Person of the Week: Wally Fanene and Betty Michalewicz

A legless war veteran and his physiologist surf daily on the way to recovery.

Aug. 15, 2008— -- Wally Fanene, an Army war veteran from Hawaii, lived to surf. Riding the San Diego waves was once his passion, but it became a major challenge.

On duty in September 2007, Fanene knelt directly on a land mine buried in Afghanistan, losing half of his arm and his leg. In its place, he wears a high-tech prosthetic leg that was created for him by specialists at the Naval Medical Center in San Diego.

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Fanene, 26, came to the center, like many wounded vets, for physical rehabilitation. There he met Betty Michalewicz, 42, an Israeli exercise physiologist, who came from half a world away to work and inspire others.

In their sessions, Michalewicz asked Fanene about his goals, and to share his hopes as he entered a new stage of life.

"And after a short time, it's something that I always do," Michalewicz said. "Ask people what are their goals."

That was an easy one for Fanene. "I told her that I want to go back to surfing," he said.

So they hit the waves. They started slowly, beginning in the pool to develop skills and get reacquainted with the board. He removed his prosthetic leg and hopped in with plenty of hope.

"We got a surfboard from a friend and threw it in the water," Michalewicz said.

Because he is missing an arm, they wanted to see whether he could paddle fast enough on the board, which he could. Another question was whether Fanene could surf with his prosthetic leg, which they learned he couldn't.

"She pushed me as far as I could go on my own and just let me go," he said. "Somehow, she knew that I'd make it."

Back out on the San Diego waves, he found the kind of support he needed -- in Michalewicz.

"He's the one that had to figure this all out," she said modestly of coaching Fanene through his accomplishments.

The next step was to see whether he could get up to a kneeling position on his board. Day in and day out, Fanene worked on his paddling, technique and agility. With Michalewicz by his side, he made a real breakthrough, learning to kneel on the board.

"I saw him getting back to where he belonged, where he loves being," Michalewicz said with pride. She has learned "how it feels to him -- this fight in the water every day."

Fanene says that returning to the water has enlivened and freed him. "I don't need any prosthetics out here," he said.

The next hurdle will be riding the board on one leg, a difficult feat.

But there is hope; Michalewicz and Fanene found a Brazilian surfer who invented a way to ride with one leg, and brought him to the San Diego beach for a coaching visit.

With the surfer's recommendations, Michalewicz and Fanene continue to look for new ways to keep challenging themselves, and to get this surfer standing on the board again.

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