How Jade ‘Red’ Wheatley took on the world.
Jade ‘Red’ Wheatley was 19 when a jobsite accident changed the course of his life. Jade was driving a compaction roller (similar to a steamroller) for a Civil Construction company when an embankment collapsed and Jade’s legs were pinned beneath the roof of the multi-tonne machinery. One leg was amputated six days after the accident and eighteen months later he begged doctors to take off the other because it had become a dysfunctional mess of metal and pipes that and only served as a further encumbrance. Eventually the surgeons obliged and soon after Red’s surfing career really kicked in.
Temporarily wheelchair bound he would roll himself the four or so kilometres from Broadmeadow to Bar Beach, Newcastle where he’d lock up his chair and then launch himself down the steep sand dune with his body board. “I use to stay out for about six-eight hours because it would be too hot to crawl back up the dune,” recalls Red with a chuckle.
After the accident surfing became Red’s mental and physical therapy and he’d spend most of his time in the water. When the amputation from the second leg healed he got is prosthetic legs and was walking straight away. Once he became more mobile on land, Red also started seeking a different perspective from which to appreciate waves and began developing his own surfing technique. Kneeboarding was pointless because without his lower legs he didn’t have leverage so instead he started standing up on the two stumps that he had been left with for legs. “I guess you’d call it a goofy-footer stance,” he explains. “I use my front hand a bit too – for grab rail turns.”
Red surfed hard for eight solid years, travelling all around Australia and to Samoa and Indonesia. The momentum of hollower and heavier waves actually make it easier for him and he’s well known around Newcastle for his barrel riding. Explaining his reputation for getting tubed, Red again adopts the self-deprecating tone, “Well it’s pretty easy getting barrelled when you are only about two feet high on the wave.”
After almost a decade dedicated to waves, the father of two concedes he actually felt a little surfed out. “It sounds funny but I almost got sick of surfing.” Hardly one to shy away from a challenge he took on a job in the mining industry and invariably chose a role driving exactly the kind of machinery that had been responsible for his accident as a 19-year-old. “The first job I got back was on a Roller… It was pretty much like climbing back on the horse that bit me!” explains Red with a chuckle.
With his passion for surfing revived, Red is now committed to building the profile of adaptive surfing and making it accessible for more people. While Red pledges his loyalty to the disabled surfing association, who were integral part of his surfing journey, in recent years he has acknowledged the need for an official body that caters for a range of board-riders who are still surfing at a higher level in spite of their injuries.
“I want to see adaptive surfing turned into more of a high performance sport. We’ve adapted to the ocean and can handle ourselves out there and we want to get some more athletes involved… The disabled surfing association don’t really want to compete but we love competing and it’s all about having fun.”
Last year Red travelled to La Jolla in California for the inaugural World Adaptive Surfing Championships, where he competed alongside good friend, Mark ‘Mono’ Stewart. Red made the quarters while Mark went on to win his division of the competition. More recently Red helped organise the Australian Adaptive Surfing games in June, where he finished second and requalified to return to the world championships again in La Jolla. This year he’s hoping for bigger waves and plans to have his equipment more dialled in.
As Red prepares for the next world championships he also has support from an unexpected source. Recently his surfing prowess was spotted by an employee for health care fund, HCF, and soon after he was recommended to be part of a TV ad. Since then he has become the face of one of HCF’s latest campaigns.
In order to raise awareness, and funds for other surfers to get involved in adaptive surfing events, Red is commencing his Walk for Waves on July 30. He plans to walk from Newcastle to Sydney, staying at surf clubs and surfing along the way. To find out how you can register to walk, have a surf with Red, or contribute to the cause check out www.walkforwaves.com.
The charity event will culminate with a Harbour Bridge walk on the 10th August 2016. Red can’t help but marvel at the coincidence of the final date. “It will be the sixteen year anniversary of my accident, ” he muses. Traversing the bridge will be just one more overpass in a life that has been all about crossing new thresholds.