Diving disabled is not the typical image one conjures up when picturing a scuba diver exploring the vast underwater beauty of the oceans.
In fact, most people are unaware that someone who has a disability is capable of scuba diving.
When you consider the logistics of simply getting suited up, or into the boat, it seems daunting at best, if not impossible.
Then there's the travel time to the diving site, plus the issue of getting in and out of the water.
Once disabled divers are in the water, they then have to navigate the terrain below the water's surface.
The whole process seems complex and impossible, but it's not. In fact, scuba diving is a sport disabled divers are passionate about. Whether you're a paraplegic, quadriplegic, blind, an amputee, or mentally disabled, this is a sport that can be enjoyed. In fact it is the great equalizer.
Disabled individuals participate in a multitude of sports on a daily basis. However, for anyone confined to a wheelchair, this is the one sport that provides true physical freedom and liberation. Scuba diving is a sport that does not require the chair to serve as an integral accessory, and the term 'diving disabled' becomes a misnomer.
Whether you're one of those adventurous spirits who already scuba dives or you're considering taking up this thrilling sport, you'll want to check out our information on scuba diving charters and fishing charters capable of accommodating people with disabilities
Torsten Gross Diving Without Fins In A Training Class
Conveniently located, scuba diving Florida Keys is also an affordable choice for anyone who dabbles in this sport, or for those who are
passionately addicted to it.
The crystal clear, warm water of the Florida Keys is a magnet, drawing divers from around the globe. Saturated with brightly colored tropical fish and brilliant coral, numerous naturally destroyed and purposely scuttled shipwrecks, the area is a complex reef system that's a scuba diving mecca.
Torsten Gross is an avid scuba diver, who's passionate about exploring the underwater beauty of the Florida Keys, and elsewhere. I believe his interview will help dispel certain misconceptions about people with disabilities. We also believe this interview will provide valuable information for those who are disabled.
FKV: Torsten, I know you've just returned
from a rather hectic diving trip, so I'd like to thank you for taking
the time to speak with us today.
I have a number of questions I'd like to cover, but I think it's important to put a few things into perspective for our Readers.
First, you're relatively new to the world of scuba diving yet you're already an avid diver.
Second, scuba diving is one of the more exhilarating sports, yet it's remains a sport of the few. It's reserved for men and women who are willing to experience an exciting and totally different world.
Third, you're also different from the majority of divers who enjoy this sport. Different in that you are a quadriplegic. The fact that your physical disability does not limit you from participating in this sport is exciting, and for some of our Readers, amazing.
Why don't we start off with you sharing a bit about yourself, and tell us where you are in your life right now.
TG: Well I work in the advertising industry and I live on Roosevelt Island which is a small island on the East River between New York City and Queens.
The island is about 800 feet wide by 2 miles long, and only 12,000 people live here. I grew up in the area and now I live on the island with my beautiful wife, and my 5 year old blue heeler. We've been talking about moving out to the
'burbs in the next year or so as Maggie and I are becoming more domesticated and will probably start a family in the next year.
Maggie And Torsten Gross
FKV: Does Maggie scuba dive with you?
TG: Yes, Maggie is a great diver. She actually has gotten her Handicapped Service Association Buddy Certification so she can dive with me, without anyone else having to come along.
FKV: Was Maggie a diver before you? Was she the one who got you interested in diving?
TG: I've always been interested in the sport, but she got her certification and advanced certification before I met her, when she was at Florida State.
FKV: Just to clarify for our Readers, Maggie does not have a spinal cord injury. That's why she's able to be certified as an HSA Buddy.
TG: Yes. Not only is Maggie not in a chair, she's a triathlon athlete. Right now she's out on a 16 mile run because she's training for this year's New York City Marathon.
FKV: Does she go to the Florida Keys to run in the 7 Mile Bridge Run or the Ragnar Relay?
TG: No, I don't think she's done that yet.
Torsten Gross Heading Out For A Day Of Key Largo Diving
FKV: You'll have to tell her about these events, they're a lot of fun!
