The Groundswell Program | How Surfing Is Helping Survivors Of Horrific Sexual Trauma

In the wake of the #MeToo campaign one Californian organisation is using surfing to treat victims of sexual assault

Photos courtesy of Groundswell Project

“I was sexually molested by a family member from the age of nine to 14, and then I was gang raped when I was 16 while traveling in South America,” explains Maria Treviño. It’s a horrific story, but one that’s unfortunately all too common among the women participating in the Groundswell Community’s therapeutic program.

The organisation, which runs programs all over California, focuses on helping women heal after suffering from serious trauma. But it has an unusual way of helping victims like Maria – it takes them surfing. Yes, surfing.

It may sound like the latest hippy-ish So Cal fad, but talking to those involved suggests it really works. Since she started surfing and participating in Groundswell programs Maria explains, she has experienced a shift in her body and mind. She speaks of being healed of depression, high blood pressure, and insomnia; of surfing bringing an overall sense of wellbeing to her life.

“Being submerged in water brings attention to your body, it can be very overwhelming, very humbling,” explains Groundswell Community course leader Natalie Small. “You can feel the power and support of the water at the same time. It’s scary but comforting – it really can help bridge the gap between the mental state and the body state.”

A trained therapist and surfer who has helped hundreds of victims of sexual trauma, Natalie believes that surfing can help with a whole range of problems.

“I was sexually molested by a family member from the ages of nine to 14″


“We all have these stories, we’re addicts, we’re victims of sex trafficking, we’re victims of abuse,” says Natalie. She believes campaigns like #MeToo have helped women to come together and realise they are not alone.

“We each have our thing that has gotten in the way of being our true selves. [Whether] it’s sex trafficking or sexual harassment in the work place, it all affects you”.

Given the number of issues that surfing – and the self-confidence boost it brings – can help, it’s no surprise that participants on the course come from all walks of life, and range in ages from 18 to their 80s.

The age range of the women on the course is hugely varied.

Participant Katie Floyd found the healing effects of surfing immediately after discovering the organisation last July. “After the first session I did with Groundswell I didn’t sleep that night, because being in the waves was so moving,” she says. “My body had a reaction where all these memories, and all these emotions were being lifted to the surface.”

Katie dealt with emotional abuse and physical abuse as a child and was sexually assaulted in her first year of college. “That changes a person,” says Katie, “I was using antidepressants and anxiety medication, I was so beat up after work I would drink. I was hiding feelings.

“These feelings manifested themselves in really ugly ways. I would get really sick. I had three-month long sinus infections, I would get other infections. I was so stressed out and bringing this garbage energy into the world.”

Since becoming a regular surfer, Katie doesn’t use any medication at all. “Surfing is like magic. It’s like medicine,” she says.

“Surfing is like magic. It’s like medicine”

While #MeToo has helped people realise that sexual abuse is widespread, few realise the severity of the problem. Sex trafficking, for example, is rife in places like California.

This year alone there have been more than 500 arrests in relation to sex-trafficking offences in Los Angeles, following a major investigation led by the Los Angeles County Regional Human Trafficking Task Force.

In 2017, around 200 human trafficking cases were filed by the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office. Horribly, it’s children between 12 and 14 who are most at risk of becoming victims of sex trafficking.

The Groundswell Community is focused on helping women to heal after suffering horrific ordeals.

Of course it’s not just the serious abuse sufferers that Natalie and the Groundswell team can help. The women who take part in their courses from mid-May to September this year may have suffered trauma to various degrees – from being sexually harassed in the workplace to being trafficked as sex workers. (The charity works with a charity called Girls Rise Above, which runs safe houses in San Diego for the latter group of women).

During a series of one and a half hour sessions, Groundswell participants cover everything from water safety and the basics of surfing, to the tools they can use in and out of the water for trauma recovery. Assisted by ‘surf sister’ volunteers, Natalie offers breath work and tapping techniques along with communication workshops.

“A big part of the trauma, which a lot of women who have been sex trafficked experience, is about not having a voice,” says Natalie, “they cannot speak, because they have experienced the unspeakable.” Surfing brings a senses of self-empowerment which can help these women talk about their experiences on their own terms. “It’s about discovering their true self,” says Natalie.

“They have experienced the unspeakable”

Natalie remembers one woman who joined the program who couldn’t even lie down on the board because the sensation brought back bad memories. “There was no emotion on her face, she was just standing there numb watching everything going on,” says Natalie. “[But when] we got in the water she instantly came alive.

“You could see all of a sudden she was a little kid again. There was so much joy in moving her body, she couldn’t move her body on the land. There was a different sense of support in the water.”

According to Natalie, negative experiences create particular pathways in the brain; when we re-experience something in a positive setting that’s similar to a negative experience, it starts to break those down and reform them into positive neurological pathways.

When people are submerged in the water, Natalie believes chemical reactions take place in the brain and there is an opportunity to reformulate these reactions. “Our bodies are amazing, they want to be resilient, surfing gives them the opportunity to reform and regrow and shake up all the negative stuff,” says Natalie.

“Surfing is like magic, it’s like medicine.”

Whatever the science behind it, there’s no doubting that Groundswell has changed participants lives for the better. As Katie Floyd says: “[The] programs drive up issues of confidence or feelings of ‘enoughness’, and you get to work on them.”

The bond between participants is also important, she believes. “It creates a sisterhood. Women come together to feel themselves in one another. I’ve seen women gain confidence [through the] community.”

Both Katie and Maria now give back to this community as volunteers and mentors, helping others who attend Groundswell programs. The stories they’ve heard from others are frequently as shocking as those of their own past.

“Vulnerable women can have a lot of triggers that we may not know about,” explains Maria. One woman, after putting on the wetsuit and having it tight around her arms, had a flashback to a time when she was bound by her wrists. “We slowly worked through it,” remembers Maria, “she later told us that she was so proud of herself for getting in the water and felt like surfing for the first time had changed her life.”

“It’s about remembering that you are beautiful and that you matter”

There was another woman who came to the group after being in an abusive relationship. She lived in the middle of the country and didn’t even know how to swim, Natalie remembers. “For weeks she wouldn’t put her head under the water. It can be crazy on top but if you just go underneath there’s this calm holding space.”

Then, on the final day, “this woman dove between the waves,” Natalie says “and when she came up she was so full of tears.”

“It was a realisation that all this chaos in her life was just on the surface.”

There’s a similar – and similarly potent – metaphor that Groundswell use in all their surf sessions. “When life happens, [there’s a] current underneath that’s consistent, and who you are,” says Natalie. “We tap into that and let people realise – that was just a wave, they can choose to surf the wave or dive beneath the wave.”

“I now live in a very superlative community with a lot of sisters, who get to go surfing and learn from the ocean”

Of course Groundswell deal in more than just metaphors. The effectiveness of their work is evidenced by the fact that, at the end of the eight week courses, many of the women go out and buy their own surfboards and surf gear. “It’s been super fun to see that progression,” smiles Natalie.

Katie is perfect example of this, “I now live in a very superlative community with a lot of sisters who go surfing and learn from the ocean,” she says.

“It’s about remembering that you are beautiful and that you matter.”

If you’ve suffered sexual trauma to any degree and feel surf therapy could help you, or want to volunteer with Groundswell Community, contact the team via their website at

Some names have been changed to protect the identity of the victims.

To read the rest of Mpora’s March ‘Space’ Issue head here

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