“Shoot this, shoot this!” I yelled across the beach to my video partner, Weston Walker, as I sprinted to the water. He gave me a confused look, but he could see that I was serious and there was no time for questions. It all came together so quickly that I only had time to scramble for my camera in its housing and left my mask and fins behind. I hit the water and immediately began filming. Waves were pounding into my back as our crew’s watermen were quickly adjusting and making a dream a reality. It was a first for everyone. It was unorganized and chaotic as everyone was trying to create the best possible scenario. I just kept filming.
We moved out past the shore break and over the reef, my bare feet taking their chances between sea urchins. The water was shallow enough to make both swimming and standing bad options. I kept filming. After a point, I realized it would be better for me to get out of the way of the crew shooting from shore, so I came in. I walked over to our gear pile under the shade of a palm tree to review what I had just shot, hoping I didn’t blow the focus or make any number of other mistakes that can happen in chaotic situations.
Then it happened. As I got to what I saw as the apex of the situation, the gravity of what I had just shot hit me like a truck. All I could think was that Julia Olson had just entered the ocean for the first time. Julia Olson had just surfed for the first time. Being quadriplegic, this was previously not in the realm of possibility. But it was possible, it just happened. Then I broke down. I was caught off guard so much that I remember saying, “I don’t know what’s happening,” as I handed the camera off to Weston, tears streaming down my face as I walked off to have a moment.
In the ten years I have spent documenting the world around me, I have shot a number of tough situations. When I was starting out and working for newspapers, I often found myself at the scene of deadly car accidents, wildfires, and even a plane crash. It was always difficult, and always affected me, but I always held it together and did what I could to shoot the story as sensitively as possible. The camera always created a shield between my emotions and the story, and enabled me to hold it together like a professional.
This time was different. This time I was experiencing overwhelming joy and happiness. This time no camera or water housing could shield me from the emotional bliss of sharing and documenting a truly positive and life changing moment with a truly beautiful person. Even as I write this, my eyes are welling up and I need some tissues. The moment was life changing for Julia, but it was also life changing for me.
I got ahead of myself with that story because I don’t know any other way to tell it. The scenario materialized, and then struck me as quickly as I explained, which is the nature of moments, and photography, and filmmaking. This all happened while on an adaptive surf trip to Maui with The High Fives Foundation (www.highfivesfoundation.org), an organization that brings light and love, positivity and healing to people who have had life altering injuries.
I have been on a few trips with this group, and I can still say that I have never been around a more positive, fun, and uplifting group of people in my entire life. This is just one of so many stories from that trip, and here is the kicker. Julia wasn’t even a part of High Fives or the trip. She just happened to be on Maui at the same time, heard about what was going on, and came out to the beach that day. The High Fives crew welcomed her in and gave her an experience we will all remember for a lifetime. Not only that, it sounds like she will be making a trip to Truckee, CA this winter to get out in the mountains and go skiing with High Fives.
When that happens I will be there with a camera in my hands and very likely, a tear or two in my eyes.
On behalf of the STAY WILD Studios crew, I would like to send our deepest thanks to AquaTech for their generous support of this project. We could have never pulled it off without your support, and I would have never had the amazing experience of being with, and documenting, Julia in the water if it were not for your help. Thank you.
The day after we returned home from this trip, I ordered a full AquaTech housing set up for myself.
Links to those mentioned in this post:
Julia Olson www.juliasmiracle.com
High Fives Foundation www.highfivesfoundation.org
STAY WILD Studios www.staywildstudios.com
AquaTech Equipment Used on this Project: