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Episode 9: The Endless Journey
Episode 921st July 2021 • Voices of Exchange • U.S. State Department ECA Alumni Affairs
00:00:00 00:28:22

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A motocross accident forever changed Daniel Gómez de la Vega’s life. But today, as a world champion-winning medalist, founder and director of Surfeando Sonrisas (Surfing Smiles), and exchange alumnus of the Global Sports Mentoring Program, Daniel finds that being in a wheelchair is challenging, yet fun -- an endless journey, as he calls it.

In this episode, Daniel talks about how surfing revived him, why he loves fear, navigating depression, taking risks, being authentic, and pursuing a global dream.

Transcripts

Daniel Gómez

My name is Daniel Gómez de la Vega. I'm 37 years old. I'm from Mexico City, but I used to live in Acapulco Bay, it's a beautiful bay, uh, obviously on the ocean Pacific. Now I live in Guadalajara. My wife is from here. I have two kids. I have a, a, one kid, his name is Sebastian, he is three years old, and I have a baby girl, Jimena, is eight months old, almost nine.

Um yeah, I do... I do a lot of things. I love sports, I love adrenaline, uh, I have a non-profit. I also do, um, motivational speaking, like keynote speaking.

Uh, when you hear about surfing, you can say, "Well those guys don't, don't do anything. They just smoke weed and blah, blah, blah." Probably there's a lot of people like that. No, and there's no harm in that. But, uh, I think it's more, way much more than that,, uh. Surfing people, they care about the ocean. They care about, uh, the beaches. Uh, plastic pollution. Uh, surfers nowadays are, uh, more athletic than they used to. Um, and after my accident... I, I surf probably six or seven months after my accident. I have to say that I, when I got my accident, I passed five months in the hospital. So two months after leaving the hospital, I was riding my first wave - of course, with the, with the help of my friends, and that moment was the moment. That was everything. That was, uh, oof.

In that wave, in that particular wave that I have, I, I have it, I have it recorded. A friend of mine was, was taking video and I have it. It was a small wave, but probably the best wave in my life. And, and that was that wave that told me you have to get back in the ocean. This is healing. You have to start working from here. Um, and yeah, surfing and sports in general, have been, uh, a huge, uh, pillar, pillar, I don't know if that's a word. (laughs) But we used it in Mexico. Pillar. Uh, a, a, a big thing in my life, you know? It's not just fun to have to do exercise. No, it's more than that. It, it, it teaches me all the time. It makes me who am I today. Uh, it helps with my good habits. Uh, sports helps with a lot and now, uh, I, I just think about surfing all the time.

Take, for example, when you go to the beach. I don't know if you, if you live around the beach area. But, if you don't, when you go to the beach, you start feeling different. You start feeling, uh, this freedom. When you start feeling the wind and it's in your face. When you start smelling the sand or, or, or the sea water. Or probably you can smell some fishes. I don't know, I think just going to the beach, going to the ocean, allows me to open all my senses, which sometimes when we live in big cities, you are shut down. You, you are just looking the same things, smelling the same things. And just by going to the beach, it's, uh, it opened my mind.

And when you go into the ocean, that's when everything starts to happen. Um, I'm very, I'm very, a risky guy. I, I, I love to take risks. Um, I love to put me in situations that I don't know if I can control them or if I can go, uh, if I can go alive out of that situation. Surfing is very, very, it's a serious sport. It's very dangerous. And, I think what, what I, what I think is more healing about being in the ocean and healing.

For a start, I don't need my legs to be in the ocean, you know? I don't, I don't need to, to walk. I, I feel, uh, I feel even with my peers, with my friends. And that was something that it bothers me a lot, uh, in the past. That I don't, uh, I don't, I don't like to be left behind because I can't walk or because I can't move or, or whatever. Uh, when I'm in the ocean, I'm the same. I don't feel about... I don't think about my legs. Uh, I don't think about if I, if I can surf on the standing position.

