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Operation Surf and Cal Poly students team up to help amputees surf

Michael Barros/KCBX
Kyle Kelley, wearing a prosthetic designed by Cal Poly students, heads into the waves at Morro Rock Beach.

The founder of a nonprofit focused on helping veterans and a group of Cal Poly students have collaborated to create a prosthetic for amputee military veterans who surf. Recently in Morro Bay, those students and a veteran put the prototype to the test.

Sitting on the tailgate of a truck parked near Morro Rock, veteran Kyle Kelly sorted through several rubber discs of various sizes. He said each disc provides different levels of ankle flexibility while on a surfboard.

“When I go into a squat position on a board, my heel comes up, when ideally I’d want to have my feet flat on the board at all times,” Kelly said.

In 2007, Kelly’s lower right leg was injured in combat in Iraq. Kelly said for many years he struggled with pain and endured multiple surgeries. In 2015, he and his orthopedic surgeon made the choice to amputate his lower right leg.

“As crazy as it sounds, it was really one of the better decisions that I’ve ever made,” Kelly said.

Kelly said even though he struggles with certain activities now, he’s in less pain now after amputation.

Kelly joinedOperation Surfshortly after his amputation surgery. The organization hosts week-long, all-expenses-paid surfing trips in Santa Cruz, Huntington Beach, Avila Beach and Morro Bay for wounded veterans and active-duty members. Kelly has since attended many sessions, but his first trip was on the Central Coast. According to the official website, the program is intended to help relieve war trauma. Kelly said that before that first Operation Surf surfing trip, he’d never been on a board.

“I grew up out in the sticks in Texas, and so I’d never even thought about surfing,” Kelly said. “So I said, ‘Well, why not? I’m willing to give it a shot and try it out.’”

Kelly said he met his fiance through the program. Now, he’s a veteran support ambassador for Operation Surf.

“Ultimately it was a life changing experience,” Kelly said. “Not just for surfing but with the people I’ve been able to connect with.”

Last fall, Operation Surf founder Van Curaza submitted a proposal to Cal Poly’s Quality of Life Plus Student Association (QL+) project advisors to build a prosthetic for amputee surfers. QL+ is a multidisciplinary engineering club which works to find solutions to physical challenges. Many QL+ projects are intended to help veterans.

Mechanical engineering professor Jim Widmann is a QL+ advisor, and was at the beach to watch Kelly test out the prosthetic in late June. Widmann said he teaches a group of Cal Poly students to solve about 18 engineering projects a year through QL+.

This year, students have created prosthetics to help amputees cook, hitch trailers and walk on sandy beaches with their families.

“It’s a great project because this particular problem exists, and there is no solution on the market for it, so it gives our students an opportunity to start with a blank sheet of paper and go through a whole creative process and come up with a solution,” Widmann said.

Recent Cal Poly graduate Caroline Swanson was part of the team that built Kelly’s prototype. Swanson said she spent months watching surfing videos to understand how an athlete’s ankle moves on the board.

“The biggest challenge for us was probably our inexperience with prosthetics,” Swanson said. “None of us had worked on any sort of prosthetic before, so we did a lot of background research in the beginning.”

During the test run, when Kelly walked out of the water, Swanson noticed the prosthetic had fallen off. She said she thinks the team’s use of an epoxy may have created a weak point in the prosthetic.

“I think going forward, that’s definitely something that can be improved upon and looked into more,” Swanson said.

Kelly said although the length of the foot needed to be adjusted, he was excited about the prosthetic.

“The ankle movement was ideal,” Kelly said. “There are other things that we can adjust, but the ankle movement is spot on.”

Curaza said he plans to keep collaborating with the Cal Poly students to build an even better prosthetic for the veterans at Operation Surf. Widmann said he will likely assign more students to work on the surfing prosthetic next year.

“It gives them an opportunity to practice all of the skills they’ve been learning for the last three or four years and then actually go solve a real problem, see the hardware in action and in many cases, change people’s lives,” Widmann said.

Kelly said he is looking forward to the prosthetic potentially being universal for every amputee vet in Operation Surf. And in June, he married his wife, who he met through the program.

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