Tracy McKay; South Africa’s Courageous Para Surfing Captain

10 min. read
Tracy McKay; South Africa’s Courageous Para Surfing Captain
BY Virgin Active South Africa
Posted On 3 May, 2024

Are you considering starting swimming for exercise at the gym? Be inspired by Tracy McKay’s exceptional story. From swimming to Para Surfing, Tracy McKay won’t let anyone tell her that she can’t do it. In fact, she mentions that; “If anyone says that to me, I’m more determined to do it.” Tracy’s journey is a story of hope and courage, and we cannot wait to share it with you.

Tracy had just started Para Rowing when she met someone in 2018 who mentioned Para Surfing. He encouraged her to get down to the beach and try it out. Her first session was in September, and she got hooked, quickly.

Tracy describes it; “It was one of those experiences that you just wanted to do it all the time. At that stage, the sessions were only once a month and it felt like once a year, I couldn’t wait for the next session.”

What is Para Surfing?

Para Surfing is an adaptive type of surfing for people with different physical disabilities and consists of nine divisions. Tracy is in the Prone 1 category; where she’s unassisted and must catch waves and paddle on her own.

The competitions are run just like other surfing competitions, they have the same system of priority rule, interference rules and timed heats.

Tracy mentions; “The one difference you will find in some of the heats is that there will be loads of other water assistance, which ensures the safety of our surfers in case they get into trouble, especially our visually impaired and prone 2 surfers. Safety must come first with Para Surfing.”

The divisions are;

  • Stand 1 – Upper limb deficiency.
  • Stand 2 – Below-the-knee amputation.
  • Stand 3 – Above-the-knee amputation.
  • Kneel – Any person who rides the wave kneeling.
  • Sit/Wave ski – Any person who rides the wave in a sitting position or uses a Wave ski.
  • Prone 1 – Any person who rides a wave lying down, paddling and catching waves without assistance.
  • Prone 2 – Any person who rides a wave lying down but has two coaches assisting them.
  • VI 1 – Completely blind.
  • VI 2 – Visually impaired.

When we asked Tracy how water sports have changed her life, she said;

“Being disabled, you are quite limited to what sports you can do, as a youngster I was a swimmer and a nipper at Dolphins Lifesaving Club at Brighton Beach. So, swimming was my first thought when I decided there was more to life than waking up, going to work and going home.

“I love to set myself challenges; I’ve always been an active person. For me personally, I have to do something otherwise I start to feel down, not worthy and troubled. I don’t really know how to explain it, but I suppose it’s what depression could be.

“I love being in the water. Yes, I swim a bit differently to others, but so do a lot of people, we all have our own style. Keeping up with my water sports keeps me in a good mental state and physical one too. I would recommend swimming to anyone, able-bodied or disabled.”

Training is crucial

Training at a Virgin Active gym has allowed Tracy to keep fit and train regularly. As a Para Surfer, it’s not always that easy to get a surfing session in; Tracy needs two assistants, which isn’t always possible, and she relies on a beach chair to get her across the sand and into the water.

Tracy says; “This is where my training at Virgin Active is essential, being swim fit and being able to swim is very important with surfing, some people don’t understand that gym fit, and swim fit are not the same.

In 2023 I won KZN Champs and SA Champs on fitness alone, the conditions were terrible at both competitions, the sea was rough, and it was windy. Because of my fitness, I was able to paddle out through the rough conditions where my competitors just weren’t fit enough and couldn’t cope with the elements.”

ISA Para Surfing World Championships

Tracy’s journey to the ISA World Para Surfing Championships was an emotional, but proud one for her. We asked her to tell us more about it;

“I remember my first year being selected, it was in 2019 and I was pretty emotional. I had been selected to represent my country, I get to wear a Green and Gold Blazer. As you can imagine I cried happy tears. It was something I never thought would happen to me. Don’t get me wrong, I longed to represent South Africa, but I thought I might do it swimming. There were other plans for me. I felt honoured being selected for the South African Para Surfing Team and each year I’m selected; I feel the same honour and pride.

I have represented South Africa three times and twice as the captain of the Para Surfing Team and I have medalled 3 times;

  • 2020 ISA World Para Surfing Champs in La Jolla San Diago – Silver Medal
  • 2022 ISA World Para Surfing Champs at Pismo Beach California – Bronze Medal (Captain of the Team)
  • 2023 ISA World Para Surfing Champs at Huntington Beach Surf City – Bronze Medal (Captain of the Team) now, I’m third in the world in my division, chasing that gold medal.”


Winning Gold at the Midmar Mile

“This year’s Midmar Mile was very special; besides winning the gold which is so amazing, I was also awarded the Courage Trophy and you guessed it, I shed a tear. This year’s Midmar was like doing a sea swim. It was windy, and the water was very choppy, so it like swimming through waves. My time wasn’t the best but then that was across the board in my event. I love doing the Midmar Mile, this year was my 13th year swimming as a disabled swimmer,” said Tracy.

What’s next for Tracy?

In May 2024, Tracy will be traveling to Cape Town for the SA Para Surfing Champs, hoping to be selected for the South African Para Surfing Team again.

She concludes; “I know the ocean can be scary, but when you start you will be surrounded by people who know what they are doing, they will keep you safe. I started my surfing journey with Made for More which is a NPO, who enable, empower, and equip people with various disabilities. Who knew I would one day be Captain of the South African Para Surfing Team.

Never give up on your dreams, dreams can become a reality. Mine did.”

If you’re interested in swimming lessons, but you’re not sure where to start, have a look at our Learn to Swim programmes here or join a Virgin Active gym near you today.