Surfing is surfing, you know. Surfing is, it's just riding a wave. It's, uh, it's flying in water. And you can do it on a standing position or on the prone, uh, position. I surf, uh, laying down on my stomach. And I think what, what is more important about surfing for me is that, uh, it gives me the chance to be present. You know, to be there. To be at that precise moment. And I think as humans we, we always are trying to be present all the time. But, but our minds, our technology. Now what's happening with all this, uh, social media bombing all the time. It, it's pulling all, pulling us in different directions. And surfing, uh, it keeps me away all that. Eh, I'm just thinking about being there, being safe, reading the ocean, hearing my, uh, hearing my body, hearing my thoughts. And I don't think about anything. I'm, I'm just... The two or the three hours that I'm surfing, I'm surfing. You know, I'm not anywhere else. And I thing that, that's what is healing for me.

I had an accident on:

Being in the wheelchair is, is, it's like, uh, an endless journey. Uh, when I go out with my kids, to move around on the sidewalks. Uh, trying to do, uh, new sports. Um, going on vacations to a place that I don't know anything about it. Uh, when I started dating my, my wife. All those things were totally different. Even though I- I knew it from, from past experience, it was very new to be in the wheelchair. To be in the sitting position, you see the world with a different perspective, and I... and I think the world sees you also differently.

Even though I'm the same Daniel, I have, uh, a few upgrades, I might say, um, but, yeah, people... I, I think people see me different. Not bad, just different, you know? It's like, I didn't change a lot my personality, but at the same time, I could, I could tell that I'm different from my accident today.

So, so after a few years of trying to walk again, to do a lot of physical therapy and, and do this and that, that's when I... that's when I had realized that, "Yeah, this could be my life forever." But not until I try it, you know, not, not because just the doctor told me that. Uh, of, of course a lot of fear, uh, but fear is really, really good. I love the fear. I'm not fearless like a lot of people can say, but, uh, it's a good tool if you know how to use it.

Uh, of course I went through a lot of depression in different moments of these past 10 years. I can tell you that I have, uh, sometimes a little bit of depression, not regarding my accident, but regarding different aspects of life, but I think I can... I can go through them on, on the more fast way than I used to. Uh, I know when the depression, or when a sad moment, is coming and I... I can know how to navigate it.

I was thinking more about going to a university and have a lot of more, how can I say, yeah, more challenge. More, more intellectual challenge. You know, like being very challenged to... I, I don't understand it. Can you explain me to do? Can I make an essay? Can I do things to, to get over it? And my first work was very difficult because, uh, everybody was so happy and, yeah, high-five here and there. And I wasn't like that. I was like, whoa, whoa, these poor people. I hate it.

So everybody was very optimistic, that's the word. And, and to be like that, you have to feel like that. You have to believe like that. It is very difficult to be optimistic to everybody else if you don't feel that way. Um, that was the first difficult moment for me and after a few days, and then you are here. Be optimistic. Why not? Just make high-fives with everybody. And, I think the best experience of the GSM, GSMP program was that, um, that interracial experience. To, to be in the same room with people, um, from different countries with different languages. With different, uh, customs. Everything like, everything was different.

In my program there was people from Korea, from China, from Senegal. From a lot of different places in Africa. From Egypt, from Latin America. People, able=bodied people. People with disability. I think that's, for me, the most important part of the program. Because, if you don't have that big picture, big picture, you don't know how, um, the social impact world, the non-profit world, is around the world. You only know what's happening in your country. And if it's not good, if you live in a third world country that it's very difficult to develop a, a program like Surfeando Sonrisas or another program, you don't have that different mind thinking about...stop complaining that Mexico doesn't have what USA have, but try to change it and tropicalize it so you can make more with what you have in Mexico. With, uh, with, with whatever you learn on the GSMP program.

Um, another thing that I love about this program is that just because being part of the Department of State program, you have a lot of huge benefits. You get into this big alumni database. You can apply for different programs. Uh, it's awesome how the USA can help others. It changed, a little bit my way of thinking about the USA, which in the past, I didn't love it a lot. But after this, I was like, yeah, they can do a lot of good, bad things, whatever. But for me, they are helping a lot. I can tell you that probably half of the money that we, that we have since, since the moment that we founded Surfeando Sonrisas, have come outside, outside Mexico.

