An Amputee Story: Stand, Walk, Surf, Repeat


Fabrizio Passetti

My Greatest Passion Is Surfing

I’m 32 years old, I was born in Genoa, Italy. My greatest passion is surfing. My love for surfing and the waves have never faltered, even in the hardest moments. It was actually that passion that has given me the strength to accept my challenge. I would have given my life for the possibility to get back to the water and live those fantastic moments again; moments that only surfing could give me. I would have given anything to feel that adrenaline again and return to that lifestyle, waking up at dawn to ride the best waves, feeling the mounting excitement the night before a ride, and sharing that with my friends. I started surfing at 13, shortly after moving to Varazze, one of the best surf spots in Italy, with my family. I hadn’t had the opportunity to know the sport before then. In Varazze I saw some photos on the wall in a bar and got to know the local surfers, who soon became my models and very good friends. I didn’t take long to understand that I had to follow that passion and that surfing was what made me feel complete. 

I was the youngest in my spot and along with my great mate and fantastic surfer, Fabio Giusto, we learned faster than everybody else. We were the grommets, two reckless little rebels, who had no fear and pushed ourselves really hard; two daredevils.

We started to take part in contests, although we didn’t really find exciting executing tricks to get a score. We would rather explore moves and do tricks ourselves, to improve our level and to have fun. We always finished in the top rankings and Fabietto was always one step ahead of me. At 16 I competed in the Italian National Championships, for what would be the last time. I placed 5th and Fabietto placed 3rd. That disappointing placement motivated me to try again the following year, so I started training really hard and in a matter of months I reached a level far above the previous year. It was the year 2000, and I could finally say I could surf.

The Motorcycle Accident That Changed My Life

A few months before the championships I was involved in a motorcycle accident with a friend and I lost a leg. Luckily my friend wasn’t hurt. A calvary started: the day of my 18th birthday, on September 9, I was told my leg had to be amputated. Years in hospital ensued, infections, painful rehabilitation, and more infections. For a year and a half I couldn’t even wear a prosthetic limb, but the was most painful part was that I couldn’t get back at sea.

Finally, in Switzerland, thanks to a great professor, Sebastiano Martinoli, (my son’s second name is Sebastiano, in his honour), the infection healed. He managed to thoroughly clean the bone and treated me with sea water. Simple. Thanks to him, the part of joint I had left was intact (my amputation ends in the middle of the kneecap, which allows me only about 60% of movement). I started walking again, rather well, and a normal life resumed. I traveled and started a rewarding career as a chef, working in Italy, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand.

If There Is A Will, There Is A Way

In the meantime, one way or the other, I was trying to get back at sea with any kind of device: I practiced body board, using a resin prosthetic leg with a fixed foot which allowed no movement, and which I used to loose every time I was at sea. And the bigger the waves and harder the conditions, the more stubborn I became, but sometimes the frustration was unbearable. For years I had nightmares.

Then, back in Italy, I had an important relationship and a child. My son became my priority, replacing the sea and filling a void. Filippo is the most important person in my life, my angel. I felt I wanted to transmit to him my passion for surfing and the sea, as this is the only legacy I could leave. However, at the beginning, my passion had the opposite effect on Filippo, who, although very young, could perceive how much it was also hurting me.

Life proceeded normally until my knee got infected again due to a fault in the prosthetic leg, as it had been built off-axis. I fought not to have my leg amputated further. The treatments were long and painful: eight months of hyperbaric chamber, three IV antibiotics per day, endless waiting times, careless doctors, a cumbersome health system and orthopaedists who were disheartening, to say the least. They didn’t care if I could walk again, let alone believe I could surf again. Despite the excruciating pain, I bought myself a wet suite and on my own initiative I began to go swimming every day to rehabilitate the leg. I also used to go the gym, while still following the IV antibiotic course. The knee was getting better, almost miraculously. Then, with a fantastic doctor specialised in infectious diseases, doctor Carrega, who had known me for a long time and knew how active I had been before the relapse, we asked the prosthetic clinic to build a new prosthesis so that I could try to support the leg. But the centre refused to do it as they “didn’t want to take the responsibility”, which was ironic, since they had put me in that situation in the first place.

One day, while I was with my father and my son, in the spur of a moment, I took an old prosthetic leg I had used in the past to walk, I wrapped it with sellotape up until around my waist, took a surfboard and entered the sea: as if I was in a dream I stood up on the board a rode a couple of waves. Happy, I told my son: “There will be one day when it will be just you, me and the sea.”

So, I went back to the clinic and asked to build a prosthesis I had designed, which was suitable for surfing. With my new limb I left for Bali. The first week everything was perfect: I started surfing again, not as well as I used to, but it felt like I had two legs. After a short while however, the prosthesis started falling apart, piece after piece. Every day I had to repair it, using whatever piece of equipment and tool I could find. Thanks to the strength, the peace and the friendship of the local people I had met, I kept on surfing the biggest and most absurd spots in the region. I fell countless times, but I lived many moments of magic.

Three Years Later

In these years I was the first Italian to participate in the California Adaptive Surfing Championship in California. I brought this discipline to italy, created the first adaptive surfing school in Italy, making me financially independent.  During these three years I have been working with engineers, friends, personal trainers to patent a prosthetic leg that costs a quarter of the Italian retailer's selling price. In these years, I have not found a company that supports me economically as an athlete in my project. With my surf school, I would like to be able to give prosthetic legs to children who want to surf- who like me do not have insurance to buy prosthetic legs.


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