A surfer, interrupted

A little more than two years ago, surfer Nathan Gocke paddled out at his usual surf break, stoked to ride the four-foot swell that was rolling in on that foggy winter morning in the South Bay – the same way he did most Saturday mornings.

The 32-year-old Los Angeles native, who had been surfing since his early 20s, never dreamed it might be his last ride.

Gocke's life was about to change forever, as an accident at the break would leave him with a broken neck and paralyzed from the chest down.

"A wave kicked me the wrong way, took me up over the falls and threw me head first into the sand," he explains in Laguna filmmaker and Emmy nominee, Richard Yelland's, documentary, "Floating: The Nathan Gocke Story," which premiered Wednesday on Fuel TV.

The short film, produced by Academy Award nominee Morgan Spurlock and Jeremy Chilnick, will air again at 10:30 a.m. Saturday.

In his story, Gocke goes on to relive that moment he realized – still floating consciously in the water – what had happened to him, and his journey through rehabilitation and his determination to get his life back.

Yelland, who grew up surfing at the Thalia Street reef and encountered many victims of spinal injuries in his six years as a Laguna lifeguard, said he was inspired early on to not only help people with spinal injuries, but to create a documentary.

"Many people with these injuries say they dream about flying or floating on clouds, and surfing is how they achieve that dream-like place. Their experiences have taught me to enjoy my ability to be in the water, a pleasure we surfers can take for granted and become greedy about. People like Nathan can teach us to really appreciate the feeling," he said.

Yelland co-founded They Will Surf Again with fellow Lagunan and pro-surfer James Pribram in 2000, an organization that raises awareness and money for people who have suffered from ocean-related spinal injuries.

The venture would lead him to partner with the Life Rolls On Foundation, which brought together the world's top surfers including Kelly Slater, Andy Irons, and LRO founder Jesse Billauer, who was also left quadriplegic from a surfing accident 12 years prior and who served as an enormous inspiration to Gocke through his own determination to overcome his disability and surf again.

"The moment I met Nathan, just weeks after his accident, I knew right away I wanted to make a film about him," Yelland recalls. "He was just so uplifting, and being around him made me want to learn more about his courage and how he overcame daily struggles.

"I wanted to share his spirit with everyone, to not only show people what's possible when you put your mind to something, but to enable others to see 'disabled' people as 'able-bodied' and for who they really are."

Yelland began filming Gocke just 30 days after the accident, and would follow him for two years to capture his physical, mental and spiritual progress, a project that would prove to be profoundly touching and inspirational.

We see moments of discouragement, unbridled emotion and immense willpower to overcome it all, riding on the hope of one day getting back on a surfboard.

"I can [overcome] this, because I can get on a wave," he says in the film of his daily struggles. "It gives me drive. It gives me purpose in life. It gives me that extra push to continue in all aspects of my life to get stronger and better and succeed so that I can continue to surf."

With the help of friends and a special longboard, Gocke is able to suit up and ride his first wave in 676 days since his fall.

He has continued to surf ever since.

"On that wave, you just forget you're paralyzed, and it's like you're back on cloud nine."

After working in advertising in New York and L.A. for several years, Yelland recently returned to Laguna to start his own company, Curtis Birch, which creates and produces television commercials and long format work.

His piece about a disabled athlete on LRO's first PSA, "Pool," earned him an Emmy nomination in 2007, an epiphanic moment in which he said he realized the power of the individual documentary, which spurred him to begin filming surfers at They Will Surf Again events.

Yelland is currently working on a documentary about ancient architecture and sustainability in India and China, which will air internationally on the History channel.

"Floating" also features comments from Pribram and local pro surfer Hans Hagen.

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