I have always been close with my father. I may make fun of his big belly now, but we are best friends. He’s my hero and he has always encouraged me to do anything. Before I was even born, my father had dreams of me becoming a pro surfer. He even named me after champion surfer Derek Ho. However, I was born blind due to congenital glaucoma.
It goes with out saying that surfing is a dangerous sport. In split seconds, a crashing wave can slam a surfer against the ocean floor, or drown them. Without being able to see a wave break, everyone warned me that surfing was just too dangerous for a blind man.
Tired of being told I couldn’t do something, at age 17 I decided to make my father’s dream come true and took up surfing. I wanted to show everyone what a blind man can do.
I worked every day on my surfing with family, friends and coaches. It wasn’t until a video of me surfing went viral in 2012 that everything changed. Overnight, I became an inspiration to surfers all over the world, including pro champions Kelly Slater, Damien Hobgood, Laird Hamilton and Rob Machado, just to name a few.
No one could comprehend how a blind man could surf. I can’t see the waves like you do, but I can feel them and hear them better than you can. Surfing has taken me to heights beyond my wildest dreams.
I have gone on to be featured by World Surf League and Surf Channel Network – and I even inspired a movie “Beyond Sight,” a documentary of my journey to riding Pipeline on the North Shore of Oahu.
It was while I was on a world tour promoting my documentary that I met my wife, Madeline, who this past spring came up with the perfect surprise for my birthday: a guide dog! She had it all planned out. She would submit my application to Guide Dogs of America without my knowing, and pick up the dog to surprise me at my birthday party.
Everything was going according to plan until Madeline learned that I would have to stay on campus for three weeks of training. The secret was out, but I was overjoyed to find out that I would be receiving my first guide dog.
With a last-minute opening, I was accepted to the June class, #405. I was matched with a sweet, yellow lab named Serenity.
We took off, blazing a pace that had trainers running to keep up with us. The instructors were so incredible at teaching me how to bond with my dog. They really took the time to listen to what I need in my life.
It was so special seeing how much I could learn in such a short amount of time. Class was seriously amazing. We had so much fun hanging out and talking with other students about our journeys – I actually really miss being in class. (When is the next class? Maybe I can come back and just hang out, I loved it that much.)
Since returning home with Serenity, I quickly realized the benefits of having a guide dog. It’s been amazing to be back home. At times it has been a little frustrating, but I can see her developing every day, how amazing my dog really is. She’s doing great and getting better each day. To walk on sidewalkless streets down to the beach is so much easier. Once I go to a certain place one time, Serenity knows I want to go there when we go back. She gives me much more freedom and mobility to go where I want to go. She gives me a lot of confidence and I trust her. Our relationship is growing every day.
My daily schedule is jam-packed between, surfing, public speaking, Madeline, and of course Serenity. But that does not stop me from continuing my volunteerism. I am particularly proud of my ambassadorship with the Royal Society for the Blind (RSB) in Australia, a non-profit organization that focuses on providing services to people with severe vision impairments. I frequently speak on behalf of the organization and promote them on social media.