Um, I had opportunity to go to Phoenix, Arizona, to Ability360. And wow. That's, that's a big non-profit. It's, it's bigger than a company. It's, it's, it's doing so much good. And for to do so much good, you have to be, you have to run a, a business. Even though it's a non-profit. I started thinking about non-profit as a business. Because it has to pay salaries, it has to have people. You have to have money. Here in Mexico, non-profits, they see them like no, you, you don't have, you, why you have to have money? You are a non-profit.

Now, if, if you see, I don't know, if you go wherever, to LA and if you saw a football player,, uh or a business man, getting out of a Ferrari you would say, "Okay, they earned it." But if you see, I don't know, a big, uh, I don't know, the biggest non-profit, whatever, you name it. Um, the CEO of that non-profit getting out of a Ferrari, you will say that's very, that's very hurtful, you know? He shouldn't have a Ferrari. You don't know if that guy has another business and he can, he can have it.

So, yeah, I changed my mind.

Um, yes. Well, it's gonna be very difficult. You have to know that to follow your passion or your dreams is gonna be very difficult. Because normally everything that we do and we care, it's difficult. But, uh, you have start knowing that. And you have to also be very conscious that you can fail on the process. And that's also an option. And you have to be very aware of that. Because if you don't, and you fail, which you are gonna do, you are gonna fail somehow or somewhen, and that's not bad. Uh, it can take you to the bottom if you are not aware that failing is an option.

I'm not saying that you have to feel very good about failing. No, not at all. But yeah, it's part of the journey. And, be around people that that is following the same things as you. Probably it doesn't have the same dream or same passion but you can tell when people is more in tune with you. And if you don't have that people around you, start making decisions. And start saying no to some, some social, uh, circles that you don't want to be longer in, in, in that space. You know?

Uh, I don't think we don't have much, much time in this world to, to do things that we don't want to do. Or to be with people that we, we don't seem the meaning of being with them. Uh, that's not bad. You can say no to a lot of things. And I think that it's very difficult for us to say no to something because you start thinking what, what would they think of me? And we start putting a lot of, a lot of weight into what people is thinking about you. I used to do that a lot of time. All the time. I was trying to be in people's minds, which is crazy. I can't do that. I, I, I don't have that power. Uh, yeah, I'm in a wheelchair, but I'm not Charles Xavier from the X-Men. You know? (laughs) So I don't have... I'm not that able. Uh, but when, when you stop thinking about what people think about you, uh, it's so liberating.

People doesn't care about you. You have to understand that. Nobody cares about you. The only thing who cares about you is you. Probably your family too. But when you, when you think about that, when you go to social media, when you post something and you just wanna have likes and, and people to join to your page, that's when you start with the wrong foot. You have to do it because you want to. You have to be, uh, authentic. You have to be you. And, and that's the way you, you are gonna develop more things in this world.

Because, like I said before, everybody is pulling and pushing from different directions and what's your direction? You have to dig in that, and, and follow that direction. Um, and of course, uh, a fear, I, I always talk about fear.

We all, we all want to be approved by somebody. But if you are not au- authentic, you are not gonna be approved by anybody. And you have to be, you have to be approved by you first. Not by every- by everybody else.

Yeah, so Surfeando Sonrisas. Everything start when I, when I get back on the water. Um, uh, after that, wave, that I told you guys, uh, that I applied, that was the start of the journey. And, I started surfing more and more and more. And a good friend of mine, Arturo, uh, which we are very, very close. He told me, uh, "You cannot be selfish about this. You cannot, you cannot just serve you and not let other people to, to know about this." I'm, I can see what it it's doing to you. I can see the way you are changing. The way you are getting better just by surfing. Your... Uh, I think he was the first friend. We came to, we came very close after my accident. We were friends, but we weren't that close.

