TWENTY QUESTIONS with Jennifer Rowlette-Reneau
• Interview by M. Alberto Rivera •
Jennifer Rowlette-Reneau is used to challenges. She’s not easily flustered or off put by obstacles; overcoming them is something she relishes. She taught herself how to surf and excelled at the sport. Having lost exact count, she knows she has medaled in at least 97 competitions, possibly more.
Jennifer surfed competitively on the UCF Surfing Team from 1989 to 1991, The U.S. National Team in 1998, the Eastern Surfing Association All-Star Team from 1996 to 1998, and U.S. Iron Woman Surfing Champion 1997. She was the East Coast Collegiate State Champion NSSA ’90, and she coached the Rockledge Community Surf Club from 1998-2002.
When her daughter Riley was born in 2005, a new challenge was presented to her in the form of a newborn with Downs Syndrome. Determined to give her daughter every opportunity to have a normal childhood, she started the annual Smiley Riley Beach Bash, currently in its fifth year, an event for Downs Syndrome children and their siblings and families to get together, enjoy the beach, and take some surfing lessons. Jennifer is now also part of a movement working to have surfing added as a Special Olympics Sport.
Jennifer is a lifelong resident of Florida who’s spent the last 15 years in Brevard County, and isn’t shy about giving back to her community.
Where did you grow up?
When did you start surfing?
I didn’t get started until I was seventeen. I saw a surfing poster at a friend’s house and I had to ask her what it was. I was totally clueless about it. My family wasn’t the sort of people who hung out at the beach, so this was all brand new to me.
Who helped you get started?
I ended up at a surf shop called Little Hawaii in Hollywood, Florida, and I said, “I want to learn how to surf.” I had about a hundred bucks, so I asked, “What can I get?” They set me up with a used board and I’m pretty sure I didn’t even get a leash that day. And I went to the beach by myself. I watched other people surfing for a little while before getting in the water. I finally paddled out and swam up next to this older guy, he was about 50, and I asked, “What do I do?” He looked at me like I was crazy, and asked, “What do you mean?” I said, “I’ve never surfed before. How do I do it?” He thought I was lying, but said, “Turn around and get on your belly.” And when a wave came he yelled for me to paddle and then yelled, “Stand up!” I rode the wave all the way into the shore. When I paddled back out, he looked at me and said, “You’ve done this before.” It was really cool I met that guy. It could have been some jerk who ignored me.
Were you a natural or did surfing require you working at it?
Sports had always come easily to me, and surfing was no exception. Surfing quickly became all I was doing with my free time.
When did you move to Brevard County?
I moved to Brevard County after graduating from UCF in 1992 to Satellite Beach and lived there for 13 years. I loved it; I could walk or ride my bike to the beach and I did all the time.
You competed extensively. What are your best memories from that time in your life?
I’m most proud of being on the U.S. Team. It took five trials to get on the team. Then I had to compete against the pros in California; five back-to-back heats. It was grueling! It was truly an honor to represent the U.S. Team. Got to travel quite a bit as well, which was a lot of fun.
How often do you get to surf now?
Your daughter Riley was born with Downs Syndrome in 2005. When did the idea occur to you to start a program to start teaching children with Downs Syndrome how to surf?
When Riley was 3 or 4 months old I received a box from Lynn Sicoli with a bunch of clothing and a note saying “Congratulations!” Very short and very encouraging. Other people had said congratulations on Riley, but it was sort of guarded. This was positive and encouraging. Lynn is very involved in the DS community here locally, and I got to thinking I wanted to be involved and give back — back to the people who had supported me when Riley was born. We did the first one when she was 7 months old, and it was a big hit right away.
The Smiley Riley Beach Bash is in its fifth year. Was it hard to get all the volunteers to come out and donate their time to help put it together?
No, it really wasn’t that hard. I pulled out my rolodex and called everyone I knew. All the surf instructors and the businesses that sponsor us and volunteer their time, I’ve had a personal relationship with them all for 10 to 15 years. They all seem happy to help out and they tell me later what a great time they had. My family helps with the cooking and the set-up. It’s a good time for everyone involved. It’s not a fundraiser. It’s fairly easy to ask people for money, and if it’s for a good cause, people will be fairly generous. But one of the things I wanted to do was to give a memory that was going to last. You know, a day of good memories. I recently received an email from the mother of a little boy, Evan, who tells her the day at the beach was “One of his best days ever.” Craig Carroll (owner of the Ron Jon Surf School and former coach and pro surfer) helped pave the way. Before the Beach Bash there weren’t very many special needs students coming to the surfing school, but now it happens all the time. When I told him about my idea for the Beach Bash, Craig said, “What do you need?” He’s been incredibly supportive.
Have you noticed any of the special needs children having significantly more difficulties learning how to surf than other kids?
No, not at all. A lot of this is up to the child. There is a lower amount of muscle tone associated with the condition, but a lot of the kids get right up and surf. There are more concerns from parents who fear their kids won’t be able to do it. There are a lot of perceptions and expectations that maybe this is too hard, but like regular kids they have to try first. But one of the great things we’ve seen at the Smiley Riley Beach Bash is strangers coming by to watch and cheer. It’s really positive and encouraging. It’s really touching.
Is there any difference in the kind of boards being used by the special needs surfers and other surfing students?
We use the same kind of boards we us at the Ron Jon’s surfing school — the soft-top boards. They’re safer for beginners.
Do children with Downs Syndrome have a fear of the water?
No more than regular kids. You’ll have some kids that are really fearless and kamikaze types, and others who are more cautious and need more reassurance — just like regular kids the same age. Like with any developing kid, it depends on the kid.
How do you get the siblings involved?
When I first took Riley to these long doctors’ appointments where she was being tested and then later doing therapy, her older brother was made to wait long hours. I knew it was important to get the siblings involved so they wouldn’t feel slighted. So it wasn’t just a day for the special needs kids, but for the entire family.
What’s a good age to get a child with Downs Syndrome exposed to surfing?
Eight is a good age to get started. If the parents are there with them and they are actively involved, then 6. We’re very safety conscious. It really depends on the child and the family though.
How did you get involved in having surfing added as a Special Olympics sport? What has this process been like?
I’d like to think that Riley and the Beach Bash was the catalyst for this. We learned how coachable these kids are and how much fun they were having. Right now, surfing as a sport for those with special needs is something only happening in Brevard. How far this will go will depend on how it’s received here first. But this is Florida; there’s no reason why this shouldn’t or can’t go statewide.
Do you have any long-term goals or expectations for these projects?
I’d like to see it taken to the next level. There were some events recently here locally. So the next step is to see surfing in the Special Needs community grow in Florida and to see if there’s enough interest for it to catch on. Take it one step at a time. Keep having a good time and enjoy every day.
(Note: The last sport to be added to the Special Olympics was judo, in 2007. In order for surfing to be added as a Special Olympics event it would need to be accepted by Special Olympic programs in other Florida counties, and then by the State. In order to reach the national level, it will take a minimum number of states to participate, and similarly, a minimum number of countries to reach the international level.)