After Losing Leg Following Accident, Southern Regional Grad Dani Burt Comes Back to Become Adaptive Surfing Champ

By DAVID BIGGY | Jul 11, 2018
Photo by: Chris Grant Dr. Dani Burt, a 2003 Southern Regional graduate, has become one of the world’s best adaptive surfers, coming back from a devastating accident and the loss of her right leg in 2004.

This month 14 years ago, Dani Burt’s life changed. At the time, she didn’t really have much of a direction, wasn’t sure what career path to take, and didn’t have much concern that her life was absent of either one.

“I came out to San Diego to just get away from a rough family life and find my independence,” said Burt, a 2003 graduate from Southern Regional High School who grew up in Manahawkin. “I was accepted to Tyler University for art, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I really had no interest in going to college. I just wanted to go someplace where I could be myself and be free of the things that had burdened me back home.

“I only knew I had to be by the ocean, so I came to California. When I got here, I felt like I could breathe.”

A year later, she was barely breathing after a motorcycle ride on Palomar Mountain in northern San Diego County turned tragic. She went too fast into a turn, hit the guardrail and plunged 65 feet down the mountainside.

“I popped 20 feet into the air and went down,” she said. “If not for a bush catching me, I would have kept going. Everything went into slow motion. It was completely like a movie. I couldn’t feel anything but the dirt on my face; I felt like I was dying.”

Fortunately, paramedics managed to move her from the scene and get her to a hospital. She sustained a number of serious injuries that required 12 hours’ worth of operations, followed by a drug-induced coma for five weeks. During that time, an infection took hold, her right leg became gangrenous, and it was determined an amputation above the knee was necessary.

“My leg was amputated on Aug. 15, 2004,” she said. “When I came out of the coma and found out I had lost my leg, I was devastated and very angry. I was so broken about it that I was on suicide watch for a while.”

Eventually, Burt had a choice to make – give up or make a comeback.

“Mentally, I was wrecked. I felt like I didn’t have a choice. I didn’t know any amputees, and I was facing a year’s worth of recovery time and then a lot of outpatient visits. I could have just said, ‘Forget it.’ But I chose to put in 100 percent and try to come back from it.”

With the support and assistance of several close friends, Burt realized she had to get back to some of the things she enjoyed before the accident – particularly skateboarding, body boarding and snowboarding. Of course, that was easier said than done, and re-learning those activities as an amputee was difficult. Ultimately, because body boarding had become awkward, Burt made a switch to surfing.

“The only problem with that was the prosthetics for an above-the-knee amputee really weren’t made for surfing,” she said. “I was doing it for fun, but there wasn’t any above-knee-amputee surfing yet, so it was kind of hard.”

Burt began reassembling some of her existing prosthetics – “by taking parts of some of them and putting them together” – to make something she could utilize for surfing. Then a breakthrough occurred in 2010.

“I came out of the water, and Cara Troy from AccesSurf out of Oahu, Hawaii, came running up to me and asked if I wanted to spend $50 to be in a surfing competition. I said, ‘Sure, why not?’ and I entered the Duke’s Ocean Festival, where I competed against men.”

She finished third in the adaptive division, and that was the start of something big. Not only did Burt continue skateboarding and snowboarding – she was part of the first showcase of action sports in Paralympics history in Vancouver in 2010 and took second in the women’s adaptive giant slalom event at the United States of America Snowboard Association Championships in 2012 – Burt went on to become one of the world’s best adaptive surfers.

Besides taking seventh in the mixed-gender division of the International Surfing Association Adaptive Surfing Championships and second in the West Coast Adaptive Surfing Championships in 2016, she swiped the top spot in the U.S. Adaptive Surfing Championships. In 2017, she snagged third in the Hawaii Adaptive Surfing Championships and first in the West Coast Adaptive Championships, then won the first-ever women’s competition of the ISA World Adaptive Championships while taking seventh overall.

“Winning that championship was the ultimate feeling,” Burt said. “It’s so weird. When I first started surfing, I never imagined competing and winning. But it was a bittersweet kind of moment – sweet because I won, but the bitter part is there’s an unequal playing field for women in surfing. Women aren’t treated the same as the men.”

Besides taking up the fight for more-equal representation for women’s surfing, Burt nowadays serves the community as a doctor of physical therapy at Sharp Memorial Hospital, the same place she was treated following her accident, and helping other amputees learn how to surf. It took a lot of endurance and strength she didn’t realize she had, but Burt finally found her purpose.

“Some people said I wouldn’t be able to do the things I’m doing,” she said. “But I’ve had so much support and help from so many people, I couldn’t not try to make the most of these opportunities. It was ridiculously hard and painful what I went through. But now, I have an amazing career and can give back to others who have injuries, and it’s an honor to be a role model for kids who are going through a similar battle to overcome an amputation. If I can make things better for the next generation, that’s worth all the pain and struggle I’ve gone through.”

For more about Dr. Dani Burt, visit daniburt.com.

biggy@thesandpaper.net

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