Not even jelly fish stings or a dunking in the ocean could wipe the grin off Sabrina Cohen’s face as she returned to the ocean on Sunday after being stranded on dry land for more than two decades.
“This is a really emotional day for me,” said Cohen, who was paralyzed in 1992 and hadn’t been back on the beach because such sandy stretches are inaccessible to wheelchairs. But that dry spell ended the moment Cohen joyously led her friends back into surf once again for a special sneak peek at the fully accessible beach her foundation is spearheading in Miami Beach.
“I grew up as a beach girl so having no access to the beach has been very frustrating to me,” said Cohen. “We used to rock the beach quite a bit,” she added, gesturing to her friend, Allison Dunne, who was there to witness Cohen’s return to the water. The last time the two had been to the beach was when they were both 14 years old, just days before the accident that left Cohen a quadriplegic.
Last year, the Sabrina Cohen Foundation (SCF) teamed up with the City of Miami Beach to help improve beach access for those with disabilities. This past June, the commissioners voted unanimously to designate the first fully accessible beach in the State of Florida. She also received a $15,000 grant from the Miami Foundation for special equipment that will enable the disabled to make full use of the beach, with equipment such as adaptive picnic tables and surfboards. SCF is also currently raising funds for an adaptive playground on this site, as well as the creation of an adaptive fitness center nearby.
With the grand opening of the beach still months away, Cohen organized this special “orientation day” to get feedback from her fellow disabled friends, as well as hold sensitivity training for the lifeguards and other safety personnel that will be involved.
But mostly it was a day of triumph and joy, as the disabled participants were led, on special beach chairs, into the water, or helped onto adaptive surfboards, to enjoy the aqua water that makes Miami Beach one of the world’s top tourist destination.
Chris Makos, the executive director of the Sabrina Cohen Foundation, held back tears as he recalled the day last year when Cohen, fed up with being sidelined on the asphalt, tried to maneuver her wheelchair into the sand and got stuck. They had to enlist four tourists to help him free her heavy wheelchair.
“Oh wow, this is a realization of a dream,” said Makos. “Yes,” agreed Cohen, recalling that day. “That was an embarrassing day for me. But, as my wheels were spinning, the wheels in my brain started to spin as well. Up until that point, the beach had been my blind spot. I was accustomed to not being able to go there, so I didn’t think about it. That day was my turning point,” said Cohen. She had trained for over a year for this day, overcoming her fear of the water in the process.
Sunday was a postcard perfect day except for the high jellyfish count in the water. But even the stinging didn’t dampen Sabrina’s enthusiasm, or that of any of her other wheelchair-bound friends.
Although he is wheelchair bound, Alan T. Brown swims in triathlons. But Sunday marked the first time that, on his adaptive surfboard, he caught a wave. “This is very special for me because I got hurt in the ocean,” he said, noting the day in 1988 that he was caught in the undertow and flipped over, severing his spinal cord. But now he had conquered the waves.
“I’ve been swimming for years, but it’s always been me alone. Now I will have my community with me. This is what makes this beach priceless,” said Brown, who is the director of public impact at the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation. As for Cohen, he added, “She’s the best. If she gets determined to do something, don’t get in her way.”
The adaptive beach is a “game changer,” said David McCauley. “Having a centralized location with beach wheelchairs, umbrellas, and accessible bathrooms will make for a pleasurable and independent experience. The activities that are planned, like art workshops, yoga and adaptive surfing are the icing on the cake,” he added.
“This beach will create access to many activities that previously we were unable to enjoy. Now, swimming, surfing and relaxing on the sand will be possible for us, agreed Woody Beckham, whose spine was injured while he was playing rugby for Florida Atlantic University in 2011.
Many Miami Beach officials, including Commissioner Ed Tobin, were on hand to witness one of their most famous residents’ return to the ocean. “We are doing this for Sabrina because it’s the right thing to do,” said Tobin. “The mayor and all the commissioners are behind it, but 99.99 percent of the effort goes to Sabrina, ” he added. Vinnie Canosa, division chief of Ocean Rescue, agreed. “Unofficially speaking, I’d like to see this stretch named ‘Sabrina’dBeach,” he said.
As for Cohen, she brushed aside the accolades, saying she can’t wait to get back in the water. “This was way cool,” she said, adding, “I could have stayed out all day.”
More info: Sabrina Cohen Foundation