Now let's talk about your spinal cord injury. I know that you're a C6, and that your accident occurred when you were 15. You were on vacation with your family and you had just arrived at the Club Med on Paradise Island. You quickly grabbed a bite to eat, then raced to the beach where you dove in head first. Unfortunately you hit your head on the ocean floor, breaking one of your vertebrae into 36 minute pieces.
I imagine most people don't fully understand what a C6 injury means. Can you explain that to us?
TG: Well first a quadriplegic is someone who has compromised motion in 4 limbs. There are people like Christopher Reeves, where their break is very high up. Christopher had no motion in his hands, fingers, arms, shoulders or legs which are the 4 limbs.
I have compromised motion in 4 of my limbs. I can't move my 2 legs, but I am able to move my arms. However my finger motion isn't very good so it's compromised, making me quadriplegic.
FKV: So your pinching, tweezer finger dexterity is minimal or nonexistent, is that correct?
TG: Yes, I have trouble gripping objects hard. That's the difference between my injury and a paraplegic who can't use his legs but still has his finger motion in tact.
FKV: OK, now let's discuss scuba diving as a sport for you. When I read your article, "The Meaning of Diving (as I See It)" in Diving Without Fins, I found it to be inspirational and hilarious. I just loved that article.
My first thought was that this is a tremendous
way to build up muscle in areas that are heavily atrophied. But when
diving disabled, you're not able to move those body parts in the water,
so you're not improving those muscles are you?
TG: No. Diving doesn't make it possible for me to move anything that I physically couldn't move myself on land. However your notion is right. The way I get through the water is by moving my arms. If I dive and I'm under water for 50 minutes, that means I'm getting 50 minutes of intensive upper body cardio.
I've got to tell you Cathy, when I get out of the water, I am so exhausted because it's just a continual motion of pushing and swimming. It's an amazing, amazing workout.
FKV: Yes, and when you think about it, you're in a very liberated position. You're not in a chair. You're not lying down. You're actually in a full upright, or in your case, a 45 degree angle. But the point of it is, horizontal, vertical, anyway you happen to be, you have more physical freedom than above water.
Torsten Gross Learning To Inflate In A Training Class
TG: Yes. For me the benefits of scuba diving is rarely the swimming part, it's the freedom. Not having the chair around me. The whole experience in general is very therapeutic.
FKV: Yes it would be. Now that brings me to another question. When diving disabled, you obviously need to have some range of motion, some arm movement. For example someone like Christopher Reeves who had no movement, wouldn't be able to dive. Am I correct?
TG: No not really and that actually blew my mind. Now Chris couldn't have been a disabled diver, because he required a respirator to breathe. However, the level right below his, which I believe is a C3, is still a very high level break. I know someone who has been down to the Spiegel Grove, he obviously had no leg motion, and with a C3 injury he also couldn't use his hands or arms.
The divemaster he went down with held the back of his tank with his right arm. Then as they descended, with his left hand he'd squeeze the guy's nose when he needed to clear it. As they went down together, every time the guy felt he needed to clear he'd nod his head, the divemaster would squeeze his nose and do blow out until his ears cleared.
TG: You actually can dive with very severe paralysis. Is it as free? Well it's even amazing for blind people. I initially would have thought why would it be great for blind people? It's so beautiful down there and they can't see it, but it's the tactile feeling of being below water, and that tactile is so different from what you feel up here.
Your injuries can be pretty severe or your limitations can be further than what people think is possible, and yet you can still dive.
FKV: So if someone has been wondering if diving would be possible for them, or if they know someone with a physical disability, what advise can you give them to help them get started and learn to become a diver?
search returned quite a few instructors for my area. I wrote to them
saying I was intrigued, not necessarily going to do anything, but that
I was intrigued and that I would like to chat about diving. I got a
couple of replies back and then got everything all set up.
In your first class you learn about all the technical parts of diving and from there you go into the pool and do your exercises to become certified.
