Surfing with children with autism the “highlight” of Parker Coffin’s year

Parker Coffin has surfed some of the world’s greatest waves; one of them was even extraordinary enough to land him on the front cover of the prestigious Surfer magazine. But it is the memories of a recent day out riding gentle one-metre breakers with a bunch of kids that is keeping him smiling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Picture by Olympic Channel

The USA’s Parker Coffin is more qualified than most when it comes to understanding the ability of surfing to enrapture and overwhelm. The younger brother of Tokyo 2020 hopeful Conner Coffin, he has been on a board for as long as he can remember, and surfed competitively from his early teens until late last year. But even he was taken aback by the impact his sport had on a group of young autistic children.

“I saw a massive difference the second they were surrounded by water,” Coffin said of Surfers Healing’s largest annual event, held in Belmar, New Jersey. The 24-year-old attended the most recent edition and, along with other experienced surfers, helped 250 autistic children discover the joy of catching waves.

“It’s why I like to surf so much, too. The water is so chaotic that, in a weird way, you can find calm amongst the chaos. Looking back, it was probably the highlight of my year, just being there, being able to lend a hand and have those kids have a really special day. It’s one of those things you get so much out of for yourself.”

Coffin’s experience was documented by the Olympic Channel as part of its Inspired by Sport series. For the usually happy-go-lucky surfer, it was 48 hours he will never forget.

“I wasn’t nervous leading up to it until we were in the car driving up to Adam’s house,” Coffin said, referencing a 10-year-old boy with autism whom he visited the day before Surfers Healing in order to build up a relationship.

“I wasn’t nervous to see how it was going to go with him, but more how the family was going to be. I didn’t want to make them uncomfortable with the camera crew.”

In reality, as can be seen in the film, Adam’s family were relaxed and welcoming, but Adam himself had a harder time. The youngster was quiet and evasive until he and Coffin went out back to the swimming pool.

“That was the big moment,” recalled Coffin, who first competed on the World Surf League (WSL) men’s qualifying series in 2011. “He realised I was a friend and there to play and have fun. It really opened him up to me and we had that bonding swim.”

The following day, Coffin and a host of fellow surfers started taking kids out on their boards from early morning. With thousands watching on the beach, including anxious but engaged parents, Coffin was overwhelmed with emotion from the off. However, it went to a new level when Adam arrived.

“I probably surfed with seven or eight kids by the time I surfed with Adam, and I felt like our session, just because we had that prior meeting and trust-building, had a very different feeling versus me taking the other kids I hadn’t met before,” he said.

“I think he knew what I was there to do and he received it so well. It was crazy. Honestly, his face completely changed the second we touched the water.

“And after, he ended up playing in the ocean for four hours straight. We caught our couple of waves, came in, and he ran straight back out. That was the most emotional part; it was like a switch. All of a sudden, he was on for the rest of the day.”

While Adam was “on”, Coffin found himself knocked sideways.

“They were not sad tears. I don’t even know what you would call them… happy, grateful. This weird sensation of your body just wanting to cry. I don’t get that very often,” Coffin confided as he reflected on the moment, on camera, when he let it all out.

“I couldn’t fight it. I kind of tried a couple of times to hold it in, but when there is that much good stuff going down on a beach, and you are looking round at that many people who are beyond excited, having an amazing day watching their kids who struggle so hard, it brings it out of you.”

For the surfer, there were two things in particular which brought on the tears. The first was the sense that something so straightforward for him could have such a big impact, and the second was the excitement among the parents that, for once, their children felt “normal, not isolated”.

The previous time Coffin had cried was when his friends and family had organised a surprise party after he had achieved a childhood ambition and got on the cover of Surfer magazine in February 2018.

“I rode a couple of waves with a kid and it was more impactful than getting a cover of Surfer magazine or winning any contest – that’s mad,” Coffin said. “The surge of emotion wasn’t comparable to anything else. It was seriously the most elevated feeling being there.”

Even months later, his voice betrays just what it all meant, and continues to mean, to him. Watching the film took him back there and helped alleviate the pain of not currently being able to do what he does best: travel the world and surf. Based in central California, Coffin knows he is lucky in that his local beaches are open during the COVID-19 lockdown. He is also making sure he appreciates the rare time at home.

“The strange part is we don’t know when it’s going to end, but it seems like everyone is doing their part,” he said cheerily, before reflecting enthusiastically on what is to come when things do return to some normality; not least the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

“I am really excited for Conner to have the opportunity,” he said, his brother having ended last season ranked the fourth-best US surfer on the WSL tour. “And as a fan of the sport, I am really excited to see it in the Olympics. Hopefully it can take the sport to a new level and keep making it bigger and better.”