Adam Kelinson of Amagansett is a high performance athlete who has competed in grueling Iron Man triathlon competitions, half-marathons, island-to-island paddleboard races, and 50-mile mountain-climbing bicycle races.
He is author of “The Athlete’s Plate: Real Food for High Performance” and founder of Organic Performance, a company devoted to the relationship between food and sport. He is a chef and nutritional consultant to athletes and celebrities including Prince, Hillary Swank, and Mariska Hargitay, among others. “I’m a pretty fit guy,” he said on Monday.
Nevertheless, on the morning of June 1, he found himself floating facedown in the ocean unable to move after being struck on the head by his stand-up paddleboard while surfing at Ditch Plain in Montauk.
After some thought, Mr. Kelinson decided to talk about the near-death experience because, while his accident and subsequent rescue were personal and life-changing events he said he had not fully come to grips with, they were also part of a “larger story,” one that involved his respect for the sport of surfing, and for Montauk’s close-knit surfing community he credits with saving his life.
“I’m still here. I haven’t processed it all. I didn’t wipe out. I’d been surfing a couple hours. Got in the water early in the morning. It was getting toward the end of the session. I was riding the little peaky wave in front of the jetty. The waves were clean. I was a little tired, I guess. Nothing precipitated it. The wave didn’t crash on me. I might have been going left, backside for me. I was kicking out. The sport has its inherent dangers, but I wasn’t reckless in any way. Been surfing for a bunch of years. I was not out of my league. I just came off the board.”
David Schleifer, a 20-year veteran of the New York City Fire Department and an avid stand-up paddleboard surfer, said he was paddling back out after riding a wave when a board with no surfer caught his eye.
“I was inside, I saw the board, but not him on the other side. I paddled around, saw his body. It never looks good when you see someone facedown in the water. I jumped in, turned him over, and shoved his head up on the board.”
All the while, he was calling to fellow surfers to come help. Mr. Kelinson was conscious but could not move his limbs.
“I did not go unconscious,” Mr. Kelinson said. “I didn’t feel pain because the board hit me so squarely and flatly. It must have been the center of the board, the pain had no edge, no sharpness. It was a dull, tingly sensation, a shock wave. I immediately felt it, a compression shock wave. It hit my shoulders, coursed through my body. The shock of the compression, a transfer of energy. It inflamed my spinal cord in such a place that left me paralyzed.”
Mr. Kelinson said he must have been coming up from underwater as the board was coming down. “Before you come off a board, you take that last gasp. I always do, your body does that.” But, how long did that “last gasp” stay in his lungs?
“I’d like to piece that together with Dave. I’m trying to figure out from the time Dave saw me and realized I needed help, how long was that?”
“I had some heavy thoughts about that,” Mr. Schleifer said. “I took off on a wave. Then Adam took off on the east of me. John Doyle was on the wave behind. John kicked out west of the jetty. John was paddling back out and didn’t notice. Maybe half a minute, 45 seconds, maybe longer. It took me at least 20 seconds to get to him. I was 50 yards away, I was yelling to John to get anther person in the mix.”
“In all reality, I think it might have been five or six minutes,” Mr. Kelinson said. “I know [Dave Schleifer] wasn’t right on top of me. The three of us were sort of rotating on that little peak right there. I surfed that wave. They were paddling back out, so I knew they were not that near to me. I knew it was going to be a little time.”
“I was hoping someone would get me. I wasn’t surfing with them. I don’t really know Dave that well on a personal level. It’s not like we were hanging out and surfing together,” Mr. Kelinson said. “I knew I was facedown in a black wetsuit. Accidents like this don’t happen every day. The others might not necessarily be paying attention. Yeah, I called out for help,” he said, allowing that the word itself was trapped in his head.
“I saw stuff, but I don’t know if my eyes were open. I knew I couldn’t help myself. My board was bumping up against my arm. I couldn’t help myself.”
Mr. Kelinson said he knew what was happening. He has served on ambulance crews in California and Vermont. He said he was considering the possibility that the temporary paralysis had kept him from taking a breath underwater, a reflex that might have been fatal. Mr. Schleifer was quickly joined by John Doyle, Craig Lieder Jr., and Nina Choi, who were in the water nearby. “Hawaiian Ed” Young, Dalton Portella, and Brian Staubitser scrambled out from shore. Mr. Kelinson was carried from the water on his surfboard and taken to the picnic table next to the Ditch Witch concession, which had already placed a 911 call.
East Hampton Town police and an ambulance were on the scene in minutes. The injured surfer was taken to Southampton Hospital. He was examined and released but is still experiencing weakness in his right arm.
“This was really about the Montauk surfing family,” Mr. Kelinson said. “It’s a family, not cohesive in all ways, but there is an unspoken code and those guys responded to it. Those guys heeded the call. It’s a unique situation, the characters. Of all the places in the world they could surf, this is where they congregate. Dave saved me. The others rescued me. It’s been a pretty intense emotional journey.”