Amputee Jeff Denholm is an extreme example in big-wave surfing
Almost 20 years later, Jeff Denholm still remembers in detail the first time he got back on a surfboard after the accident.
It was a cold October morning at Gooch’s Beach in Kennebunk, Maine, when Denholm and his five remaining inches of right arm waded into the 30-degree water. Attached to his nub was a plastic cup stitched inside a wet suit. On the outside, Denholm glued a piece of hard rubber with a rudimentary scoop at the end.
For 30 minutes, he side-stroked out, wondering how his self-made prosthesis would hold up as each large wave knocked him and his board backward.
For two hours, he couldn’t catch a wave because his scoop would slip each time he pushed on the board to stand. The nub was so tender he felt like vomiting.
But as he was losing balance on the umpteenth attempt, a smaller wave hit the board.
“I got lucky,” Denholm said. “It popped the board, I launched my foot forward and made the drop. I cried I was so overwhelmed.”
In an already daring community, Denholm, 46 of Santa Cruz, is an extreme. After losing most of his right arm in a fishing accident in the Bering Sea, he was surfing again within 15 months. Now he rides big waves year-round, including the treacherous winter swells at Mavericks in Northern California —an area that has claimed two lives since 1994.
“It’s pretty much unthinkable for the rest of us what he does out there,” veteran surfer Zach Wormhoudt said.
Even off his board, Denholm pushes the limits of toughness. He started building prosthetics from his hospital bed following his injury and has since built arms for mountain biking, paddle boarding and skiing. He’s dived for pirate treasure, paddled 17 miles of open ocean without the prosthesis, even chewed up a white wine glass to intimidate someone from fighting.
But before all that, Denholm survived.
Working in July 1993 as a commercial fisherman 100 miles off the tiny island of St. Paul, Alaska, a tired Denholm was repairing equipment when a lurch of the boat launched him into an exposed drive shaft.
His right arm was sucked in and mangled in seconds. His shoulder tore out of its socket, his artery severed and his collarbone split in two.
He was in danger of going into shock as the crew rushed to stabilize him. Denholm was still 10 hours from shore, and two more by jet from the medical center in Sitka.
“I got on the [satellite] phone with my parents and honestly thought it was the last time I was going to talk to them,” Denholm said.
It wasn’t. Twenty-one hours later, a Seattle neurologist completed the amputation midway between his shoulder and elbow.
And within two days of lying in his hospital bed, Denholm was designing prosthetics.
“A prosthetic arm with a spear in it [to ski], a paddle so I could surf and one with a shock absorber in it so I could ride a mountain bike,” Denholm said.
He walked out of his first physical therapy appointment, electing to construct his own rehab regimen. Two-a-days of pool workouts and trail runs filled the fall, 111 straight days on skis in Colorado in the winter and a string of New England triathlons and marathons in the summer, Denholm said.
By October, his legs were strong enough to compensate for one side of his 6-2, 200-pound frame missing an arm. He was ready to surf again.
“Of all the sports since my injuries, surfing’s the most attractive not because I’m the best at it, but because it’s the hardest,” Denholm said.
Denholm traveled the Eastern Seaboard and Northern California, catching waves about one out of every 10 days. But when friend and fellow big-wave surfer Todd Blatherer showed him a Mavericks video in September, he watched it “1,000 times” that winter.
The size and violence of the break amazed him. Formed from a natural underwater ramp, waves typically crest at least 25 feet high and carry riders over a 200-yard bed of jagged rocks. Potential shark attacks add to the danger.
Surfing Mavericks became Denholm’s ultimate goal. But he knew he wasn’t able yet.
Joining renowned archaeological underwater explorer Barry Clifford in 1998 allowed him to explore some the best waves in the Indian Ocean. A 50-footer in Southern Australia in 1999 is still Denholm’s tallest ride.
But Denholm was also an integral part of Clifford’s diving team, which surfaced a crustacean-covered pewter cup from Captain William Kidd’s pirate ship off Madagascar in 2000.
At dinner that night, the crew drank rum from it.
“It certainly captured the essence of pirates,” Clifford said. “They certainly drank from that cup.”
After two years of living, and surfing, in Maui, Denholm was picked up as an ambassador by Patagonia, an outdoor clothing company. He moved to Santa Cruz, finally feeling prepared for Mavericks.
Six sessions in, Denholm caught the shoulder of a re-forming 30-footer.
“I’ve only caught a couple waves out there in the total of six years, but they’re the most memorable moments of my life,” Denholm said
This February, he entered his first Big Wave World Tour event, the 2013 Nelscott (Ore.) Reef Classic.
But his goal isn’t to make the tour. All Denholm is after is the next personal breakthrough.
“It’s really not about competing,” Denholm said. “It’s just about pushing myself as far as I can as an athlete.”
Also an exceptional long-distance paddler, Denholm has competed in the 32-mile Molokai-2-Oahu Paddle Board World Championships each of the last four years.
The silicone adhesive on his prosthesis failed 15 miles into his 2009 race, rendering the paddle useless. He one-armed the remaining 17 miles.
“The race is hard enough with two functioning arms,” 10-time running world champion Jamie Mitchell said by email. “But then to have the use of only one for half of the race is amazing.”
He finished with his best time in 2011, breaking the seven-hour mark. Next year he’s going for 6:38.
It’s just one of Denholm’s many short-term goals, a list that seems to roll over far quicker than his body. Denholm also strives to catch a big wave at Punta de Lobos in Chile or Cloudbreak in Fiji.
But no matter the task, it’s clear Denholm won’t let his disability get in the way. With the 20-year anniversary of the accident coming on July 28, he claims he’s improved his prosthesis to where he has just a 25% deficit.
And with all he’s accomplished, it’s hard to imagine something he can’t do.
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