Meira Va’a Nelson is a champion surfer who has known more trauma in her life than most people will ever experience.
When she was just seven years old her mother died of breast cancer. On the day of her mother’s funeral, her father, unable to deal with his own grief, left the family.
Tragedy struck again when she was a teenager: a car accident injured her so severely she was paralyzed and told she would never walk again.
Meira flew from West Samoa to Honolulu for surgery and physical therapy. The operation was so successful, she gained back strength in her legs and eventually learned to walk with canes.
Meira also found a new home: Hawaii. The local community embraced her and she began to see a life for herself that she didn’t think was possible back in Samoa.
Paddling canoes with Hawaii’s adaptive community led her to try surfing. After her first solo session, she found her new passion. Meira was so happy after catching those first waves, she came home with sore cheeks.
“I could not stop smiling or even talking about it, you know, it’s just a feeling of … freedom,” she said. “You’re all alone, there are no crutches, but just you and the ocean and sharing the wave with the person next to you.”
She also relishes the opportunity to show others how disabled people can thrive in the water.
“To also be a mentor for the young ones, and not just for the young ones, the disabled community… it’s such a teaching moment where I get to share my happiness of the ocean.”
Meira endured years of recovery, buoyed along the way by thrilling news that she was pregnant. It was something doctors told her was unlikely. But her excitement was tempered when her daughter, Aulani, was born with a rare brain condition.
Once again, the odds were against Meira, who was told her daughter was unlikely to live beyond age 3.
“And when I had my daughter, I didn’t know I was going to have a disabled daughter, and being disabled myself, it’s like, it’s just one thing after the other…Like when am I gonna get a break?”
Meira became a fierce advocate for her first-born, becoming an even more active – and visible – member of Hawaii’s disabled community. Aulani died in 2020 but she lived 12 years – much longer than doctors had predicted.
While paddling, she met Alex Nelson, who would go on to become her husband and the father to her two youngest children.
After losing her own mother at such a young age – and being shuttled between family members during her formative years – being a loving parent and having a happy home is Meira’s greatest accomplishment.
“I’m honored to have the family that I have because it’s something I always wanted: to be loved, accepted,” she said. “I feel like the richest mom, even though I don’t work, and I’m a stay-at-home mom.”
Meira’s three surviving children keep her busy and also motivate her to keep winning those surf contests.
Riding the waves, she said she feels her whole family is with her, even when they are not physically there. She wants to represent them and prove what’s possible and show that resilience can always lead to new joy.
“That is my purpose. To keep showing up for my family, to keep doing what I do, no matter how hard it is.”