Barney Miller Interview: The World's Best Paraplegic Surfer

After a car accident, doctors told Barney Miller he'd never surf or walk again. They were wrong.

“What he has achieved puts all our achievements in perspective. We talk about courage and overcoming our fears in riding big waves, but I really believe Barney shows more commitment, dedication and bravery every single day he tries to walk.”
- Mark Matthews, big wave surfer.

Barney on his surf board, with his friend Mick Fanning.
Barney on his surf board, with his friend Mick Fanning.

Back in 1998, at age 19, Barney Miller was a promising surfer and the owner of a growing whitewater rafting business. Then he was then involved in a car accident near his home at Sawtell, on Australia’s east coast.

He was air lifted to hospital in Sydney and pronounced dead on arrival. After a massive fight, Barney survived the ordeal, only to be told he was a paraplegic and would never to walk again.

“Barney was airlifted to hospital in Sydney and pronounced dead on arrival.”

“I broke my C56 in my neck, but the damage went a lot higher up to c3, which cut my breathing,” Barney tells Mpora. “So initially I was on ventilator and they told me I’d be on that for the rest of my life.”

“I was like fuck that, I’m not going everywhere with a machine, and I told em to take it out. They then said they wouldn’t until I could prove I was able to breathe. I just said ‘let me prove it then.’”

Even in these earliest days with his life torn apart, Barney’s attitude to his disability was evident.

Relearning to breathe

“I didn’t exactly prove it though,” he laughs. “I lasted about five seconds and freaked out and whacked it back on. But I kept trying, relearning how to breathe really.”

“I got to a minute and after about two weeks I got to 40 minutes, but I could only do it once a day. I remember one day I managed two hours, and then the next jump was five days.”

“Once I made a week and eventually I got out of intensive care without the machine. I gave them a ‘told you so’, on the way out.”

“That’s bullshit. What’s the point if I can’t surf?”

Since then Barney has given a few more people a ‘told you so’ as he has re-built his life with singular purpose, overcoming his disability and living his life to the fullest.

“Back then I was told I couldn’t surf, it was too dangerous. I just said that’s bullshit. What’s the point if I can’t surf?”

Barney Miller Mick Fanning Project Walk
Barney Miller with his friend Mick Fanning at Project Walk

With the aid of his friends and surfboard shapers, he designed specialised boards that allowed him to lie on his board and catch waves.

“It was gnarly at first. It was all new to us. I hadn’t built the upper body strength and when I came off I hadn’t perfected how to float properly. I just had to trust my friends to get me in time when I wiped out. And I tell ya, I wiped out a lot!”

Barney kept at it though and through a charity event called the Barney Miller Classic (initially held to raise funds for his medical care but since taken over by Miller to aid other victims of injury) he started to meet some of the world’s best surfers. And with Barney being a likable larrikin, they quickly became friends.

With a little help from his friends

“I’ve known Barney for about ten years now,” says three-time world champion Mick Fanning. “I’ve taken him surfing at Pipeline and Sunset and out in front of a 20,000 crowd at the US Open in Huntington.

“And some of those surfs with Barney have been the most rewarding in my life. To see the commitment and passion he puts into it blows me away, every time. Oh, he can also skol a beer like few others!”

We’ve had some wild times,” says Barney, “you can’t print most of them”.

In fact the first time I ever met Barney he was skoling a pint, in his chair atop the bar at the Torquay pub after Mick has won the Rip Curl Pro at Bells.

“Yeah we’ve had some wild times,” says Barney, “you can’t print most of them. But I’ve toned down that stuff a little now. I’m all about being as physically fit as I can, for my surfing and for when I start to walk.”

Barney Miller with Mick Fanning and the crew from project walk
Barney Miller with Mick Fanning and the crew from project walk

Not content with merely surfing, Barney has since set his sights on walking. Through an LA based program called Project Walk, he is dedicating his life to taking a single step.