For some people it only takes a couple of dives. For others, they have to go back into the pool, 7, 8, 9, 10 times to get their certification.
The point is that the instructor will go at your speed, so that you can become as comfortable as you need to become, so you can do your open water.
FKV: Do you always go Florida Keys scuba diving or since you live in New York do you dive up there too?
I've been diving twice to a place called the Quarry, at Dutch Spring in
Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. That's where I got my certification and my
advanced and open water. We also went once for Maggie so she could get
her HSA Buddy Certification. We've also gone diving in the Hamptons.
FKV: So the Florida Keys is one of the places you like to go when you can get away, is that it?
TG: The Florida Keys, and now West Palm Beach, I'm not going to lie! You know I think the interesting part about diving is? Whether it's the Quarry, the Hamptons, West Palm Beach, Key Largo, or the rest of the Florida Keys, each area has something different to offer.
That's the amazing part about diving. Things up north are a bit different, they tend to not be as pretty up here. West Palm Beach, the Jupiter area, they have drift diving which is absolutely amazing for people in wheel chairs. It's like being on an escalator, it just takes you along with very little effort.
The Keys are totally different again. There's John Pennekamp
State Park where they have beautiful marine life and all kinds of really
great wrecks like the Spiegel Grove. Each area has something different
to offer, it just depends on what you want on your dive.
Torsten Gross Preparing To Dive Key Largo
FKV: Have you ever dived Molasses Reef? Snapper Ledge is a good drift dive site.
TG: Yes we did Molasses. It's good. Jupiter has stronger current, but I like Molasses because the reef is just beautiful. It's hard to say which is the best, they all have so many great things to offer.
FKV: You're right about the beauty of the Florida Keys. The warm water, the vast number of shipwrecks, the beautiful coral reefs, and incredible assortment of tropical fish, it truly is an amazing place.
FKV: One thing I wanted to cover with you which goes back to your injury. In 2009 you had an interview with Claudia Kolb and you said you wouldn't necessarily jump on the bandwagon for the first cure that came along, in case it didn't work as well as expected. You were afraid that you wouldn't be eligible for the next one, which perhaps would be more successful.
TG: What people have taken away from that
interview is that I was concerned I might due irreparable damage from a
cure that might not be effective. I guess what I'm trying to say is
that happiness is not walking. I think a lot of people see the chair
and they automatically make the assumption that life is bad. That life
is not what it should be.
In reality my own life is different. Yes there are things that I technically can't do but on paper, I would say that I have a better life than most people.
That may sound
incredibly arrogant but I mean that from the perspective that I'm
intensely happy, with possibly the most amazing woman you've ever met. I
have an awesome dog, a great job, a great apartment, terrific friends
and I've found great things to do. I believe that walking wouldn't be
the answer to happiness, walking would be the answer to easiness.
FKV: That's a good way of putting it.
TG: When I think of easiness I think of things like walking up a flight of steps. That would be easier because then I could move onto a boat to go diving, instead of someone having to carry me onto the boat so I could dive. But just because it's not easy doesn't mean I won't do it. So happiness and easiness are two different things.
Torsten Gross Entering The Water For His Key Largo Dive
FKV: You're absolutely right, (chuckling) and of course you're not exactly a small man. You're 6 foot 5, so you're a bundle of joy to carry. (Laughing)
TG: (Laughing) I am a bundle of joy to carry! Luckily I'm relatively thin. For someone 6 foot 5, I weigh a little under 200 pounds. That's still pretty light for someone of my stature.
FKV: Yes and you've got good upper body mass and strength.
I have another question Torsten. There's something I can't get away from. I've noticed it in the articles I've read that you've written, and in speaking with you. You have a real infectious zest for life, you have a hilarious and sometimes irreverent sense of humor, and a true joie de vie. Was this optimism, sense of humor, this happiness something you've always had, or is it a byproduct of your injury?
TG: I grew up with the last name Gross.
FKV: (Laughing) Which in German means big.
