How a surfing dog helped kids with spinal muscular atrophy truly live life

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Last Friday, the view from the lineup at La Jolla Shores in La Jolla, California, contained a somewhat unusual sight: a handful of children in wheelchairs, parked on the soft San Diego sand, ready to go surfing.

Some of the children were ecstatic. Some were hesitant. But they were bonded by a common theme: They all suffer from spinal muscular atrophy (SMA).

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Spinal muscular atrophy is an incurable and degenerative hereditary disease that negatively affects the nerve cells in the spinal cord, slowly taking away a person’s ability to walk, eat and breathe. According to Cure SMA, it is the number one genetic cause of death for infants.

Joanna Sommerville says that being able to do things like surf with Ricochet allows Bailey (left) and Riley (right) to experience life like their able-bodied peers. Photo: Courtesy of Cure SMA

But on Friday, the harsh reality of life with SMA was put aside for this group of children. All they wanted to do was surf, and to do so with a special friend: Ricochet, the famed surf therapy dog.

“We like to call her a SURFice dog, because she was supposed to be a service dog and couldn’t handle it, but now she’s found her niche helping others surf,” Judy Fridono, Ricochet’s owner, told GrindTV about her pup.

Ricochet gained fame seven years ago when a video of her helping disabled individuals surf went viral. In the time since, Fridono estimates that Ricochet has raised somewhere over $450,000 for an array of causes while volunteering at various adaptive surf clinics held in San Diego.

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And on Friday, Fridono and Ricochet joined the Cure SMA foundation for the second annual “Surf Away SMA” in La Jolla to give a few children the opportunity to catch some waves.

Ricochet surfing dogRicochet has been working in therapeutic surfing for seven years. Photo: Courtesy of Cure SMA

“Sometimes, Ricochet might be physically helping a child standup on a surfboard, if they’re putting their hands on her hind legs to standup,” said Fridono.

“But the biggest thing she’s contributing is empowerment,” Fridono continued. “If she’s surfing with a child who has been told they’ll never be able to do something on their own, and they’re on a board with Ricochet, it’s the first time some of them have ever really been independent.”

It’s that spirit of rebelling against the odds that drew Joanna and Derek Sommerville, along with their two daughters Riley, 4, and Bailey, 3, to Surf Away SMA.

Riley and Bailey have both been diagnosed with type-1 SMA — also known as Werdnig-Hoffmann disease — a diagnosis that proves fatal for the majority of sufferers before they turn 2.

“Initially when Riley was diagnosed, I was already pregnant with Bailey, and it was devastating,” Joanna Sommerville told GrindTV. “You know, at first you hear, ‘She’ll never walk,’ and I think that’s just a huge blow.”

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“But then to hear that it will only continue to get worse until she can’t breathe on her own, and that eventually she will pass away from it,” Sommerville continued. “That’s the news we received. It’s hard to hear that.”

Sommerville said that when Bailey was born, she had her tested for SMA immediately, only to find out that like her sister, Bailey had type-1 SMA.

Ricochet surfing dogWhile her disease leaves her unable to speak, Bailey’s smile says a thousand words. Photo: Cure SMA

“I think initially you’re overwhelmed,” said Sommerville. “But once we got plugged into the SMA community, we learned there were different resources and things we could utilize for them.”

From there, Sommerville said her family’s focus turned squarely on helping Bailey and Riley do everything people said they couldn’t.

“My husband and I talked and were like, ‘Well, why can’t they do certain things?’ Sommerville said. “We went to the zoo and the workers were saying they couldn’t ride the camels, and we were able to hold Riley and help her ride it. When someone at first says your child can’t do something, and then they do it, it’s just awesome … I don’t really think I can put the feeling in words.”

surfing dogRicochet helped Bailey experience surfing, and made her day. Photo: Courtesy of Cure SMA

So along with Ricochet and a crew of helpers, Sommerville ferried Bailey and Riley toward the water, strapped onto foam surfboards.

At times it was nerve-racking: Bailey breathes through a tracheostomy, making the potential of ocean water getting into her lungs via the open hole in her neck very real.
But ultimately, the day went off without a hitch, and Sommerville’s two children were ecstatic.

“Riley just kept talking about how it was the best day ever and how she didn’t want to leave the beach,” said Sommerville. “Our goal has never been to have them be alive just to be alive, but to actually enjoy life for however long they’re here.”

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