Ten-year-old Clairemont amputee gets surfing surprise

Sophia Saunders, 10, rides a wave as para surfer Liv Stone and Switchfoot drummer Chad Butler cheer her on.
Sophia Saunders, 10, of Clairemont, center, was given a new adaptive surfboard with an arm paddle from the Challenged Athletes Foundation on June 23, 2020. Surfer Liv Stone, 17, left and Chad Butler, drummer for the band Switchfoot, cheer her on Moonlight Beach on June 23, 2020.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

A world champion para surfer and a Switchfoot rock star gave Sophia Saunders her first surfboard at Moonlight State Beach on Tuesday


Two years ago this weekend, 15-year-old Liv Stone rode a surfboard for the very first time at the Switchfoot Bro-Am Surfing and Beach festival at Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas.

Now 17, the Carlsbad congenital bilateral above-the-elbow amputee is a world champion para surfer. She credits her success to the surfing camps, adaptive equipment and training she has received through grants from Bro-Am and the Challenged Athletes Foundation. On Tuesday morning, June 23, a grateful Stone paid those gifts forward by presenting another local girl, 10-year-old congenital below-the-elbow amputee Sophia Saunders of Clairemont, with her very first fiberglass surfboard.

Challenged Athletes paid for the new board with grant money from organizations like Bro-Am. Sophia also received an arm paddle like the ones that Stone uses.

Sophia Saunders, 10, of Clairemont, and surfer Liv Stone, 17, walk to surf at Moonlight Beach on June 23.
Sophia Saunders, 10, of Clairemont, left, was given a new adaptive surfboard with an arm paddle from the Challenged Athletes Foundation on June 23. Here, Saunders and surfer Liv Stone, 17, walk to surf at Moonlight Beach on Tuesday.
(K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Stunned by the crowd of onlookers and media at the surprise event, Sophia’s eyes brimmed with tears and she was temporarily at a loss for words. But later she opened up about her love for the sport, which she discovered at Challenged Athletes’s Junior Seau adaptive surf camp in Oceanside two years ago.

“I love being in the water,” said Sophia, who had used a Boogie Board and foam surfboard until Tuesday, June 23. “Something just gets hold of me and I feel like I can do whatever I want in the water. I get excited every time I get a wave.”

The presentation was held at Moonlight Beach, where Stone and Saunders went surfing together afterward under cloudy skies. Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 16th annual Switchfoot Bro-Am festival won’t be held at Moonlight this weekend. Instead it will be presented online at 5 p.m. Saturday at Tickets are $10.99 and proceeds will go to five local charities, including Challenged Athletes.

Chad Butler, drummer for the Encinitas-born rock band Switchfoot, was on-hand for the surfboard presentation. While the annual festival is best known for the free Switchfoot concert that draws upward of 18,000 people, Butler said the purpose of the event is to raise money for local children like Sophia.

“The mission of Bro-Am is to help kids thrive in different ways, whether it’s their physical or educational needs or social services,” said Butler, an Encinitas resident. “With a virtual festival this year we wanted to figure out a way to bring people together to support the community, the musicians and the surfers. To do something good has always been the spirit of what Bro-Am is about.”

Stone grew up in Pennsylvania and learned to para surf while visiting San Diego with her family in 2018. She became so obsessed with the sport that she returned to compete in a national para surfing tournament the following year and finally moved here with her mom in spring 2019 so she could focus on the sport full-time. Her dedication paid off in March when she won the world championship at the 2020 International Surfing Association AmpSurf World Para Surfing Championship in La Jolla.

Stone’s goal is to compete one day in the Paralympic Games. Para surfing is not yet an accepted Paralympics sport, but Challenged Athletes co-founder Bob Babbitt said Tuesday, June 23, that he hopes it will join the list in time for the 2028 games.

Because so many people helped Stone train and compete, she said she’s enjoying serving as a role model to novice para surfers like Sophia.

“It’s crazy that just two years ago I was just learning to surf at Bro-Am and now I’m a world champion. This event is so powerful. I want to help people just beginning in the sport feel the stoke of the waters for the first time,” Stone said.

Sophia’s mom, Navy senior chief gunner’s mate Jessica Saunders, said her daughter has tried many adaptive sports over the years, but she really clicked with surfing. Sophia will start fifth grade in the fall at Warren-Walker School, a private school in San Diego, and she hopes one day to be a lawyer for a humanitarian organization or a hairdresser. Saunders said she could see her daughter one day mentoring other teens in surfing, as Stone has helped her in recent months.

“Sophia is the kind of person who wants to help everybody,” Saunders said. “She wants to know their story. She’s a happy kid.”

--- Pam Kragen is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune