GU's Waterman Making Waves: A Chat with Bruckner Chase

GU's Waterman Making Waves: A Chat with Bruckner Chase

It’s summer, and this one’s particularly hot. That means people are heading to the water in droves to cool off and have fun. So to learn more about how to stay safe in the water, GU Energy Labs Elite Athlete Manager Yuri Hauswald chatted with GU athlete Bruckner Chase, Endurance Ocean Athlete and advocate for water safety and access. Chase’s interests range from water-based safety education to expanding access to water environments for those who historically have limited means when it comes to learning to love and move in aquatic landscapes. Here’s what Chase had to say from his home in Ocean City, New Jersey. 

Yuri Hauswald: You and I go way back, probably close to 15 years interacting as GU Energy labs athletes. You are one of our longest standing athletes that we've had. You're our waterman. Thank you for taking some time to discuss what you have been up to all these years. I'm going to jump right into it.

In 2011 you did an endurance swim in American Samoa and you were moved to start the Ocean Positive Foundation. What was it about your experience then and your subsequent visits in the years to follow that inspired you to start this foundation and your ongoing commitment to the foundation’s mission?

Bruckner Chase: I began working in the ocean community world with NOAA's National Marine Sanctuary Program, which is the part of the government that protects these underwater sanctuaries; underwater parks that are so important to all of us as a community. Whether we look out over them every day or whether they're just part of our shared ocean experiences. And National Marine Sanctuary sent me to American Samoa where I immediately bonded with this amazing culture and community that had lived on that island for 3000 years. The Samoan Way "FA'A Samoa" is this commitment to island and ocean and village and family. And it just really resonated with me. We were down there to build capacity in the villages to protect them against drowning and injuries in the ocean, while also really learning about the cultural connection that some people have to the ocean.

Before we left on a 10-day trip and before we came back, the government asked if we would create an ongoing program to educate students in the high schools to work with their department of public safety to build an aquatic capacity that protects the villages and protects the oceans. Subsequent years of going down there and working on that program etched the culture in my skin and on my heart. And it has carried with me through everything I've done in any ocean, any community around the world. That level of commitment to impacting community and ocean is nothing I can describe. But our foundation's mission statement is to positively impact how we all feel, think and act towards our oceans and our communities. And that positively impacting and reinforcing the stuff that protects us all is really grounded in that spirit of, of Samoa the FA'A Samoa spirit. And that's what carries us on regardless of what each initiative may look like.


Hauswald: You pointed to your arm, and I know that you have some special ink, some tattoos that were done by a tribal leader there. I wonder if you could just dive into that real quickly.

Chase: One of the cultural things in the South Pacific is the ancestral tattoo art or "tatau." I worked down there for a lot of time. I have a Samoan title and an affiliation with one of the villages and had traditional tattoo work done across my chest and arms. It is my coat of arms and Samoan story, and it was etched in the old school way with bone and sticks and carved into my skin. So it was a pretty painful experience, but also very significant to me personally and forever links me to that island and my village of Au Luu.

Hauswald: You currently work with athletes with spinal cord injuries, disorders, and movement challenges to help them play, train, and compete in the ocean and open water disciplines of surf lifesaving sports. What motivated you to start the Blue Journey Unified Initiative?

Chase: Like I said, we wanted to positively impact communities and connect them to this experience that we should all be able to have in our natural waters in our oceans. Several years ago, the Bacharach Rehabilitation Hospital that has a very large spinal injury unit serving this region of the country where I'm located in South Jersey, said, "Look, in this coastal area, people grow up in, on or around the water, yet many of the people that we work with have had a traumatic event in their life, and now they're feeling disconnected from the culture and community of being on or in the water." And they said, "Can you take what you know about being in the water and create a program so that as our patients get out of the hospital, they have a way to get back to the ocean focused community that we have here?"

There are a lot of programs that create best days on the beach or a single session surfing. You and I are endurance athletes. We live this lifestyle, this is something we get to go and do every day. And so from the very beginning, Blue Journey Unified was going to be an ongoing program so that someone who may find that they just love being in the ocean could have an opportunity to do that every time they wanted to. We do programs year-round in the open water in the summer, in pools, in the winter. So every week or more athletes that want to be on the water paddling or open water swimming have the chance to do it because we are looking at health and wellbeing, but also quality of life and how good do you feel about yourself and how connected do you feel to the community around you?


Hauswald: Can you just describe for folks who are gonna be reading this, what does a typical session look like?