TG: Yes, big and tall which is very appropriate for me. But you don't grow up with the name Gross without developing some type of sense of humor about yourself. Especially with a Mom who's first name starts with the letter "U”. On her credit cards it says "U Gross."
My parents have a great sense of humor, and I believe you're a product of your parents and apparently of your last name too.
I've never taken myself or others all that seriously because I think life isn't made to be taken too seriously.
That is an interesting question that you raised though Cathy. When I had my accident, in the Emergency Room or the Intensive Care Unit, when people came to visit me I joked around a lot. The reason I joked is because if they were sad and scared it meant something was wrong.
If I could joke around a lot and they would smile and laugh, it then meant that nothing was wrong, and everything would be better.
Fast forward a couple of months of joking and of trying to convince others, it became very clear to me that life was going to be OK. That humor I applied to making other people happy was because I didn't want to be scared. I realized I could be humorous so others didn't have to walk on eggshells, and so they could also realize that life was still OK.
Torsten Gross Pre-Dive Jitters
FKV: It's human nature for people to be uncomfortable when they first encounter someone with a disability of any kind. It's just a tendency that people have, a universal human condition we all suffer from.
TG: I know exactly what it is. 2 nights ago I had a conversation with a blind woman at the Hyatt. I told her that I was in a chair because obviously she couldn't see that fact. We started chatting about that, and diving.
She told me that she hadn't always been blind, that she'd lost her sight when she was 9. She then said there was one thing that really bothered her, people were always saying they were sorry.
People don't know what to say, and so for the fear of saying something wrong, they say something to sympathize. That's their way of saying something, without really saying anything at all.
I understand that because for 15 years I wasn't in a chair. I didn't know anything about being in a wheelchair. I didn't know anybody in a wheelchair. It was something I sort of knew about but I had no frame of reference.
FKV: Of course you were just a kid too.
TG: Yes and I understand that people have this kind of a mindset. I don't think what it's like to be blind. I don't think what it's like to be intellectually disabled, solely because I think about my life, and what it's about. We all do that. We sometimes reflect on other people's lives, but it's very difficult to put yourself in another person's shoes.
That's why it's important to meet other people, because we learn from them. People feel awkward around me, but I've been told that their awkwardness leaves quickly because of how open I am. I'll ask you just as quickly why something is a certain way about you. Everybody has some form of baggage. Whether it's physical or even invisible, we all have baggage.
Now the level of severity of said baggage might be different, but we've all had something that has altered our life.
FKV: Torsten, let me ask you this. When you're going on a dive charter and there's other people on the boat that you don't know, what is their initial response when they see you coming onboard?
TG: OK now
I'm saying this with a smile. I'm the inspiration on the boat. I
always hear the comment "It's so amazing that you dive." "I'm so happy
that you do this, and I need to tell my friend who's in a wheelchair.”
For certain people I'm the focus of attention, for others, like the pro divers, they just do their own thing, but everyone looks. Their curious as to how I get in and out of the water. How I move when I'm in the water.
I think it's fantastic because I ask people why they have a certain piece of equipment, or why they use that particular mask. It's all about learning things from each other. They just happen to be asking me about something that's unique to me. I definitely get the look, and the grins. They're excited and they're curious.
Final Dive Preparations Sometimes Need Personal Adjustments
FKV: I think for a lot of people it's exciting to know that a sport they absolutely adore has the potential of making a huge difference for people who are disabled. That they too can experience the incredible sense of liberation you can only get from being in the water. Knowing that if they have someone in their life who may also be in a chair, that they can now share this information about you with them. That has to be incredibly exciting.
TG: Yes, and what's very amazing is that scuba diving is not a solitary sport. Even though you dive alone and you're underwater, you're always with a buddy. You're always checking on each other, and you're always helping other people on the boat.
The experience of being on a boat is actually quite amazing. If I need help putting on my gloves or I need help with a bootie, or clipping on my BC, whatever it is, everyone is there to help everyone else out, and I do the same.
