Joe Surf: Kneeboarder has remarkable win after injury

We've all heard the sports phrase "playing hurt."

Huntington Beach's Tom Backer has taken it to a new level.

Backer, 48, finished in second place in the open division of the 2012 Kneeboard Surfing USA Titles finals last week on the south side of the Huntington Beach Pier. It's a worthy accomplishment for the longtime kneeboarder all by itself, but when one considers what happened to him just seven months ago, it becomes remarkable.

Backer was surfing locally last June when every surfer's worst nightmare took place — a wipeout, followed by an inability to move and your face in the water.

Backer suffered a cervical fracture at C3 and C4 when he face-planted either into his board or onto the sand. In other words, he broke his neck, while also suffering multiple herniated discs.

He had surgery in which doctors used ceramic disc spacers and a bone graft from his hip and then stabilized the fracture with a bone plate.

Ed Dimick, a friend of Backer's and a fellow kneeboarder, was credited with saving Backer. Here's what Backer wrote on a forum at after the accident:

"I had just taken a wave and was inside watching Tom paddle into a right-hand set wave. He carved a big bottom turn and set up for a big barrel that closed out on him. I was giving Tom a big hoot when I noticed he didn't come up right away. When he did, it wasn't the usual 'surface and find your board.'

"He was bobbing on his side. I paddled up to him and asked him if he was OK. Tom let me know he needed help. I asked him what was wrong and he said he couldn't move. I put him in front of me with both of us floating on our backs and started kicking in to shore.

"Our boards were still tethered to us and we were in the impact zone, which created some problems until we could get further in. A big thanks to stand-up Larry, Wayne Kopit's buddy, for seeing there was a problem and quickly paddling in to take Tom the rest of the way to shore while I got our boards untethered. Tom walked out of the water, which was a big sigh of relief for all of us. Get well soon, buddy. I'm so glad I was nearby to help out."

Backer is a mainstay with Kneelo Nation, a relatively small but tight group of kneeboarders who have been around for a long time. Some of the world's best kneeboarders are no spring chickens, making Kelly Slater look like a young punk.

Besides Backer, who at 48 lists his occupation as an "artist/domestic engineer," there is Bill Lerner, 49; Bob Gove, 60; Greg Shewman, 51; Paul Devoy, 47; Brad Colwell, 54; John Mel, 65; Tom Linn, 52; Michael Fernandez, 51; Randy Morris, 48; Joe Coyne, 50; and Cynthia Wornham, 54. Are all still shredding.

Backer began kneeboarding in 1976 and has been a regular at Kneeboard Surfing USA contests since the organization formed in 2003, including a championship in 2008 at Oceanside.

Kneeboarding is just like it sounds — surfing from your knees. The boards are typically between 5-feet-7 and 5-feet-10, with plenty of grip.

Another longtime kneeboarder, Ron Frederico, described kneeboarding as such: "Full powerhouse surfing, late take-offs, hard bottom turns, destroying the lip, riding high 'n' tight in the barrel, finding comfort in parts of the wave where most stand-ups seldom ventured."

About the biggest obstacle that faced kneeboarders back in the day, and maybe today as well, was getting respect in the lineup with stand-up surfers. Frederico did his part to, well, stand up for the kneeboarders, when in 1971 — according to Frederico — he won a fight against legendary Huntington Beach surfer/tough guy Chuck Dent on the sand next to the pier.

For Backer, just getting back on a board so soon after breaking his neck shows a toughness on a different level — earning the respect of all surfers, in and out of the water.

JOE HAAKENSON is an Orange County-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at

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