Chase: Sadly in South Jersey in February, it can be 20 degrees outside. So we have designed special inflatable prone paddle boards for our pool sessions—these are boards you lie down on. A lot of the winter is spent building water capacity or an athlete's ability to move through the water and figure out with their injury what can they do to maximize what they can do in the water. Then also by tethering the board with the bungees, we can get people on paddle boards so that they can train specifically for being out in the ocean or out in the bay. A typical session in the summer has anywhere from 20 to 30 people and eight to 12 athletes with spinal cord injuries or similar disorders. We head out on the water on prone paddle boards and every athlete has an escort with them. Some of the athletes are training for competition events later in the summer. Some of them just want to get outside and be out there. I I say we've got three types of athletes: those that want to try it, those that want to do it, and those that want to erase it, and we try to provide positive opportunities for them to do that regardless of what part of that spectrum they're falling on on that day.

Hauswald: Thank you for that explanation. So as a lifelong athlete yourself, how did your personal sports journey, which includes everything from triathlon, ultra distance running, open water, swimming, surf, and lifesaving sports influence what you're doing with your different foundations and initiatives today?

Chase: Well, it's a great question because I was never supposed to be an athlete. I was this geeky kid with a name that he couldn't even spell until he was 12. And so I never saw myself as this endurance athlete. And I had the incredible fortune to go and live in Australia when I was 16 and ran my first marathon in Melbourne. And as soon as I did that, I was like, this wasn't supposed to be me, and if I didn't think I could do that, but I could , so what can I do? And then my life became a pursuit of these endurance challenges on the water or on land.

When I reflect back on the impact those experiences have had on me, how empowered I felt, how great I feel about overcoming or embracing this diversity and embracing challenge, I'm like, well, how can I share that with other people? How do I take all the success that I had as an athlete, but let someone else find their own path to that same sort of feeling, whether they're crossing a finish line and breaking the tape, or whether they're running around the block for the first time and saying, "I can do more."

Hauswald: That's really cool. I've been lucky enough to coach at some women's gravel camps over the last two years, and a dear friend of mine uses this quote, "inspiration flows both ways," and it really resonated with me and it resonates with what you're doing because you were inspired by some events and now you're doing things that inspire others. Those ripples are going to continue flowing outwards and you never know who they're going to touch, who they're gonna inspire. So keep putting those ripples out into the water because you're doing great things that enrich and fill your heart as well as the hearts of the people you're working with.

So the most recent big change in your life is that you have begun news reporting for the Weather Channel, which reaches millions of people as the Wave Ocean expert to help folks navigate ocean conditions. This is an obvious extension of your Wave Safe initiative. I'm hoping you can share more about some of the current things you're dealing with. As we were talking about before we went live here, you're dealing with some real life issues right now in the ocean.

Chase: I mentioned earlier that I went to American Samoa working with a division of NOAA, the National Marine Sanctuary Program. Then a few years ago, I was approached by the National Weather Service, which is also part of NOAA, to help shape a new narrative around coastal safety and beach safety. We began a four-year process of creating a new series called Wave Safe with Bruckner Chase. And that that series is hosted by NOAA—you can find it on NOAA Ocean today—and we went around the country with a film crew to capture a demographic and geographic specific story about all these different beaches that are people's favorites around the country from the Pacific Northwest to California, the East Coast, Hawaii, and even American Samoa. And we want people to have amazing experiences on these beaches, but when they go, we want 'em to be safe.

Hazards might be a little bit different. The dangers and the risks are a little bit different depending on where you could go. So we created this series and then Covid hit and we started to push it out. But COVID changed a lot of things that we could and couldn't do as far as being out in public. And then though this affiliation with the Weather Service I began working with the American Meteorological Society and speaking to some of their broadcasters about how to expand the narrative that they're providing people on air when people drown, or when they get in trouble in the ocean or the nearshore environment. And I was approached by the Weather Channel last year to begin doing some segments and help them expand the conversation, both in breadth and depth of what we talk about, so that when people go to the beach, they're informed about what's going on, and they know what those conditions might mean for them, because a lot of times people get in trouble in the ocean.

We talk about rip currents, but there are so many other dangers, and too often people who don't live at the ocean the way I do, they don't understand how things might be different for them in the water than an experience they're used to on land. They don't know how to translate their ability and their comfort level to what they may experience if they end up in the water when they don't mean to, or if they end up in a situation that's really dangerous. So it's been really exciting and very rewarding to work with some amazing talent at The Weather Channel. Jim Cantore, Jen Carfagno come to mind; they have been covering storms and hurricanes for decades, and are really trying to immerse everyone in that same level of information and actionable items around coastal safety so that everyone can stay safe.

Last week I spoke at the American Meteorological Society's Conference for broadcasters. Sadly, in the last several days, there have been seven drowning deaths in the panhandle of Florida, including yesterday. A former NFL quarterback, 35 years old, died in Destin, Florida, trying to swim back from a sandbar. And what I feel this sense of urgency in is how do we give people actionable tools so that they can protect themselves and protect others? There's a real challenge filling rosters on beach patrols. I am an ocean lifeguard, I train ocean lifeguards, and we're having a hard time filling up the rosters. Right now, people go to beaches and find fewer guards. So we want to educate individuals and families so they can make good decisions and keep themselves and others safe.