For example, on a recent trip when the water was really choppy, I was tied near the back of the boat so I wouldn't go overboard. There were people who needed to get by me to get into the water. There were also these two girls who were really getting tossed around by the waves.
Here I am. I'm tied to the boat, I'm fine, I'm not going anywhere, so I'm helping them to the back of the boat by giving them my hand and being their support point. I was probably the last person they thought would be able to help them on that boat, yet I did.
It's the partnership and the community spirit that really makes scuba diving special.
FKV: You had indicated that one of the Florida Keys diving sites you were particularly interested in was the Spiegel Grove. When you go scuba diving Florida Keys next time, will that be your intended diving site?
TG: It will. Our next dive trip will be to Curacao however. We're having a delayed honeymoon, and we'll be diving there in October.
So I guess that answers one of your earliest questions. Yes Maggie does dive and she loves it. Perhaps not as much as me, but she does.
FKV: So you're going to become one of those scuba diving jocks with the tattoos.
TG: (Laughing) Yes I am! I'm becoming a real diehard. But after that, yes our next dive trip will be down to the Florida Keys. That makes me sound a bit psycho, taking so many trips there, but I'd like to go and dive the Spiegel Grove. I think the Spiegel is an incredible Florida Keys dive site, and the divers who've gone there just love it. You have to be a special type of diver to go deep, and venture into something that massive, that daunting.
FKV: That dive you need to study first, you can get lost in and around it very easily.
The Vandenberg down in Key West is also huge, and it's a great dive site for all levels of certification. Even snorkelers can enjoy it because the water's clear and the ship has structure at so many different levels. The way they prepped this ship before scuttling has made it the perfect Key West dive site.
Are you considering the Vandenberg on a Key West dive?
Clipping Gear Together
TG: Oh yes. I'm very interested in that, and we love Key West. Maggie and I went to Key West in February, and we both enjoyed it. It's kind of all the best things of New Orleans mixed with all of the best things of Florida. It's great!
FKV: That's a superb way of describing Key West.
TG: Well, you have all the fun of Duval Street, the nice older mansions, the fun of Florida, the beaches, the weather, and of course the scuba diving. All of these put together explains why it's a destination we really enjoy.
The Vandenberg, very much like the Spiegel, is something that I really want to do. There's so much to see, there's just isn't always enough time to do it.
FKV: Whether someone has a spinal cord injury or not, if they've never dived before, what's the one thought you'd like to leave them with? Something to help kick start their thought process for taking up diving as a sport.
TG: If you like the water there's an experience of solitude and partnership that only scuba diving can bring. Soltitude meaning it's so quiet, all you hear are your bubbles. It's very calming and soothing.
Partnership meaning you're looking after your buddy. You have this communal experience on the boat with other divers. It's the best of both worlds - solitude and partnership mixed with sights and sounds that you can't experience on land.
When someone drops into the water you disappear. When you're on a boat and you see someone scuba diving, they just slip away and are gone. To be that person, you actually feel like you've disappeared. You're underwater, and you get to experience something that very few people get to enjoy.
Most people don't dive, it's not the sport of millions. It's reserved for the adventurous few who understand how amazing diving is. It's also a way to do something good for yourself. Afterwards, it's one of those pains that means you know you did something worthwhile. It's one of those feelings where you say, "I accomplished something”.
It's also not a very expensive sport. If you want to buy all your own equipment it would become costly at first, but to rent equipment is not very expensive. You can dive in lakes, quarries, basically anywhere there's water. You don't have to travel great distances to enjoy diving. Plus your certification lasts for a lifetime.
FKV: Yes, and it's also the one sport that anyone can enjoy, and physically benefit from, even someone diving disabled. It's sort of the great equalizer.
TG: Yes and I tell my friends, do your certification. Get it done, then you have it. You never know where you'll be and wish you could go diving if the opportunity presents itself. If you have it, you don't have to spend valuable vacation time getting certified, you can get out there and enjoy.
Scuba diving is more than just the water, it's the destination, the camaraderie, the drinks you have together at the bar after. Nothing compares to it.
