Olivia Stone forged her independence out on the waves, with a heavy nudge from the power of competition.
Stone, of Manheim, is a congenital amputee. She was born with her hands fused, with two fingers on each one. Her arms are short, making it difficult to play sports involving the use of her hands.
But when Stone is on her surf board, none of that matters.
“I finally found what I’m great at and to be able to perform in front of people and be on the water is an amazing feeling,” Stone said by phone.
Last December, less than two years after Stone, 16, rode her first wave, she represented the United States in the World Adaptive Surfing Championship in San Diego, helping the Americans earn gold.
Now temporarily residing in California with her mother, Michelle Stone, Olivia is working toward goals she never knew she had. “I have big dreams,” she said. “Let me tell you.”
Catching the wave
As she grew up, the only thing Stone knew about her passion was that she hadn’t yet found it.
She watched as friends and family dove into sports, art and academics, wondering when her turn would come.
The drive to compete is in Stone’s blood. She grew up playing soccer, and liked it. But it wasn’t her passion. Her father, Tom Stone, played football at Lebanon Valley College and her brothers, Adam and Alex, were both on the rifle team at Manheim Central.
“I was always around to see them pushing for greatness,” Olivia said. “It’s like, I want that too.”
Then Stone went on a Bethany Hamilton retreat, which brings together young women with limb differences or loss of limb, and tried surfing. (Hamilton was featured in the movie ‘’Soul Surfer’’ about her life as a surfer after having her left arm bitten off by a shark.)
On her second wave, Stone successfully mounted her board and her enthusiasm grew every time she got in the water.
“It was like I already knew what I was doing even though I’ve only been doing it for a week,” she said. “It just felt incredible. I’ve never felt that about anything else.”
There was a problem though — Manheim is no surfer’s paradise and Stone had no local outlet for her newfound interest.
She was forced to wait. The following summer, the Challenged Athletes Foundation invited her to a three-day clinic in Encinitas, California, where Stone spent hours in the water each day — exposing herself to the physical grind of hardcore surfing for the first time.
“Even then, my love for the sport grew more and more,” she said. “After that trip, I was like, OK, this is what I want to pursue.”
So Stone and her parents packed into the car every weekend and drove to the New Jersey coast, where Stone worked regularly with a coach.
As winter neared and the water got too cold for surfing, Stone began lobbying her parents for a full-time move.
All the validation the Stone family needed to make a drastic change to the family’s path stemmed from an Instagram direct message.
It came from Dani Burt, a captain on the American Adaptive Surfing team, inviting Olivia to join Team USA for the World Championships.
Burt had watched Olivia surf at a clinic put on by the Challenged Athlete Foundation and knew she needed more surfers to fill out the team.
Burt was struck by Olivia’s competitiveness as well as her physical strength.
“Because she has shorter upper arms, all she uses to stand up on a board is her core and her legs,” Burt said. “It is amazing to watch her. She’s just so strong, and so competitive and so capable. I just felt that she was ready to take her surfing to the next level.”
But the invitation came with a caveat — Olivia would not be permitted to have anyone in the water assisting her and she couldn’t use paddles that made it easier for her to move in the water.
She doubted herself. In the days leading up to the World Championships, she undertook the pressure of competing in the most important event of her life while also battling the uncertainty that came along with tackling something new.
Just days before she was set to compete in the World Championships, Olivia surfed without any assistance for the first time.
“I’m paddling and thinking, ‘Oh gosh, what’s going to happen?’ ” Olivia said. “And without a push, I feel the wave take me and I just stand up. It just happened.”
Just like that, she had earned independence in the water — something that’s always been important to her.
Olivia will ask for help if she needs it, but she enjoys showing others that she’s more than capable of doing things on her own.
Now able to do that on her surfboard, Olivia had turned a corner.
“It’s just like a huge thing,” she said, “me having a disability and showing people that I can do this myself, and even showing myself out
that I can do this.”
She doesn’t plan to stop any time soon.
Big things ahead
About those “big dreams” of Olivia’s — she isn’t the only one buying in.
Olivia and her mother are currently living in San Diego, five minutes away from the beach.
Michelle Stone, as a travel consultant, can work remotely. Tom Stone cannot, so he visits roughly once a month.
“We’re like separated, but not separated, if that makes sense,” Michelle Stone said. “We’re just living on different coasts right now, trying to make this work for her.”
There, Olivia trains with two different coaches every week and volunteers weekly at Wounded Warrior Foundation clinics, helping others surf.
Olivia’s hope is to one day surf professionally and in the Paralympics.
Training as a surfer is a gradual process, she said, and she knows it will take time to get where she wants to be.
Olivia and Michelle Stone are committed to remaining in San Diego through the end of August, and the family is still trying to sort out what the future looks like after that. Olivia has already begun scouting colleges on the west coast, allowing her to remain close to the water.
In the meantime, Olivia will continue talking openly about her life as a congenital amputee. That hasn’t always been easy, she said. The looks of curiosity from those she didn’t know used to bother her.
Thanks in part to the confidence she’s gained by surfing, Olivia is candid now. She’ll even crack an occasional joke.
That’s the power of a sense of belonging.
“Being on Team USA, getting all these coaches and being out here, it’s made me feel a lot more confident in who I am as a person and an amputee,” she said. “It just makes me belong in a place where I never felt like I could.”