Hauswald: I'm really glad to see this come to fruition for you. It's the natural extension of everything that you've been doing from your past to now. And now you're able to hopefully arm people with knowledge and some skills that allow them to be safe and play in the ocean. OK, I have the second to last question here: how has your water community and the environment changed throughout your years of participating in water sports? What's a current challenge for you and what does the future look like for fixing it?

Chase: One of the most surprising things I've done is that a few years ago I actually went over to Poland to work with their surf lifesaving community in February. You don't necessarily think of surf-lifesaving when you think about about Poland, but it was one of the most amazing experiences I've had. I spent two weeks over there speaking at schools and running coaching seminars. And people in the US don't realize that this world of professional surf lifesaving and surf lifesaving sports is huge around much of the country, both in the pools and in the ocean.

I also get the chance to work a lot in Australia. It's kind of the gold standard in surf lifesaving and beach protection is an organization called Surf Lifesaving Australia. I love being affiliated with that organization. And so my community around all that I do has expanded globally, and it has immersed me in some of the most amazing cultures that I never really felt myself being part of or really knew that much about. Learning about Poland, American Samoa Australia, working in Canada, and even just the different ocean cultures around different parts of the United States has inspired me as I get older and older and look beyond just chasing a finish line and a tape. It's been amazing to be immersed and be a part of something that's so big, something that connects us all, which is our oceans and aquatic environments. And I think the challenge that I feel now is I feel that I started late, that I found this calling and this purpose and this passion late.

I have this sense of urgency—how can I convey some of this to someone younger and how much more could they do starting sooner? One of the things that I talk about is that everything we do is designed around creating the passion to care, the strength to act, and the vision to inspire passion, strength, and vision. If we pass that along to the people that we touch, then it's been a success because I don't know how much more I can do and I don't want to do it alone. I want someone else to do more and do better than me. That's the mission. I need to be irrelevant and someone else needs to take it to the next level.

Hauswald: You just perfectly encapsulated how inspiration flows both ways. The more you keep inspiring people through the work that you're currently doing now, hopefully you will find or inspire those people to keep carrying on that message that you're trying to do now. So, as a follow up, what's currently working or going well in the water safety spinal cord injury work that you're doing and what could be improved upon?

Chase: People ask me how I do all of this, and in my mind, the work with athletes with spinal cord injuries and coastal safety are really cohesive. It's all about positive, safe experiences in the water and making sure that everyone has the capacity to do that. What's going really well with working with athletes with spinal cord injuries is that I got back to Australia in October of last year, began working with Surf Lifesaving Queensland and Surf Lifesaving Australia. I work with the university down there teaching an honors occupational therapy lecture in the fall where we look at how we can try to reverse preconceptions that keep people out of the water and expand capacity for people regardless of what physical challenges they may face so that they can embrace this ocean and aquatic culture. I think that having an organization like Surf Lifesaving Queensland and the university really look at an ongoing impact on quality of life and an inclusive part of the community has been very rewarding.

We continue to keep our feet in the sand with the athletes that we work with here. And it's really resonating. Through COVID, I saw the isolation that a lot of athletes that have physical challenges felt because they need to be near people to help with mobility and moving and stuff. To be able to bring people outside and connect to community has been so important. We worked with the Reeves Foundation last year and we're just kind of growing from there. And around coastal safety, I think working more with broadcast meteorologists and specifically the Weather Channel has really shown me that there are ways that we can expand the narrative and raise everyone's Blue IQ so that they can better assess what's going on around them. I think we're on the right path to making sure that everyone's experience and draw to the ocean is positive and not traumatic. Negative experiences can be life-changing in a bad way. We want life-changing experiences to be, and I think we're really on track for that right now.

Hauswald: Besides the Weather Channel, if people want to learn more about you, your foundations initiatives, where can they find some information about you Bruckner?

Chase: Here's the first thing I want people to do: if a beach is in your future, do a Google search of NOAA Wave Safe and find that series that that covers some amazing places that we visited. Also, learn about the mindset, philosophy and the actions that can keep you safe, whatever your coastline might be. Get closer to connect to us: is our foundation's website, and that'll connect you to the breadth of what we're doing. One thing we're working on right now in conjunction with Wave Safe series that we've developed with NOAA and the National Weather Service are physical assets: safety posters and safety information that are made from recycled ocean bound plastics. We've got these prototypes ready to go out into communities around the country. We had corporations donate the raw materials, the printing, and the extrusion for free. So we're eager to get 'em out there. It's exciting because the narrative now is that we're able to protect our oceans by keeping plastics out of the ocean and turn that around and protect our communities as they go into the ocean.

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