“That was a big moment,” Watkins said. “I tear up thinking about it. We worked hard for this.”
Though they make it look effortless, Watkins and Johnson spend hours in the water preparing, squeezing in surf sessions before work, after work and any time they can. Johnson learned how to read waves and is always working to try new techniques such as the “floater” he debuted during the adaptive surfing competition when he won the title.
“It was gutsy to try that move in competition when you know you had to make it work,” Watkins said.
A few days before the competition, Johnson casually mentioned to Swanson that she should swing by the beach to see him surf.
“I didn’t even know until I got there it was for the East Coast championship,” said Swanson, who recorded video of Johnson being announced as the winner. “He doesn’t tell a lot of people.”
Swanson marvels at how Johnson surfs, with his eye level with the waves. But she isn’t surprised by his success.
“He’s competitive. He’s athletic,” she said. “Ernie is just a determined guy. Whatever you put in front him, he’s going to overcome it. He makes it look easy, but it’s not easy. And he doesn’t tell you how hard he works.”
While they work for hours on the waves, sometimes Johnson and Watkins simply spend time in the ocean, connecting with the environment and talking about life.
“It allows him to be free. He forgets everything else in the water. He’s not handicapped in the water, in his mind,” Watkins said.