On Being Humbled. Tim and the Armless Surfer Girl.

by Chris Dixon

Tim Sherer and Jessica Cox. Screen Grab from the film “Armless Surfer.” 

On Tuesday, an incredible video share appeared up in my Facebook feed. It showed Jessica Cox, a brave girl who was born with no arms, taking a surfing lesson on Maui. I did a double take when I quickly realized that her teacher was an old friend of mine named Tim Sherer.

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I met Tim back in 2000, when I was working for Jimmy Buffett – taking photos, shooting video and writing a sort of  travel journal for Jimmy’s Margaritaville website. Tim was – and is – the owner of Lahaina’s Goofy Foot Surf School. He had met Jimmy in Lahaina by way a few mutual friends. When Jimmy offered Tim, a lifelong Parrot Head, the opportunity to work as his surf coach, you could have knocked Tim over with a feather.

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Jimmy and Timmy. St Somewhere. Photo: Chris Dixon

Tim and I would become good friends. He was, and is a peripatetic surf wanderer and we shared some insane surfing excursions from Hawaii to Fiji to Panama to Jamaica. When I saw the video of him taking young Jessica Cox surfing, I was blown away. So I rang him up. Tim’s long been a cosmic warrior. It turns out was on a layover in Orlando on his way to trek along on a pilgrimage through India, but he had time for a quick Q&A about one of the most inspiring surf sessions of his life.

The surf lesson in question, he said, had actually taken place five or six years ago. Tim’s business partner had filmed the session, and given the footage to Jessica – who only now posted it on Facebook.

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Tim with the first – and only – armless surf student he’s ever taught. 

CD: So how did this all come about? I know that you’ve taken out people who are blind or deaf for lessons as well.

Tim: We’ve had a few different people who are blind come to the school. In fact one guy came to the school  – Erik Weihenmayer – and he’s climbed Everest. There was a book about it, Touch the Top of the World.

So Jessica had just finished shooting a show with Ellen DeGeneres. She was on Ellen’s show because she was the first no-armed woman to get a pilot’s license to fly a plane. She can fly a plane legally – with her feet. She’s so inspirational, and that’s why she was on Ellen, and the Ellen show sent her to Maui. One of the things that they wanted to try was to take her surfing. That’s how we came up on the Maui Visitor’s Bureau radar. The Visitor’s Bureau contacted us an put us in touch with Jessica’s team.

Jessica on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. 

Do you remember when you first started querying her about taking her surfing, was she nervous?

Not at all. She’s kinda short, she has a nice, low center of gravity. She has the strongest legs — the whole lower part of her body is so strong, because it has to be.

You could tell from the video. Amazing watching her pop up on the board. 

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Can you imagine lifting your toe to your mouth to put your food in your mouth? Or holding your phone with your toes and texting? Those are things she showed us, and that was where my really jaw dropped. Actually, my jaw dropped more watching her do that stuff than surfing. To see her doing all that – she had a cultivated balance from her life. She was actually super centered, athletic, calm, enthusiastic, and she was the perfect student. She was really open to working out an approach with us. It was like, ‘Jessica, we’ve never taught anybody with no arms before, so we’re gonna kinda work it out with you as we go. We just want to make sure we have a nice approach.’ She was like, ‘You know, I’m really excited, let’s do it!’

But I was a little nervous at first, you know? Also, because she’s just such a special person and her life is inspiring people, giving motivational talks, I was just impressed by her. Excited, with butterflies, to meet somebody who’s been facing adversity since birth and taken it in such a positive way and to become such an inspirational figure.

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I had butterflies for those reasons, but not for taking her in the water. Once I met her, then it was just pure fun from that point forward, because she’s so sweet and nice and engaging. Basically, the video shows the beach lesson and then you pretty much saw how it went.

So what were you thinking once the lesson started? 

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With no arms, the ‘push up’ takes on a whole new meaning. 

I’ve taught one-armed people how to surf before, I’ve taken paraplegics and quadriplegics surfing before, blind people, deaf people, but this was my first person with no arms. Each person that comes through with these special needs takes a creative approach. One of our one-armed surfers was born without her hand, and we improvised in the moment and I put one of those hand pads with velcro on them that you play catch with with a tennis ball. We kinda strapped that on her wrist so she could paddle more symmetrically – so she wouldn’t paddle in circles. It worked so well that she kept coming back and then she ultimately had a prosthetic made so she could paddle and surf.

No kidding.

Yeah. It was pretty amazing. So with Jessica it’s kind of the same thing. It’s like, ‘How do we do this?’ Until you meet someone and get to know their experience a little, you don’t know what approach to take. So for us it was like, be as well-prepared as possible. My buddy Tim Inskeep was my general manager at the time and he was filming and teaching. And we actually had a third guy in the water named Brennan Rose who’s a professional standup paddler now, he’s a really good friend of mine.

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Tim shouts encouragement from behind the wave. 

So in the beginning I paddled her in and took her on her first rides, and then we started pushing her into waves on her own. Tim was busy filming and then Brennan would ride next to her as a spotter. That was our safety approach. We had her covered.

It’s funny. The first post I saw on Jessica’s Facebook feed – after the video was published – was some guy saying ‘yeah, that’s all nice but what happens when she falls off?’ He said something like ‘why don’t you teach her to swim first? Way to put safety first,’ or something like that. I’m thinking, wow, well this guy must not surf, or not know anything about surfing. I didn’t respond; I wanted to though. But I looked at the response an Jessica wrote, ‘I learned to swim when I was 5.’ I just put “like” on her response after that.

That makes sense.

As you saw in the beginning of the video, I rode with her together and acclimated. You can see when she hopped on my board and I paddled her from the beach to the break. Do you see how she’s sitting? You see how perfect her posture is? I realize she’s a yogi — that’s what I said when I started paddling, ‘oh my gosh, I’m paddling a little yogi. She’s so centered and has so much core strength and balance, calmness, you know? Balancing for her – sitting on the board was nothing. She was centered. Boom. I commented to her, oh my gosh, I have a little buddha on my board.

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Perfect posture. 

Like you said, she’s already got the balance, even as you were paddling her out, but it’s amazing to watch over the course of the several rides that are documented how quickly she goes from kind of sketchy balance to standing up so smoothly on the surfboard. You were probably thinking the same thing when you were watching her, yeah?

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Yeah. I don’t even think she fell. Or maybe she fell one time. And you know what? At first she was like, ’No, don’t help me get on the board.’ What I saw was her determination to be autonomous, her determination to learn it, like, ‘I’m getting on the board. I’ll figure out a way.’ Determination is her pattern or her MO, and it showed in the way she surfed. It showed in the way she got it. She never lost her calm.

You’ve taught or coached some pretty interesting people to surf in the past – I’m wondering if you came away with any sort of broadened perspective after teaching Jessica specifically or if it just added to the whole litany?

Does walking away with a newfound humility count for a broadened perspective?

Absolutely.

I just walked away from the experience with Jessica feeling graced by her personal, inner strength and how it shows itself in her life. I walked away, just completely humbled.
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Jessica Cox’s Website: Rightfooted.

Tim Sherer’s Goofy Foot Surf School, Maui.

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