Dani Burt: Warrior Of The Great Ocean Waves
Writer and experienced surfer Sophie Hellyer speaks to the adaptive surf champion about accepting disability and advocating for equality
By Sophie Hellyer
“The first time I saw an above-knee amputee surfing, I was like ‘what the hell?’! The guy showed me his leg and it was literally a pipe and bungee cords. Just seeing that, I knew it was possible.” Dani Burt was chatting to me candidly over Zoom, recalling a moment of awe during her rehabilitation from a near-fatal motorcycle accident. In 2004, when Burt was 19, she crashed her bike on a mountainside pass and was left in a coma for 45 days. She woke to find that both her lungs had collapsed, her spleen had ruptured, she’d suffered a traumatic brain injury and her right leg had been amputated above the knee.
What the American has achieved in the 16 years since is remarkable: she has become an adaptive world surfing champion, a doctor of physical therapy and a powerful advocate for equality and visibility in the sport. I’m humbled as I speak to her. “I was an absolute mess after my crash,” she told me. “When I woke up from the coma and realised the extent of my injuries, I was like, oh shit, I’m disabled, I’m screwed, I shouldn’t even stay alive. I was placed on suicide watch. The depression and anger were insane.” “But [I’ve realised] that’s just a notion that society had ingrained in me. If society wasn’t that way, how much easier would it have been for me? It would have been less devastating to wake up and think ‘I have these injuries, but I’m okay, I’ll figure it out.’”
Dani now confidently describes herself as being “a gay woman of colour with a disability, and damn proud of it”, but she admits it’s been a long journey towards self-acceptance. “Me personally, I now completely accept the term disabled… it’s part of my story that’s so big in defining who I really am.” Indeed, when I scrolled through Dani’s Instagram feed prior to our chat, it was awash with powerful images and statements. Whether paddling out at the break in Cardiff, California, or hiking in Zion National Park, Utah, she’s always active; and while she writes openly about life’s ongoing hardships, it seems she never harbours regret. “I may have lost a leg but I gained surfing. An even trade,” she wrote on one post last year.
However, Dani recognises that disability is something deeply personal. Not everyone wants to represent or acknowledge their disability in the same way she does. Pro surfer Bethany Hamilton, who lost her left arm in a shark attack when she was 13-years-old, withdrew herself from the 2016 ESPY awards because she felt the category, ‘Best Female Athlete With A Disability’, wasn’t a good fit for her. “Bethany didn’t accept the nomination and I do understand that because she’s an amazing surfer, period,” said Dani. “But in another sense, when you totally dismiss the word disability, it’s just a bummer.” Dani’s advice is typically assertive: “It’d be better to change what that word means to people”. “Flip it”, she said, and alter society’s preconceptions.
Having grown up in New Jersey before moving to California, Dani recalled the turbulence in her life prior to her accident. She described her family situation as “toxic” and said she never planned to go to college. Until the crash, she was training to be a bartender; she now works as a doctor of physical therapy with other amputees in the same hospital where she was a patient.
Sport has clearly been a huge influence in her life and a powerful tool in her recovery. “I grew up skateboarding and bodyboarding,” she said. “The skateboard used to be part of me, it was second nature to ride it. But when I got back on it after my accident, I kept hurting myself. I kept breaking my left leg, my left ankle, my arm. It was extremely hard and upsetting.” Then she tried surfing for the first time in 2008 and found her release. “At first I had a lot of fear and doubt,” she said. “My body was completely different and the ocean is so unpredictable that I could easily get into a situation where my leg is dragging me down. I thought ‘What if I lost my leg? Am I going to drown?’” “But once I dialled in surfing, things started to look way brighter. It just washes every negative thought away when I’m doing it.”
The healing power of the ocean is something to which we can both attest. I told Dani I’ve never been able to convey the magical impact it has on mind and body. “It’s a feeling, an energy,” is the best description I can offer. “The water just does something to you mentally. My focus changes from the daily grind to just being absolutely present,” Dani replied. “Surfing is also one of the few activities I can do that doesn’t cause pain from my prosthesis.”