“I was working with C.H.E.K, the exercise program that Mick Fanning uses and I met a guy there who had just got back from Project Walk in LA and he was raving about it.

So in 2008 I called to check it out. When I called them up, I just knew it felt so right, I just knew it could help.”

Project walk

Project Walk is a program that focuses on using specific exercises that are related to the same movement patterns that occur during early human development.

Through these movements it attempts to re-establish patterned neural activity within the central nervous system.

Barney Miller training
Barney training at Project Walk

“The exercises are similar to what a child does when they are learning to walk,” says Barney. “With the damage to the spine, we have to re-learn those simple patterns. I did the first program in 2009 and from that first session, I could see light at the end of the tunnel.

“We stayed three months and I would make like one dramatic crazy improvement, but then I would go home after nine months and it would slip away.”

“The exercises are similar to what a child does when they are learning to walk.”

“We did it again in 2010 again and we decided that three months wasn’t enough, you know I just had to do more, so for the last two years we have done six months and it’s the shit. It feels amazing.”

When Barney says we, he is referring to his girlfriend (and now fiancée) Kate Southwell, a singer songwriter who goes under the stagename KADA. “I can’t even begin to explain the support and love she has given me.

“Without her, none of this would be possible. But it’s been positive for her, she has signed a record deal in LA and her work is going so well.”

Barney's fiancée Kate, who has been a huge support to him.
Barney’s fiancée Kate, who has been a huge support to him.

For Barney the improvements have been incredible. “I can stand now, my body and legs feel alive and I can stand with Kate. So just that with things like getting out of bed and in and out of the car helps so much.”

“I have a walker that has wheels, and so I put all my weight on to my front foot and start to drag it through and the train brings it through. So I am doing laps of the facility, and that is just amazing. It’s so crazy.”

“I am doing laps of the facility, and that is just amazing.”

Last year Barney’s mate Mick Fanning came in to check on his progress and was blown away. “It was pretty emotional for me,” Mick said.

“To stand shoulder to shoulder with Barney, to see him on his own two feet, blew me away. You think you face challenges on your own life, and then you see what Barney has done. It puts everything in perspective.”

Barney’s inspirational story has struck a chord with many and he was recently asked to the ambassador for Red Bull’s The Wings for Life World Run, a race where tens of thousands of runners ran simultaneously in over 30 different locations around the world. It took place a few days ago, at the start of May.

“The Wings for Life World Run is something I am very passionate about. It’s raised awareness about spinal cord injuries worldwide in a way that has never been done before,” said Miller. “I am honoured to be part of this organization, raising funds to find a cure.”

The first dance

Filmmakers have also recognised the powerful message in Barney’s quest and for the last two years Trinity Films have been making a documentary called No Means Go. “A couple of New York film grads hit me up and are making a doco of my life,” says Barney.

“At first it was just for a 15 minute doco for their university project, but now they have expanded to a full length feature film and have following me in Oz, and at a lot of the World Tours surfing events, and the big finale is the wedding.”

It should be amazing climax as Barney plans to do his first dance unaided with his new wife. “At the start they said I wouldn’t breathe. Then I was told I wouldn’t surf.”

“They also said that I would never move my right arm, which is now my strongest one. Another constant was that I’d never ever walk again. Well, I’m working my arse off to walk and in 2015 I am going to dance with my wife,” Barney says with total and utter conviction. With everything he’s done so far, you’d be a fool to bet against him.

“I’m working my arse off to walk and in 2015 I am going to dance with my wife.”

As Mick Fanning puts it: “No Means Go is a pretty spot on for Barney. And it’s funny cause I have taken him surfing over in Hawaii and a wave will come and he will be like “’No, no’ and I’m like, ‘You are going Barnes, it’s go.’

“But also it’s a sign of his courage and his determination that he always goes. And he always comes up with that goofy grin. I haven’t met anyone who has worked harder to achieve his dreams. He’s an inspiration.”

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