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Defying the odds, one man rides his wave

Zach Platt can barely use his arms, but that doesn't stop him from skimboarding.

In an explicable display of finesse, determination and years of practice, Platt, 32, manages to use his feet to push a skimboard down the sand, then hurl himself onto the board and into a wave.

In some sense, he was just like all the other competitors at last weekend's 40th annual Victoria Skimboards World Championship of Skimboarding, aka "The Vic," in Laguna Beach.

But make no mistake, Platt is unlike anyone else.

Platt was born with a rare condition called arthrogryposis, which describes joints that have contracted, meaning they don't move normally and may even be stuck in one position, in Platt's case the shoulder and arm joints. This has caused his muscles to weaken and wither.

Most children with the condition live a life of physical compromise, but not Platt.

On his native Maui, surfing was a lifestyle, and he was going to participate one way or another.

"Growing up, mostly I was told, 'You're not going to be able to do that,' or 'Everything's going to be hard,' or 'You can't,' or 'Everything is impossible,'" he said. "So I had to be really hardheaded to prove to people and myself that anything is possible. You just need to put your mind to it."

He had to let go, however, of the idea of surfing in the traditional sense.

"I've always wanted to be able to surf, but I can't stand up on a surfboard because I can't do a pushup," he said. "So skimming was the next best thing."

Platt was 13 when he got the skimboarding bug. His buddy had a wooden board, and Platt watched with fascination.

"Everyone throws the board with their hands, so I tried that to conform like everyone else," he said. "I realized pretty quick that that wasn't going to work. So I figured out that I could push it with my foot and run and jump on just like my skateboard at home. It was the same kind of motion."

While that sounded good on paper — or sand, as it were — in real life it proved extremely difficult.

"There was still a lot of learning curve for sure," he said. "I put in several years before I could actually ride a wave."

Consider that for a minute. The sport he knew he wanted to master, the only sport that he would ever do, and it took him several years before he could even ride his first wave.

One reason had to do with where he lives. The small town of Kula on Maui is what the locals call "up-country." It's basically about 3,000 feet up the side of the volcano Haleakalā.

As a result, in order to skim, Platt had to bum rides down to his favorite beach, Big Beach in Makena, about an hour away.

But when he was there, he soaked it all in — and practiced and practiced.

"I've certainly gone through a few periods where I've considered quitting," he said. "I've had stitches in my head multiple times."

Once he started to get the hang of it, he adopted the style popular in Hawaii, which is different from that in California.

"Our style of doing skimming over here is all about doing big air off the back," he said from his home in Kula. "So I was watching the older generation doing flips and doing airs, so I was more intrigued to follow in their footsteps."

He was 17 when he entered his first contest. By then, his local skimboarding peers knew him, but some of the spectators did not. Their reactions were not always supportive.

"Honestly, there's a lot of really bad stuff that kind of bothers me," he said. "They don't go about it in a very respectful way, in my opinion."

He said most people just want to know what he has. But he also admits to just wanting to blend in.

"That's what I really enjoy about skimboarding, because as soon as I start skimming, they look at me as that skimboarding guy doing backflips instead of the handicapped guy," he said. "And it really does put me on a level playing field. I get to feel the transformation."

Fellow skimboarders have embraced Platt in Laguna. Former world champion Bill "Beaker" Bryan could not stop smiling and rooting for Platt in Sunday's final, treating him like a younger brother. It's Platt's fourth time at the Vic. In 2013, he won fourth in his amateur bracket and overall "best sportsmanship" award.

"Every year they're really warming up to me a whole lot more. Everyone is really stoked to see me out there. I progressed a lot since I started going to the Vic. Now that I'm doing as well as some of these guys — or better than some of these guys — they're getting really respectful and really cool."

Winning at the Vic has been a lifelong dream for Platt. On Sunday, he took first place in his bracket of 30- to 35-year-olds. After he won, he didn't stop smiling for hours.

"The Vic has always been the pinnacle of skimboarding for me," he said. "You know? World championships. I'm just amazed and still in disbelief that dedication and hard work can pay off."

For him, the achievement goes beyond sports.

"It's easy when you're handicapped to be put into a category, and we are just kind of shunned. It shouldn't be like that. Don't let your physical handicap get to you. Don't let that be the thing that stops you from doing what you want to do — whatever it is.

"Everyone should be able to shine in the light."

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at hansen.dave@gmail.com.

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