First Dive

Feel the Freedom with OPAF First Dive™ Scuba

A group of physically challenged recreation enthusiasts were treated to a free scuba diving clinic in the Sunshine State courtesy of the Orthotic & Prosthetic Activities Foundation (OPAF) First Dive™ Scuba Clinics. The scuba clinic was conducted in the tropical paradise of Pompano Beach, Florida and was hosted by the nearby U.S. 1 Scuba and its owner Pete Pallotta.

“We present adaptive sports and recreation clinics around the United States,” said OPAF Executive Director Robin Burton. “For scuba diving, the South Florida region is ideal and we received tremendous support from our volunteer instructors and even the underwater dive rescue team of the Pompano Beach Fire Department.”

The participants and instructors were divided to allow for a minimum of two instructors for each physically challenged diving student.

“We work with a variety of physical disabilities, including amputees and those with spinal cord injury and neuron-muscular disease, but each disability is different so our level of instruction is tailored to meet the needs of the individual,” said Burton.

The instructors began by asking a series of questions to the participants and then educated them on the various pieces of equipment they would be using. They then went over the safest way to enter the swimming pool for the underwater instruction.

“I am a paraplegic who has been paralyzed from just below my shoulders since the age of 21,” said eager participant Dave Rafter. “Anytime I can get into a pool it feels wonderful, but the challenge is always getting from my wheelchair into the water. Fortunately, the swimming pool at the Pompano Beach Aquatic Center features a Portable Aquatic Lift (PAL) which made things much easier for all of us.”

While some of the scuba instructors were local, several came from out of town including a contingent from Phoenix Scuba and Water Sports in Lackawanna, New York. Tony Anderson from Phoenix Scuba is the First Dive™ Scuba Director and was assisted by his wife Carole. Tony and Carole are both Certified Adaptive Scuba Instructors. This is an advanced certification only available to exceptional divers with a strong desire to help others. Tony and Carole together have logged over 6,000 dives and conduct adaptive scuba clinics around the world. Tony and Carole even exchanged their wedding vows underwater.

“We feel it is incumbent upon the diving industry to conduct outreach programs such as First Dive™ to introduce more of the population to the emotional and physical benefits of scuba diving,” said Phoenix Scuba’s Carole Anderson. Anderson added, "We routinely hear that scuba offers our participants freedom that they never thought they would feel again. Helping them feel that freedom is what drives us to continue offering clinics".

Following the clinic, the participants expressed poetically how much they enjoyed the experience and wanted to become fully certified. “A lot of my friends in chairs are actively involved with wheelchair tennis, wheelchair basketball and other adaptive sports,” said Rafter. “But scuba diving is much more liberating for me because it removes the wheelchair from the equation.”

“The water is a great equalizer in bringing the disabled and the able-bodied together in an activity that can be easily integrated,” continued Rafter. “We all dream or fantasize what it would be like to get out of our wheelchair someday and scuba provides this freedom and fulfillment for a morning or afternoon.”

Burton said OPAF has received financial support from the orthotic and prosthetic industry to help the organization provide more clinics and other activities such as tennis, golf and swimming. “Our sponsors have been tremendous and the lifeblood of our organization is the volunteers who touch many people just like Dave wherever we present a clinic.”

OPAF Immediate Past-President Michael Burton is excited about the future possibilities for First Dive™ clinics and as usual was busy viewing a clinic through a camera lens. However, for the scuba clinics this involves suiting up in full scuba equipment and taking pictures with an underwater camera. He stated, "With other clinics most of our participants have been amputees. First Dive™ gives us a much better opportunity to reach a broader range of physically challenged individuals. Scuba can be enjoyed by people with less physical ability than required by our other clinics, which is particularly beneficial for orthotic patients or even paraplegics and quadriplegics".

“The volunteer instructors I was fortunate enough to work with were truly a blessing,” added Rafter. “They were so helpful and encouraging that any participant will know immediately they are in expert hands and will experience something that can help to bring them a lifetime of happiness.”

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What People Are Saying

Ypsilanti, Michigan (2018)
“I learned that various swimming abilities exist amongst the swimmers and that given time and patience, their needs can be met. There is a sense of community. I am in awe of their individual abilities to overcome.”
- Rob Hendry, Swim Coach
“I learned to watch out for people swimming above and how to communicate under water with the instructors with hand signals. Great friendships and knowledge.”
- Terry Fleischauer, Participant
“Appreciate the basics of scuba. I have skills to scuba dive in the future.”
- Tyler Keller, Participant
“I love the inclusive activity! Everyone was excellent.”
- Christy Treve, Participant
“I learned how to scuba dive and snorkel! I had previously gone snorkeling (20 years ago, before amputation). I am absolutely excited to become scuba certified.”
- Lori Roesler, Participant
“Balance and Breathing and Being More Active!”
- Mike Sonoc, Participant
“Being calm under water is key to having fun. Scuba diving is something everyone should do.”
- Orlando Harris, Participant
“I had an amazing time for the last two years! Love meeting new wonderful people. I enjoyed watching my nephew snorkel for the first time.”
- Lisa Daniels, Participant
“My fear of the deep water was unnecessary and actually bloomed into a new hobby I would love to pursue. I will take with me that often times fear is something we create within ourselves and that once fear is faced, it can become a passion.”
- Jessica Hendry, Participant
Ypsilanti, Michigan (2017)
“I will continue to try out new things! Thanks for organizing this event!”
- Nagamani Mundru, Participant
“Wish the pool had a chair lift at the edge.”
- Tim Dore, Participant
“I did not participate in activities, but enjoyed meeting and learning what amputees can do.”
- Barb Rebel, Observer
“Good chance for amputees to meet, plus I learned how to get in and out of the pool.”
- Peter Wolte, Participant
“Parking was rough—long walk. Thank you ALL for all giving of your time and letting people try something new”
- Mike Sonoc, Participant
“Scuba Instructors were very helpful!”
- McKayla Hanson, Participant
Nashville, Tennessee
“My Instructor was very good! I had a really fun time.”
- Reba Varnadve, Participant
“Very good instructors! Had an awesome time!”
- Tim Carr, Wounded Warrior, Participant
“This session was awesome. This is an experience that my daughter will never forget. Thank you.”
- Debra Jones-Jobe, mother of Alexandra Jobe (age 11)
“Wow! What an amazing time in the water! What a great experience. Thank you so much!”
- Heather Redington, mother of Zion Redington (age 7)
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