Watching footage of Dani surfing is inspiring: she looks simultaneously graceful and athletic. I know how loaded that first word is when used about women surfers and I shudder before writing it, but I think it’s valid here. She makes super critical late take-offs and looks so fluid cruising down the line on her 7ft4 quad-fin. I asked her about the mechanics of popping up with a leg that doesn’t bend. I felt a little awkward asking – not for the first time in the conversation – as if I was treating her like a curiosity. But she had clearly discussed all of this before and wasn’t ruffled. “It takes me an extra second to pop up, which gets a little hairy when the waves are bigger and steeper. As an above-knee amputee, if your prosthesis is in the back-leg [like mine] it’s way easier to go backside on a steep, fast wave.”
Aware that my questions might be uncouth, I asked: “Have you ever done an interview where someone doesn’t ask you heaps of questions about your disability?” I told her that I’ve never been interviewed without being quizzed about what it’s like to be a ‘female’ surfer. “Why can’t we just be surfers?!” I said. Dani replied with a knowing “mmm-hmm.” Unsurprisingly, Dani said that she feels most at ease when she’s among a community of adaptive surfers. “We don’t talk about what happened to us. I don’t even know what happened to them, why they have one leg or if they are paralysed. We just talk about surfing. It’s just all very humanising.”
Dani has scooped heaps of awards for her surfing. In 2016, she won the U.S. Adaptive Surfing Championships after defeating male competitors; in 2017, she was crowned the first ever Women’s World Adaptive Surfing Champion. But her achievements extend so much further. In 2018, she bravely fought the ISA (International Surfing Association) over gender discrimination in its points scoring systems – she penned a letter which was signed by adaptive surfers, event organisers and other advocates from across the sport. On the same day that the ISA caved into this pressure, the WSL (World Surfing League) announced equal prize money for women in all competitions.
Dani is also a member of the Committee for Equity in Women’s Surfing – a group founded to support equal access, inclusion and equal pay for all ethnicities, genders, sexual orientations, religions and abilities. And she organises much-needed meet-ups for women of colour who surf. “As far as equality and discrimination: hell yeah, I will totally put my name on the line for that any day!” she said.
We found common ground as we explored these issues and recalled what it was like growing up in the ’90s when we never saw women surfing in magazines. I remember being thrilled when Surf Girl magazine started in 2002 and I saw photos of surfers who were women for the first time. I thought the industry was changing. But 18 years on, I still see websites using women’s bums to advertise surfing. Where are the images of women actively surfing? “People wonder why there are not more women doing something?” said Dani. “We don’t promote visibility, or opportunities, or education. I remember flipping through surf magazines as a kid, always looking for someone that looked like me. Woman, gay, brown, anything. Always nothing. All it takes is one photo to show someone what is possible and to feel seen. Representation matters and is crucial.”
She’s so right. Sea Together magazine is a relatively new title which covers multiple intersections, offering a true representation of women who surf; Sea Maven discusses topical issues like pro surfer Alana Blanchard’s eating disorder and white privilege; She Surf is a book which celebrates women’s surfing talent through a series of interviews – and yes, of course, Dani is in it! New titles like these are changing the face of surf publishing for the better. Older titles missed the boat.
When the longest-running surf publication, Surfer, published its final-ever magazine in October last year, it was a “bittersweet” moment for Dani. The cover shot was an image taken during a Black Lives Matter paddle out, overlaid with the words ‘We’re In This Together’. Inside there was a feature about the LGBT+ surf community. “I’m super glad that Surfer magazine did that, and props to them,” she explained, “but it’s like, that was your last magazine. You had a chance to do that a long time ago. Where the hell were you?”
Looking ahead, Dani hopes that more and more amputees will be able to enjoy the ocean as much as she does. We talked about surfing’s potential debut at the Paralympics in 2024. “I think surfing in the Paralympics would be amazing,” she said. “What it would do for access, for visibility, for inspiring people to get out there and try something different, it would be mind-blown amazing.” There are still plenty of barriers of entry for people wishing to join the adaptive surfing world: most beaches are still scarily inaccessible and many amputees don’t have access to suitable prostheses.
Dani recalled how she and her friend Michael Stull fashioned her first surf leg. “I went to Michael with some existing prosthetic leg parts and was like ‘let’s make a leg!’ I wanted to be able to walk into the water. We tried for a while and I kept breaking whatever we made. Finally, it got to the point where it was just like: Lock it out, I don’t need a knee, I just need something to support me. I love my leg. It gets the job done.” Dani posted instructions on social media to allow others to copy her homemade design. Surely this proves she’s forever thinking of – and championing – those around her: “I think it’s more important to make people smile than trying to make money out of it. Take my design, make it better and then maybe give it to me!”