How Jack Viorel Uses Surfing to Inspire the Kids Who Need Help the Most
The wind dances softly across the sand at Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. A trim man with deeply tanned skin, closely cropped gray hair and a silver stripe of a beard stands with his feet in the ocean, smiling and watching as a small crowd of children learns to surf. Some ride with their bellies pressed to their boards; some stand up, wobble and fall into the waves. The pounding of the surf conceals their squeals of delight. Their smiles reveal it.
“You had quite an awesome wipeout,” Jack Viorel tells a boy named Dyan when the surfers and instructors gather in a circle. “You were going down and the whole thing just disappeared.”
The nods all around confirm the epic nature of the crash. That Dyan paddled right back out illustrates the precise point Viorel wants his surfing students to learn. It’s also why Viorel gave Dyan the nickname “Dynamite.” “It’s about wiping out and getting back up and going out and doing it again.”
Viorel, 48, runs the Indo Jax Surf School, a local outfit that provides lessons to paying customers, but also free of charge to children with serious illnesses and disabilities. In addition to Dynamite, today’s crop includes 8-year-old Maddox, who smiles as he coasts in with his stomach against the board, and Evan, also 8, who, when he took Viorel’s weeklong surf camp two summers ago, would only float out beyond the breakers; he was too scared to surf in.
Like all of the children here today, Dyan, Maddox and Evan are blind, but this fact hasn’t dampened their enthusiasm. In and out they go, as fast as their little legs will carry them. The longer-legged instructors hustle to keep up. Evan pauses on the shore only long enough to affirm to his mom that this is as awesome as it looks. He wastes no other time onshore because the waves are out there and standing still is here, and there is no question which he likes better.
Viorel spends much of today’s two-hour session bouncing from kid to kid, from sand to water, offering instruction and encouragement with the pace and style of a lightning bolt. “We are shooting for something much greater than surfing,” he says. “For the child who’s blind, maybe we’re helping them shed their limiting beliefs. Whatever it is, it becomes much less about surfing and much more about everything else in their lives.”
He points to Evan as an example. A regular at the camp, Evan improved last year, surfing in tandem with his instructor after his mom, Traci, forbade him from just bobbing around again. On the first day of the weeklong camp this year, Evan rode the first wave and was met with clapping and cheering from the shore. This boy, whom Traci used to call her “fearful child,” now eagerly seeks out the next wave, hoping for the next round of applause. As he comes in and out of the waves, Traci says her son attacks the rest of his life the same way now too.
Viorel first started offering his surf camps eight years ago, hoping to inspire people who would otherwise never touch a board. His students come from Belarus, with sicknesses related to the Chernobyl disaster, and from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, North Carolina, with injuries suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of his students have HIV or AIDS; some of them have autism. All of them, to some degree, learn to surf.
The Indo Jax camps are funded by grants, sponsorships and private donations, but the enterprise’s greatest asset is Viorel, whose enthusiasm is as important as his expertise. “It doesn’t matter if they ever surf again,” he says. “But they think, ‘I can surf, I can do anything.’ And that is a very powerful thing.”
Over the years, Viorel has developed a kind of curriculum: Basic training starts out with instructors walking students to the surf’s edge to let them feel the water, then encouraging them to wade in until they are comfortable in the water. Then they return to dry land, where they practice popping up onto the board. The hope is that the lessons end with a student actually riding a wave, even for a few seconds.
For Viorel, though, surfing is a means rather than an end. He hopes to teach his students to face their fears, to feel pride, to handle failure. He wants them to learn that the flip side of falling is the opportunity to get up and try again. “I think one of the most significant things is when they can take a wipeout and charge back out,” he says. “That’s significant for their lives.”
Not everyone shares this view. He faced heavy criticism when he first started the camp for blind kids. “I got hate emails. ‘You shouldn’t be doing this. This is too dangerous. Those kids should not be surfing,’ ” he says. “After all that sunk in, I started to respond with, ‘You’re why we’re doing this. This whole idea that they can’t do certain things is why we’re doing this.’ ”
Viorel loves underdogs, in large part because he sees himself as one. In high school, he was told he was too small to play football. He did so well at the sport that he went on to play wide receiver at the University of California, Davis. He enjoys proving people wrong so much, he says, he wonders if it’s a character flaw.
