uplifting others. In second grade, Olenick started motivational speaking. It started with a presentation to his school during Cerebral Palsy Awareness Month, and since then, he has spoken at universities and corporations across the state of California.

His motivational speaking has been well received, with participants noting that they were inspired to give back to the community and take on challenges in their own lives that they didn’t think were possible.

Olenick shared that during the pandemic was when he started to focus on not only spreading positivity, but focusing on a positive approach in his own life and personal goals.

“During the pandemic, I wasn’t surfing, socializing or exercising due to the restrictions,” he explained. “I fell into a really dark place emotionally, but with the help of my father and some friends, they pushed me to start going to the beach every day. And then one week of surfing very quickly turned into 90 consecutive days of surfing. During this time, I could feel my mood improve, my body feel healthier and even my grades improved. I know for sure that during this time surfing saved my life.”

Looking forward to the future of his career, hopeful of becoming a Paralympian and representing his country in his home state, Olenick has high hopes for the future of his sport. He encourages other adaptive surfers to push themselves to achieve their dreams, just as he has.

“The message that I have for future adaptive surfers is that surfing might seem impossible, like there are too many roadblocks in the way,” he said. “Whether it’s people telling you that you can’t do it, or accessibility issues. It’s definitely worth it. It is worth pushing past these roadblocks and getting over that fear of the unknown. Because once you touch that water, it’ll change your life forever.”

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