Ernie Johnson was terrified to get into the ocean 15 years after a football injury left him without the use of his legs.
In 2015, Johnson was just looking for competition. At the time he had no idea he would one day be competing for a national title.
At the beginning, the notion of getting in the water made him nervous about the sport. Then he met Tyler Watkins, who would soon become among his closest friends and surfing mate.
Learning adaptive surfing requires trust in your partner. The surfer is on his or her stomach and typically gets an initial push into the wave from a teammate in the water. The rest is up to the surfer to stay on the board and ride the wave for as long as possible.
That’s where Watkins, a local surfer with over 30 years of experience, came into Johnson’s life. He brought the knowledge needed to make Johnson comfortable being surrounded by waves despite being a quadriplegic.
“The first time Tyler came out, that’s when I wasn’t afraid anymore,” Johnson said. “So after I lost that fear, I was able to relax and take advice.”
After that, Watkins began teaching Johnson about waves themselves in addition to the basics of surfing. They practice their sport and sometimes sit back to watch the waves roll in, studying them. These days they’re a team, working together to represent the Grand Strand on a national level.
On June 13, Johnson will be competing for a national title at the USA Surfing Adaptive Championship. Watkins will act as his propulsion, using all of his strength to give Johnson the best start into the wave he can.
While they’re hoping to win it all this week, a trophy would merely be an added climax to the priceless hours Watkins and Johnson have spent together.
“Surfing on a Wednesday after work, I love being out there surfing with him. That means as much to me as winning. The bond he and I have created means more to mean than anything else we do,” Johnson said. “I think we’re the best adaptive team in the whole world. Now we have to go prove it.”
Johnson’s path to surfing ultimately was conceived from an incident during an August preseason football game between Conway High School and Berkeley High in 1997.
Johnson was playing for Conway when Berkeley did a squib kick — a form of kickoff in which a team kicks the ball a short distance in hopes of stopping a return — and the ball bounced past the first two lines of receivers. As it came toward his area, Johnson reached down to grab the ball, but his teammate had already grabbed it.
“I was about to stand up, and because it took the ball so long to get back to us, the guy was about 4 or 5 yards in front of me, full speed as I was standing up, he hit the crown of my helmet and my fourth vertebrate exploded and because of that I am a C4, C5 incomplete quadriplegic,” he said.
The hit resulted in him losing most function below his chest.
Recovery was a challenge, Johnson said, but he never got depressed or deterred. Even before finding the surfing community, he had family supporting him. So he found ways to continue on.
In 2015, he began searching online for new ways to stay active. He landed on wheelchair weight lifting. He went to a competition in West Palm Beach, Florida, and it sparked his interest in returning to competitive sports after his exit from football.
“I had more fun competing than I imagined. Before that I kind of avoided competitive sports in my wheelchair because I was afraid I wouldn’t be as competitive,” he said.
Johnson wanted to compete, but he originally wasn’t interested in surfing. Brock Johnson and Luke Sharp, with Wheel to Surf, encouraged him for two years to come out to an adaptive surfing event, but he never went.
“I avoided it. I was afraid to get back into the ocean because of my legs,” he said. “But once I got that itch to compete from the body building competition, I thought why not?”
He was ready to compete, even if learning surfing was going to be a challenge. Thankfully, he found a lot of support from within the Grand Strand surfing community. But most importantly, he found Watkins.
Watkins has surfed for more than three decades. Over the years, he learned how to read the waves and understand which one would be the best to surf.
“Lots of people have taught me how to surf, but Tyler taught me everything I know about waves,” Johnson said.
Both Watkins and Johnson said their wave knowledge, combined with their friendship, is where their competitive edge comes in. They’ve become a team to contend with at any competition.
Watkins said he and Johnson will sometimes just sit on the beach and look at how the water breaks. They pick where they’re going to surf based on where they can find the best waves. Sometimes they’ll notice all the other competitors surfing in one area, so they’ll try to find a better spot with bigger waves.
They don’t always agree on which waves to choose, but Watkins said when they’re on the same page they thrive.
Then, in the moment, they use their combined wave knowledge to decide when to start riding.
“I slingshot him into the wave that him and I chose together,” Watkins said. “I am so happy to have a guy who cares so much about wave knowledge. Because wins don’t necessarily come from going surfing and being in the water, wins come because you’re prepared and you know what you’re doing.”
The two surf together nearly every week, rain or shine. They’re a team that hopes to one day win international adaptive surfing competitions. But this week they’re traveling to California to compete in the national adaptive surfing tournament, and they’ll be taking some new hardware with them.
Watkins created a GoFundMe to raise money for a new beach wheelchair, and it was funded within days of going online.
“He has had a really significant disadvantage over the last three years,” Watkins said. “His equipment has held him back. Unlike most other competitive surfers, [he’s been] in a skinny-wheel wheelchair that has to be drug across the beach and he is tired by the time he gets to water’s edge. And he is on a surfboard designed for a beginner.”
In addition, the Surf Dreams Foundation donated a surfboard, which he got shaped by Kelly Richards of the Village Surf Shop in Garden City. Phil Jackson with the foundation said his goal was to give Johnson all he needed to succeed in California.
Johnson said the help is overwhelming.
“I’m not spoiled with stuff, I am spoiled with good people,” Johnson said. “These are some of the best people on this earth. I could surf by myself. It would take me an hour to to get the beach, an hour to get outside, and once I get that one wave in, I am exhausted.”
Johnson has competed in the U.S. tournament before, taking fifth and eight in previous years. But he said this year he is going to win it all because he isn’t doing it just for himself, something he realized in the last few months.
All of the people who have helped teach Johnson to surf have a stake in him winning when he competes, he said.
When he won the East Coast prone-assist surfing title this year, Johnson said he felt like his supporters were on the board with him and cheering him on.
From Watkins, to his family, to all the people who have helped Johnson surf, he has plenty of support going into the tournament.
“When I am on that wave and it breaks, I feel like I am making all the people who support me proud,” Johnson said. “I don’t feel like I am surfing just for myself right now. I feel like I am surfing for everyone who supports me.”
He hopes to take that support worldwide, competing and surfing in some of the biggest competitions across the globe, like the 2024 Summer Paralympic Games in Paris.
The events include stiff competition every week. Furthermore, traveling is expensive and Johnson hopes to get a sponsor one day so he can bring some of those supporters with him.
To get there, Johnson practices almost every day. It’s like Watkins says, you never know what the waves will be like on competition day, so you have to be ready.
And both Johnson and Watkins agree that they’re ready to win.