After graduating from UC Davis in 1990, Viorel spent summers surfing and winters snowboarding. But there was something nagging at him, something telling him he needed to do more. “I cracked under that,” he says. So he went back to school to get a teaching certificate.
His first job was teaching special-needs second-graders at Sunnybrae Elementary School in San Mateo, California. He was terrified. The first year was one big wipeout after another, but he kept getting up. As he put it in a recent TEDx Talk: “I knew from surfing that whenever I’m out there, and it’s big, and you’re scared, you either commit to it 100 percent or you get out of the water.”
Working with first- and second-graders, he was an unconventional teacher. He eschewed lesson plans, took his dog to class every day and played with the kids during recess whenever he could. The seeds of Indo Jax were planted when he took a girl with cerebral palsy into the Pacific Ocean.
Nine years ago, Viorel moved with his wife, Aileen, and daughter (they now have three children) to the North Carolina coast, looking to slow down their lives. He retired from teaching to open a surfing business. His first nontraditional camp was for HIV/AIDS patients eight years ago. The camp for blind children followed a few months later, with five kids. There were more than 30 signed up this year.
Viorel also has traveled to India seven times to teach surfing to girls in an orphanage. The one that stands out, he says, is a 14-year-old girl named Reena. Before arriving at the orphanage, she was kidnapped by a so-called beggar mafia, who gouged one of her eyes out. That made her a better beggar, and the kidnappers took the money. Viorel set out to teach her to surf in the Indian Ocean near the southern tip of India, but it wasn’t easy. “She had no positive outlook on her own life,” he says. “She didn’t care. She didn’t think she had a future.”
After Viorel’s first visit, Reena wrote a letter to the nuns at the orphanage. She wrote that when she plays in the ocean with Indo Jax instructors, she feels like a fish. She said the water washes away her problems. She promised to believe she had a future, to get better grades, to behave. She promised all of that, she wrote, if Viorel promised to come back. Which he has. Every year.
When Viorel and his Indo Jax crew pulled into the orphanage this year, seven years after they met, Reena and her friends dropped what they were doing and ran to them. “She’s a totally different -person,” he says. “She’s doing well in school. She’s going to go somewhere in her life.”
The searing late afternoon coats everything in heat. Viorel pulls up to the Blockade Runner Resort in a green Volkswagen bus covered with stickers and piled high with surfboards (he drove the same kind of van in high school, except it was painted camouflage). He jumps out of the van and heads inside. Today there will be no surfing. Instead, students and instructors are attending a fundraiser and a screening of Beyond Sight, a movie about Derek Rabelo, a blind surfer from Brazil.
Before the movie, Viorel sits at an outdoor patio with Aileen and a few friends. A man named Ben McCrosky stops by to say hello. McCrosky is a corporal in the Marines who had his left leg amputated below the knee after the truck he was in rode over an IED in Afghanistan. McCrosky sips a beer, his prosthetic foot fitting snugly in a flip-flop.
“What sport did you play today?” Viorel asks him. It’s an inside joke. After McCrosky recovered, he competed in marathons and triathlons, even though he had never done either before getting hurt. He earned medals for basketball, volleyball and cycling in the 2014 Wounded Warrior Games and has plans to compete in the Paralympics in Brazil next year.
More than anything else, McCrosky loves to surf. Three years ago, he signed up for Indo Jax’s Wounded Warrior camp, only to find that none of his prosthetic legs gave him the right balance. He spent his first day falling and getting up, falling and getting up. On the second day, he rode a wave to shore. Instructors cried. It felt like a homecoming. Under Viorel’s direction, McCrosky had rediscovered his old life.
As McCrosky tells this tale, dozens of kids and adults mill around, all with their own small victories, all spurred by Viorel. Meanwhile, Viorel munches nonchalantly on a wrap — he takes no credit for any of it; only delights in seeing it happen. “Whenever I’m feeling like I’m tired, or wondering if I can keep going, it’s those stories that I reflect on,” he says. “Man, you have to keep going.”