Dani Burt never thought she would be a surfing champion. But earlier this month, the 31 year old clinched her title as U.S. Champion in the adaptive division of the USA Surfing Championships in Oceanside, Calif.
“I was stoked because I had absolutely no idea," Burt told NBC News. "So, I was slowly coming to the shore, and I heard people yell. Cuyla [Coogan, her fiancée] came up and said, 'Do you know what happened? You won!'”
Burt, who bested her competitor, a male surfer, can add this to a growing number of accolades she has earned as an adaptive surfer and, oftentimes, one of the only female competitors. It’s something she couldn’t fathom doing over a decade ago: in 2004, while riding her motorcycle down Mount Palomar in San Diego, Burt lost control of her bike while making a turn and careened 45 feet down the mountainside.
She incurred life-threatening injuries including a ruptured spleen, fractured neck, broken ribs, and collapsed lungs. While Burt remained in a five-week drug-induced coma, doctors amputated her right leg above-the-knee to help her battle acute respiratory syndrome in her lungs.
Burt did not find out about the amputation until after she awoke from her coma. The shock, she said, was almost unbearable and had the New Jersey native contemplating suicide. She underwent months of physical therapy and rehabilitation, including a community re-entry program to help her adapt to her amputation.
“It’s definitely hard going out in public with a body you don’t really recognize anymore, that can’t do what it used to do,” said Burt, who had been an avid skateboarder and athlete before her accident. “That was really impactful.”
Her rehabilitation inspired her to pursue a career in physical therapy, and she earned her doctorate in physical therapy from San Diego State University. Now, Burt works at Sharp Memorial Hospital in San Diego alongside the same therapists who once helped her.
But it wasn’t until she saw a video of Paralympic snowboarder Amy Purdy, a double leg amputee, that Burt started toying with the idea of participating in the action sports she had loved before her accident.
Before long, she was snowboarding, skateboarding, and surfing. She continues to work closely with a prosthetist to fabricate surf-friendly legs from parts of her old prostheses, a process she says can make action sports more accessible for amputees.
Among the many tattoos that adorn her body is a Frederick Douglass quote — "If there is no struggle, there is no progress" — on her arm, written in Korean as an homage to her heritage (her father is a Korean-American adoptee).
“I mean, I think about it: you can discriminate me on so many levels. I’m disabled, I’m female, and I’m gay,” she said. “But I’m just stoked about who I am now.”
Burt adds that she hopes to spread her mission statement, “make it possible,” to other amputees and disabled athletes, including patients of hers who have also undergone unexpected amputations.
“They see my pictures, they see my videos, and it just gives them hope again that one day, they’ll be able to do something like that — you’ll get in the water, you’ll get up that mountain, you’ll get to that skate park. It’s just a matter of figuring out how,” she said.
"Make It Possible" is part of "NBC Asian America Presents...," a video channel by NBC Asian America that features documentaries and longform content centered around themes and voices found in Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.