Liv Stone’s surfing story is one of the most powerful and inspirational tales you’ll read about.
A congenital, above-the-elbow amputee, Liv discovered a love for surfing in 2015. A native of Pennsylvania, she convinced her family to move to California so that she could pursue the sport full-time.
She won her first International Surfing Association (ISA) World Para Surfing Championship Gold Medal at age 17, and since then, has become a 6x Gold Medalist, 3x Para Surf World Champion, a disability advocate, and a positive voice in the surfing world.
A few months ago, she added to her budding resume by signing with O'Neill.
“Joining the O’Neill team is an absolute dream of mine," Liv said. "It makes me filled with so much gratitude knowing that an incredible surf brand is believing in me and my journey. I am just stoked overall to share more that my disability does not define me but my ability does.”
We caught up with the 20-year-old California transplant to hear more about her first surfing experience, the talent pool of Team USA's Para Surfing crew, and why it’s important to “focus on God’s plan for you.” — Cash Lambert
ASM: Let’s start from the beginning: Talk to us about catching your first wave at a retreat led by Bethany Hamilton.
Live Stone: I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, and heard about Bethany’s retreat in Del Mar in 2015. I applied, got accepted, and it was my first time visiting California. I always really loved the ocean and I had this connection with the water. I grew up watching Soul Surfer with my cousins, so I always looked up to Bethany.
It was a very sunny day. The water was super blue and beautiful and the waves seemed big. I remember there being a ton of spectators and volunteers. She took me out for my first wave, and pushed me into whitewash.
"I stood up on my second wave and felt like the world went blank around me … it was just my surfboard, the ocean, and me. "
I remember hearing my mom yelling for me — “Go Liv!” I used to play soccer, so I recognized that sound. She was so happy and stoked. I remember coming in after the session, and she was teary-eyed. She could see the stoke and passion I had for the water at that moment. She could also see how life-changing the moment was. It was the kickstart of my passion for surfing.
A passion fulfilled. Photo: ISA / Sean Evans
I had a great time getting to know a lot of women there who have disabilities like me, and it was empowering and made me want to pursue my dreams of surfing. I started pursuing that dream with Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). They got me hooked up with East Coast people I could surf with while living in Pennsylvania, and were super supportive when my family decided to move out to California. They’ve been with me every step of the way.
Talk to us about your surfing modifications. What’s the story behind the paddles that we’ve seen you use in the water?
During beginner surf lessons, I quickly found out that I could not paddle out past the break. I had to have someone help me. I thought to myself 'If I’m going to surf myself, I have to figure this out.'
On my way back to Pennsylvania from one of my trips to California, my dad and I were at the airport, bouncing ideas off each other about what I could do to be more safe in the water. My dad used to do triathlons, and he would train with swim paddles. I looked them up and decided to give them a try.
After a lot of trial and error, we found the right paddles that were cupped, along with the best rubber straps to keep them attached to my hand.
Since water was coming through the holes in the paddles, we duct-taped them, and it helped me get past the break faster. They are technically called aquatic prosthetics.
After trial and error, Liv began using swimmer's paddles to help her make out beyond the break. Photo: Jersson Barboza / ISA
They do float, so if they come off, I can find them. This one time, I lost one of my paddles when surfing in Carlsbad, and the current was really bad that day so I couldn’t find it. A while later, a friend called me and asked if I had been surfing in the area, because he found a paddle in the ocean and thought it was mine!
Throughout your journey, what's it been like to meet and inspire others with limb differences?
I never knew anyone when I was really young with a limb difference or any type of disability, really. I always just felt like there was no one out there who was like me. If I saw someone like me I would shy away; my disability was something I didn’t want to face.
So my mom wanted me to go to a camp that welcomed anyone with any type of disability, usually limb loss. When I was about 12 or 13, I went, and I was surrounded by all different types of people with limb differences who were going through the same struggles in school, society and life that I was.
"I felt like I finally found a community of people I could talk freely with about my disability with and there was no shame."
Years after that experience, I learned to surf at Bethany Hamilton’s surf camp and got involved with CAF, and I started going to more and more events where there were people like me. For a long time, I was being mentored by older athletes, Para Olympic athletes. The older I became, the more comfortable I became in my own skin and identity. Just because I have a disability doesn't mean I should settle for being treated differently or treated as less than or unable to do something. I started to grow, and I started to love myself.