And I think he was the first friend that gave me the opportunity to, to get back life. Because he pulled me to his project. Uh, it was a project about surfing. And then I start going to beaches and I start going to places that I thought it was very difficult. Which they are, to be in the water and be on the sand totally difficult. And, and every time that I challenged something else, I was discovering that it was, it was possible to do it. It was difficult, of course, but it was possible.

And, and being in a wheelchair and being the only guy in the wheelchair in the beach, normally, I'm the only guy on a wedding, or the, or the party. It was difficult, you know? It was like, I feel different. Yeah, you are different. You are the only guy in the wheelchair.

ed four years ago, almost, in:

Uh, I wasn't, at that moment, I wasn't prepared to help others. Uh, I was receiving help from others. Now, now I'm up to the task to provide, uh, more, more things to, to the, the disabled world. Um, I don't like to talk about disability. I like to talk more about inclusion. But, um, sometimes it feels that the disability world is so far apart from the able-bodied world [in] which we are both human and live. It's so stupid to say this, but it feels like that and, and the purpose or the objective that Surfeando Sonrisas has is, of course, uh, bringing more, bringing more,, uh continence, more, more outdoor experiences for people with disability.

And, of course, surfing is so difficult to do it. When, when these kids and their families realize that after the day, after the three days, they were able to do it, that's very empowering, you know? Because, uh, you can move around on the beach. You can change yourself on the wheelchair in the beach. You surf and you had a, enough of day and night. I think at the end of the day, that's very empowering for people. Not just for kids, for the families, for the volunteers, for the instructors, even for us, for our staff. Uh, this is a huge impact and I think, um, we as humans have to be more sympathetic about someone's problems.

We have to be more in tune as a collective, uh, as a collective world, instead of being very individual. And of course, one of the main objectives of the non-profit is to bring inclusive to Mexico. If you have in the same place, in the same event people with disabilities and able-bodied people, that's inclusion. You know, because the problem is, is, is that people doesn't know about disabilities. They don't know about what, what happens to a spinal cord injury. And when, when I go to schools, I do a lot of the speaking. When I go to schools and I bring my surf boards or my hand cycle and I talk with kids from every ages, uh, they know, they, after the, after the talk, they have a different opinion, you know?

They aren't, "Oh, he's just in a wheelchair. He, he is like me." He doesn't have the, that ability,, uh for walking but he has a lot of ability. Uh, and, and that's very empowering. Also what Surfeando Sonrisas - and this is a new project that we are trying to develop - is that all the places, all the cities, all the beaches that Surfeando Sonrisas goes, uh, we have to, we have to bring or to, or to develop access to the, to the, to the beaches because that's, that's a big problem. 

We don't have um, good access to beaches for, for everybody. We always think about ramps for people in wheelchairs, but we want to shake that mindset. Ramps are for everybody. For everybody. We, we have to think that way. If not, we always segregated. Because, ah, it's for the wheelchairs. No, it's for everybody. It's for the guy who is bringing in a cooler full of beers. It's for a girl with a stroller, with, with her baby. Or with her son. Uh, and yeah, so Surfeando Sonrisas started to just to providing a positive experience for people with disabilities. But I think during this journey, our mission is way bigger than just providing, uh, sports for people with disabilities. 

Yeah. Because that, that's the biggest problem for me. Moving around. It, it's my biggest problem. And when you can’t move around, when you can’t go to a, to a, a toilet in a restaurant, to a bathroom, that impacts your self-esteem for sure. If I cannot move around just because one stair, one stair and my son which is three years old can be in danger for because of the cars or whatever, and that, and I can do nothing because just one fucking stair? That's huge. And we have to change that.

Um… I think everybody has a mission in this world. It can be, it can be small, it can be big. But if you don't pursue your mission, if you don't pursue your calling, I think that affects on a worldwide, uh, view. So everybody has to, to try to push, uh, and, and, and follow your dreams. Because if you do that, uh, our global dream, it will be, uh, it will not be that far away.