FKV: Speaking of community spirit I'd like to talk about some of the fundraising you've been involved in. You've worked with the "Christopher Reeves Foundation”. You've worked with Chris' son Matt to help raise funds for SCI (spinal cord injury). You've helped produce Reeves Rocks, you've held auctions, and done other things to create awareness and raise funds.
Now I understand that you've
started your own 501 (c)(3) Foundation called "Host For Good”. This
obviously goes back to your wanting to help people. What is the basis of
this Foundation, what are your goals and what will be you
the millennials, the under 30 crowd, who want to do some good, but they
don't really know how. We provide them with what we call "events in a box."
This includes tips and tools to allow you to throw a great wine tasting
at your house, perhaps a boardgame night, or an art gallery showing at
your house, even an ugly sweater party.
The whole premise is to help make parties at your home more fun, so you can throw really great parties. Imagine wanting to do a wine tasting at your house, but you don't really know anything about it. We give you the tools to be able to throw a very professional wine tasting.
The second part is that we take the politics out of charity. Everybody has or knows someone who has a mother with breast cancer, knows someone in a wheelchair, has a friend with X, Y or Z. Yet so many people get involved in charities because it's who they'll meet, or what they'll get out of it. We've gotten to the point where we don't give for the sake of giving, we give because in some ways it does ourselves good as well.
What we've decided to do with all the money that's raised through the "Host For Good Foundation" is to distribute it amongst the different charities. Anyone who's having a party gets to choose one charity, and then each month the proceeds are split between the different selected charities and "Host For Good" takes no money at all.
FKV: That sounds like a tremendous Foundation. A great way for people to have fun while helping others.
Torsten Gross After A Great Day Of Scuba Diving Florida Keys
FKV: Torsten, I understand that even though you personally did not know Christopher Reeves, his passing was hard on you. Can you tell us about that?
TG: You always remember the first person close to you who died when you were a child. This was the first person who died that was in a wheelchair, who had a severe spinal cord injury, and who was very famous. He was someone that people could create a frame of reference about. People who walked knew who Chris was, and knew what had happened to him.
So when I talk to people they say you're a quadriplegic like Christopher Reeves. There's that sense of understanding and identity, he gave them that. It makes it possible for them to relate to me, to understand me. To my knowledge, before Chris, there was no basis of understanding.
FKV: Because he was such a public figure, he brought a greater awareness to this type of injury. He created a strong sense of urgency for finding a cure, and in a way he was the poster boy for SCI, (spinal cord injury) the face we all could identify with.
TG: Yes he was. We're very fortunate that his children and others are still carrying on their advocacy for a cure. His passing, albeit sad, has left a great legacy of smart and dedicated people.
FKV: What's interesting is that they're beginning to make huge advancements in their research. To paraphrase Ben Barres, one of the prominent scientists from the Reeves Research Consortium, "Even 5 or 10 years ago it wasn't cool to be involved in scientific research. Now it is. This is the first time in history when the best scientific minds are working together to find a cure."
They've made incredible discoveries, and have been able to bridge some of the synapsis gaps, even improving motility in rats. The prospect that one day, perhaps even relatively soon that there could be a cure, or at least an increase in motility for someone who has a spinal cord injury, is very exciting.
So your way of helping to contribute to this cause is through your Foundation, by helping to create greater awareness and of course in offering hope to others. Showing them that there's more to life than just being in a chair. That they can get out there and do things, and that scuba diving disabled is possible, and is one of the ways they can begin to really experience a greater sense of freedom.
This has been a very interesting conversation Torsten, and I appreciate you sharing with us what diving disabled is like. I believe that anyone reading this interview, who is either disabled or knows someone who is, will benefit from the knowledge that they can do more physically than they thought possible. That they can escape the confines of their chair and experience a greater sense of movement and personal freedom. It's exciting to realize that there's boundless possibilities within easy reach.
Torsten, thank you for your time, your sense of humor and for your dedication to helping others.