I’m not a surfer but I’ve covered enough “small wave” contests on Folly Beach in the past decade to know good carving when I see it.
And a month ago at the Governor’s Cup of Surfing state championship, a girl, who was easily 10 years younger than regular top contenders, caught my eye not only for her aggressive pursuit of waves but for how she attacked them.
My judgment was affirmed when Bree Labiak, who turns 13 today, became the runner-up to the defending state champion, 23-year-old Savannah Bradley of James Island. In addition, Labiak finished first in shortboard and longboard divisions.
Bree says she was “stoked” at how she surfed during the Governor’s Cup and, in classic surfer form, tried to plug two of her sponsors.
“The Governors Cup was a challenge especially going up against older, more experienced surfers like Samantha, but I felt like I was on with my surfing that day,” says Bree.
Days later, in an email exchange with her mother, Lynn Grayden-Labiak, I found out a fact that made Bree’s accomplishments at Governor’s Cup even more compelling.
Bree has cystic fibrosis.
The genetic disease, which affects 30,000 people in the United States, causes the production of thick mucus, which eventually clogs the lungs and can lead to a variety of lung diseases. Cystic fibrosis, or CF, also affects the pancreas, disabling digestive enzymes to break down and absorb food.
Lynn says Bree has the most common mutation for CF, Delta F508, noting that she will exhibit the “classic symptoms of CF (but that) hers’ is progressing slowly right now” because of strict adherence to treatment, a medication schedule, exercise and, yes, “surfing and salt air.”
Bree downplays the effect CF has on her, but admits that surfing makes her “lungs open up and I breathe easier.”
Surfing as therapy?
Bree’s passion for surfing started five years ago, a combination of watching the movie “Soul Surfer” and participating in the Mauli Ola Foundation Surf Experience Day for people enduring cystic fibrosis.
Lynn says, “It was a fate thing, just meant to be. That is how she started. It’s been a ‘learn as we go’ experience.”
Dr. Patrick Flume, director of the Medical University of South Carolina Cystic Fibrosis Center, is familiar with the theory that salt water or air exposure in surfing eases CF, but he thinks it works for another reason.
It’s “because they are out exercising, breathing deep and, sure, perhaps they may aspirate some salt water to make them cough (and clear lungs and airways),” says Flume.
“So I do advocate for surfing, but I would favor any form of aerobic exercise that the person can and will do. I would not tell anyone that surfing is more effective than any other form of exercise in terms of helping manage CF lung disease. We push for them to run, swim, bike, whatever, for the benefits on their lung function as well as the multiple benefits of exercise that all of us can enjoy,” says Flume.
He adds that some data suggests that aerobic exercise may activate the CF protein (cystic fibrosis transmembrane conductance regulator) that is important in all parts of the body, but that in the lungs, it helps maintain a thin layer of fluid atop the airway surface upon which mucus will float.
Similar to benefits of aerobic exercise, Flume says CF experts also urge patients to try playing wind instruments for airway clearance purposes.
In Flume’s 25 years in the CF field, he and colleagues have witnessed the median age of survival go from 23 years to 41 and the disease go from one considered to be a “pediatric condition” to one that is “pediatric onset.” But the profession is far from resting on its laurels as more research is underway to fight the disease.
“Although we love to brag about how the survival in CF keeps improving, CF is a progressive disease and patients still die too young, which is why we push for aggressive management from the start,” says Flume, underscoring the importance of nutrition, adherence to therapies and medication, as well as regular exercise.
A key role
Doing so would be virtually impossible in the early stages of life without a supportive parent.
When Bree took to surfing, her mother was suddenly thrust into a world that was alien to her and to an activity that has tapped nearly all her spare time and money.
So far this year, they have traveled to about 20 competitions and, in two weeks, will head to the Outer Banks for the Eastern Surfing Association’s championship, known as the “Easterns.”
In between contests, Lynn says she and Bree “go where the waves are,” which are at least a 40-to-50 minute drive, one-way, from Conway.
“She’s in the water six to seven days a week. Garden City, Surfside Beach and Myrtle Beach are the most frequent locations but if waves are happening, we will go to Carolina Beach or Wrightsville to … Pawleys Island. Anywhere there are waves.”
And when Bree gets check-ups at the Medical University of South Carolina, mother and daughter head out to Folly Beach.
Being a surf mom has been challenging for Lynn, who works as an evidence technician for the Myrtle Beach Police Department, but she benefits from it as well.
“This (surfing) is all we do. It has unfortunately done a number on my wallet and bank account. Being a single mom, it’s been hard, but when I see her so strong out in the water, that makes it all worth it,” says Lynn.
“We have been able to travel to places that we probably would never have gone. We have met some fun people along the way. It has changed my life in only a positive way. It gives me hope for Bree. Hope that she will remain strong and healthy for a good long time.”