Sean Fitzgibbon is a busy man. If you ask him what he does for a living, be ready to have a pen and paper set to go – the list goes on and on. Fitzgibbon, 33 years old from St. Petersburg, Fla., works full time as an orthotic fitter and prosthetic technician for St. Petersburg Limb & Brace. But he also squeezes in working at a local skating rink and serving as a kayak instructor and guide for Osprey Bay Outdoors. Throw in taking care of his two sons, 8-month-old Kai and 11-year-old Torin, and it is clear to see that Fitzgibbon’s schedule is pretty much booked solid.
So it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Fitzgibbon plans on competing in multiple events at July’s O&P Extremity Games by College Park. He will go against some of the best amputee athletes in the country in both surfing and advanced kayaking.
Drawn to the water
Fitzgibbon has been a right transtibial amputee since the age of 3 – the result of a congenital birth defect. Born and raised in Florida, Fitzgibbon grew up around the water, and naturally gravitated to water sports. At 11 years old, he took up surfing and entered his first competition when he was 21. Success quickly followed for Fitzgibbon, beginning in 2002 when he placed first in both the East Coast Surfing Championships, as well as the National Surfing Championships. In both instances, Fitzgibbon competed against able-bodied athletes.
His success in 2002 would be the first of four consecutive East Coast and National Surfing titles – all against able-bodied athletes. Fitzgibbon was also named “Surfer of the Year” in 2004 when he received the Buddy Pelletier Sportsmanship Award, the most prestigious award given out by the East Coast Surfing Championships.
Yet, even with all the accolades Fitzgibbon has amassed during his surfing career, it always seemed that there was something missing. So when Eric Robinson, president of College Park Industries, had Fitzgibbon and fellow amputee surfer Tim Sutherland (also a multiple East Coast and National Surfing Championship winner) out to California for a photo shoot in 2005, an interesting question arose.
The start of something big
“[Robinson] flew us out for this photo shoot and we’re sitting on the beach and he said to me, ‘What is the one thing you dislike about surfing right now, on a national level?’ And I said, ‘You know there is not much I don’t like because I do like the able-bodied surfing and I do like being compared to an able-bodied person.’ But the one thing though, when Eric and I got to talking, was I thought it would be neat if we had an event that exclusively showcased what amputees could do – whether it be surfing, whatever. I said it would be cool to be out there limb loss to limb loss,” Fitzgibbon recounted.
Robinson was already ahead of him, though, and since that day on the beach Fitzgibbon has watched the O&P Extremity Games morph into something bigger than he had ever imagined. He also did his part to help get things off the ground, including supplying all the kayaks used at last year’s games, when the sport was just an exhibition event. According to Fitzgibbon, competing against other amputees captivates a separate part of the amputee-mindset.
Being around peers
“I thought it was honor to compete against able-bodied people and to have beaten them, but on the same note there is nothing like being around peers. If you are a biker you don’t want to go hang out with tennis players, you want to be around other bikers,” Fitzgibbon said. “If you are an amputee, I hate to say it makes us different than an able-bodied person, and although it is great to surf with these able-bodied guys, it is even better to surf with amputees.”
Fitzgibbon also credits the camaraderie felt at an event like the Extremity Games for removing the chip-on-the-shoulder-mentality that exists when he surfs and kayaks against able-bodied athletes.
“To win against someone able-bodied meant it stopped becoming proving to the rest of the world that I could beat an able-bodied person and more so proving to myself that I could beat an able-bodied person. But after I did that once, twice, it didn’t seem to mean as much later on. … I do more than most people who have all four limbs,” he said. “For me, it’s not even a big deal in my eyes that I can beat somebody able-bodied – I know I can do that. I think it just brings out more of a negative side, as opposed to when we’re competing limb loss to limb loss, there is no negativity. I don’t know why that is. For me, whether I win or lose to an amputee I could care less. The point was that I got to hang out with like-minded people and I got to have fun doing a sport.”
It is this sentiment that seems to embody the concept and spirit of the Extremity Games. In the back of all the competitors’ minds, winning is almost always secondary. Inspiration and continuing motivation are the primary reasons for these athletes wanting to showcase their skills. Fitzgibbon admitted that since showing other amputees how to kayak, and seeing the look on their faces having only gone for a short spin, has reminded him why he loves to kayak himself.
He said since last year’s games he has kayaked three times as much as he previously had, simply by being reminded of the joy of sitting inches above the water, armed with just a paddle. Fitzgibbon will also be the first person to tell you it is not about a final medal tally, it is about the experience.
“It is a great event just to go and to meet people, learn people’s life experiences. For me, foremost, I’d like to go and just have a good time. That is the bottom line. The competition’s great and it’s neat to see what that brings out in people; I’d like to think that it doesn’t, unlike a lot of sports, bring out the worst in people. I would like to think that the Extremity Games is bringing out the best in people.”
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Andrew Kelly is the assistant editor of O&P Business News.