Llywelyn Williams – or Sponge, as he’s better known – is getting ready to Wales at the ISA World Para Surfing Championships in California.
The Welsh surfer is hoping for a repeat of the success he enjoyed on his last trip to the States in September, when he won the US Open Adaptive Surf Championships.
It’s an amazing prospect that few could have predicted a decade ago. In 2011, a skateboarding accident near his home in Abersoch led to Sponge having his right leg amputated above the knee as part of life-saving treatment.
Already an experienced surfer, getting back into the waves was a big motivating factor in a subsequent recovery that has been nothing short of inspirational.
Sponge began competing in adaptive surf contests in 2016, when he placed 5th in the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championship. He has since been involved in over 22 competitions, had 20 podium finishes, and has won the English Adaptive Surf Championship four times in his division.
This remarkable athlete now aims to make Christmas come early by taking gold on the world stage.
We checked in with Sponge to see how things are going ahead of his trip.
How have preparations gone for the ISA World Para Surfing Championships?
Sponge: Really good thanks. The whole team’s ready for it – Ben, Toby, and I think Katie as well from Surfability. There’s two of us going out to represent Wales in the kneeling division – myself and Isaac Heaher – so that’s awesome.
My own training has been going really well. Earlier in the autumn I was invited by the Welsh Surfing Federation (WSF) to training sessions with South African Olympic surf coach, Llewellyn Whittaker, who’s one of the best coaches in the world. We’ve been training up at Surf Snowdonia too, plus I’ve been working a lot on my fitness.
Congratulations on becoming the US adaptive surf champion. What did winning that event mean to you?
S: I've been trying to get top place on the podium since I started competing in 2016. I’d be coming third, second, or fourth and every event, so to come home with the first at the US Open Adaptive Surfing Championships was a great feeling.
Now I'm holding the US kneeling champion title, I’m the Bali kneeling champion, and I have the English title as well.
Can you take us through your experiences at the US Open Adaptive Surfing Championships in Oceanside?
S: A month before I went to the States we had the English championships down at The Wave in Bristol. We got to see all the English team members and a team came over from Israel too for that one. Then we flew out to America to compete again. To see more adaptive surfing was great.
The US Championships went really well. I got seeded top through every heat and made the semi-finals. I managed to get through the semis and then I won the final too. I think I was competing against eleven others in total in the kneeling division.
How were the conditions?
S: In the mornings, the waves were probably about chest-to-shoulder height and clean. And similar then every day after that, really. The waves got a bit more wobbly and weaker as the tide dropped back.
Oceanside is great as a surfing location. There's parking right on the beach and great wheelchair access. It was fantastic to see other adaptive surfers from around the world, especially after successive lockdowns. It’s been over two years since we last competed.
How did you manage training and competing through the Covid restrictions?
S: I live two minutes from the beaches, so I was always able train and surf legally through the pandemic, as I have pro-athlete status.
International travel was obviously heavily impacted due to Covid, but thanks to the WSF who gave me the pro elite athlete pass to allow me to enter America and compete on the basis of national interest.
When we were last in California, it was more or less up to you whether or not you wore a mask. Things were pretty laid back there compared to the UK.
Do you have a favourite wave?
S: I’m a big fan of Uluwatu in Indonesia. We went there just at the start of lockdown so all the tourists were gone. There were probably about twenty surfers on it, and the wave was just reeling all the way in; it was sick. At home my favourite wave is probably Hell’s Mouth which is right on my doorstep.
What’s the goal for 2022?
S: I put together the first ever adaptive surfing championships to be held at a wave pool – at Surf Snowdonia – which was also the first adaptive surf competition to happen in Wales. The last one was run in 2019 and we had 24 competitors from around the world coming to Snowdonia.
It was pretty much a trial run; we had prize money, live score feeds and all the other stuff. The Mailing Room has now sponsored me to run the Wales Surfing Adaptive Championship at Surf Snowdonia for the next three years, so I’ll have that to organise.
I’ve got my eye on the Paralympic games in 2028, which is apparently when surfing will be included, so I have plenty of time to train for that.
I’d like to give a shout out to my sponsors SurfabilityUK, and The Mailing Room who are covering my surf costs. I’m on Team O’Neil now, too, so they sort me out with wetsuits through the year.
You’ve got a new surf brand – tell us a little bit about that.
S: I started an outdoor and gym-wear clothing brand called Hopalong clothing that I'm hoping within the next five years will be able to sponsor athletes from the UK or worldwide really.
The idea behind it came from the fact that as adaptive surfers we all struggled to find sponsorship. So, me and a friend thought why can’t we start something that’s cheap and good quality. Hopefully it grows and I’ll be able to sponsor disabled athletes in future.
Stay tuned on Insta & Facebook for competition updates from the ISA World Para Surfing Championships.