First Dive

Feel the Freedom with OPAF First Dive™ Scuba

Chris Fosmire

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.”

Carole & Chris

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.”

Buffalo

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".

Buffalo poolside

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.”

David goes into the pool Dr. Laura

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".

Allison & Laura wave

“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.”

For more information on OPAF or First Dive™ Scuba Clinics contact Robin Burton at 980-819-9404.

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