I think self-love is so important regardless if you have a disability or not. As I started getting older, now I'm 20 years old, I go to CAF events, surf clinics, and events and I'm the mentor. I’m mentoring these young girls, these young kids in general who mostly have a disability.
"I can be a light in their lives of hope and tell them anything is possible, because I know what it's like being so young and thinking the only one facing something."
Now that I have this social media platform, I can not only inspire those that have disabilities but also inspire able-bodied people. My audience is anyone looking for hope, because there's always a brighter side to your life. And you always have a hopeful future.
Once receiving advice from mentors, Liv now acts as a mentor to the younger generation — a beautiful cycle. Photo: ISA / Pablo Franco
I really love giving back to my CAF community. Now my mom and I get direct messages from parents who have a child with a disability just like mine, and I'm able to walk them through everything and that their child will be ok.
Myself, along with other disability advocates, are trying to pave the way for the upcoming generation so that the mindset and stereotypical norms of society for these young kids won't leave them feeling left out from activities or society.
Talk to us about training. What do you like to do to stay in surfing shape?
When the surf isn’t good, I do yoga. It’s a way for me to meditate on my feelings, become more grounded, and work on my flexibility.
Liv locked in. Photo: ISA / Sean Evans
My surf training is surfing. Beyond that, I think it’s important, surfer or not, to stay physically active. You don't have to be going to the gym making gains or losing weight; it matters more that you’re eating healthy and you’re staying active in some way rather than what the scale says.
I've battled with that by being an athlete my whole life; worrying about what the scale says. It doesn't have to be a pressure thing; what I put into my body food-wise is important, and so is keeping my body moving in some way.
We hear that surfing is therapeutic, and the surf therapy sector has grown rapidly in recent years. How is surfing therapeutic for you?
I feel like surfing, or just being in the ocean, is a great stress reliever … even though I do get stressed if waves are big!
"Surfing is a way to forget about everything else going on in my life — school work, something I’m struggling with — and fully connect with nature, myself, with God. It keeps me present in the moment."
When I help out at surf clinics, I see how the ocean is healing for those with disabilities and how it makes them feel differently.
All smiles in the ocean. Photo: ISA
The ocean doesn't discriminate. It doesn't care your race, ethnicity, sex, or culture. The wave is going to pound you no matter what, and the conditions will affect you like anyone else. No one is bigger than the ocean.
Surfing has kept me grounded and humble, and it makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself.
"It’s a really spiritual connection — God made this beautiful ocean and we get to live and play in it."
Talk about the talent on the US Para Surfing Team.
I’m so honored to be a part of Para Surf team USA. We have a stacked team!
One of my teammates, Faith Lennox, is an incredible surfer. She’s very graceful and elegant when she surfs.
Jose Martinez was injured overseas, he’s in the prone assist division. He absolutely rips! He has this exuding joy, and in and out of the water, he’s a great human being. He shreds — he does insane turns with only a half a limb.
Quinn Waitley, she’s in the prone assist division. She charges! She brings such a positive outlook on life and the ocean.
Our coach, Sean Brody, is the best. He helps us with heat strategies and training at a high level. This way, we’re prepared, and when we surf, we can bring out the best in our surfing and show the judges what we trained so hard for. I love being a part of Team USA.
Liv calls Team USA "stacked". We couldn't agree more. Photo: ISA / Jersson Barboza
At the World Championships recently, everyone was lined up on the pier, encouraging us in the heat and giving us direction. I got sucked to the other side of the pier and couldn’t hear anything, couldn’t hear what was going on. I was super stressed.
Then, a couple of teammates ran to the side of the pier I was on and were giving me heat info and encouraging me, telling me “you got this!” Even if you win or lose, the team is there for you. They’re so supportive.
What’s your advice for the younger generation?
My advice, whether you’re in the surfing world or not … we live in a tough world, because we have so many expectations and so many pressures. I would say to focus on what makes you fulfilled, whether that’s the ocean or not.
"Focus on God’s plan for you."
We don’t have to have everything figured out, but if we have Jesus walking with us step by step, then we will figure it all out and get through hard times.
I know from experience that it’s hard trying to fit in, and hard to feel like you belong anywhere. But you do belong and you will make a difference some day if you just follow your dreams and passion through whatever outlet that is.