Other than a strong wind coming in from the north, September 27, 2015Sept. 27, 2015, was a seemingly normal day. Kaleb Kirshenbaum, a 12-year-old at Fletcher Middle School and a two-time East Coast champion surfer, was taking advantage of that day’s large waves at the Jacksonville Beach Pier. A skilled surfer, Kaleb was preparing to do a move known as an aerial. The stunt requires a surfer to get up a lot of momentum, launch off the lip of the wave into the air, and then drive the board down to land back on the wave. Little did Kaleb know, however, that this particular move, one that he had done many times before, was about to change life as he knew it.
As Kaleb launched himself into the air over somewhat shallow water, the wind ripped his board from under his feet and drove the nose of the board into the sand, causing the board to stand straight up. Falling from nearly ten feet in the air, Kaleb came down on the board, causing a blunt trauma that, as he later found out, split his pancreas in half.
“I saw him in the water, struggling to wave someone over to him, trying to make his way in,” Todd Kirshenbaum, Kaleb’s dad, said. “I saw people running. My first thought was that he was attacked by a shark. When I saw him, I immediately knew something was terribly wrong.”
Since the emergency room was close by, Todd carried Kaleb to his truck to get his son to the hospital as quickly as possible. Immediately, the emergency staff took Kaleb in for an MRI so that they could know the necessary action to take. Kaleb’s internal bleeding was so severe that the technician came out of Kaleb’s room having a difficult time controlling her emotions. Moments later, an intercom came on urgently requesting another ambulance to take Kaleb to Shands Hospital. Horrified, Todd knew that his son was in serious danger.
Kaleb and his parents didn’t talk about surfing, let alone the incident, for weeks. It was too painful. Kaleb had nightmares about what happened to him. But the time came in which Kaleb did want to talk about surfing again. While he was still in the hospital, his dad told him that after what he’d been through, he wouldn’t blame him if he never wanted to touch a surf board again, but Kaleb wanted to surf again. He wanted to prove that he could come back, that he could ride waves again.
The journey to surfing again was no simple task. Kaleb went through months of rehabilitation to gain his strength back just to function normally. With his community’s support, Kaleb was fortunate to get all the help he needed to recover. However, to learn to ride a surf board again was a task in itself, but once he was able to stand up on a board again, there was no looking back.
“He has no fear and no reservations,” Todd said. “Once he was popping up on his feet on the board, he was dropping into big waves without any fear or hesitation. He was a 12-year-old boy when the accident happened; he’s 13 now. He’s the strongest human being that I’ve ever met in my life.”
Since he found his rhythm back in the water, Kaleb has been unstoppable. In fact, since his incident, surfing is all the more satisfying to him.
“Surfing felt better,” Kaleb said. “I appreciated it more. Since I was little, I’ve just really loved the feeling of riding a wave. There is nothing else like it.”
Kaleb is surfing again, and he’s competing again. He wears a long scar that goes entirely up his mid-section. It’s a reminder of the horrifying day and brutal recovery that followed, but it’s not a burden to him in the water. Nothing can get in the way of his dream of one day becoming a professional surfer.
“My advice to anyone trying to reach their dream is to never stop, keep trying, and work even harder,” Kaleb said.
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Kaleb’s entire community came together to help him recover. However, a young man named Devin Kennedy reached out to Kaleb and his family to coach Kaleb into recovery. He and Kaleb put in countless hours together, and Devin’s assistance was monumental in training Kaleb back up to his original skill level. However, a year to the month after Kaleb’s injury, Devin would face his own battle in the ocean. The young man lost his life in a surfing incident in Nicaragua.
Kaleb and his family are forever grateful for what Devin did, and for Kaleb, his friend’s passing is only more inspiration to succeed, not only for himself but also in Devin’s memory. His family remains strong as well and forever supportive of Kaleb and his dreams. But that doesn’t mean taking anything for granted.
“Sometimes I look at him, and I get choked up and go hug him,” Todd said. “He’s like, ‘Why are you hugging me?’ And I’m like, ‘Man, I’m just hugging you. I’m just loving you.’”
Sponsors: Kaleb’s current sponsors include Salty Crew, Etnies, Xcel Wetsuits, FCS, Mellow Mushroom, and Aqua East Surf Shop.
Academics and Past times: “I think I’m going to finish up home school this year. This is my last year in middle school. We’ll see what I’m going to do next year.”
“I like to fish a lot. Fishing is like my other hobby. I fish for largemouth bass.
A Dream That Can’t Be Broken: 12-Year-Old Jacksonville Surfer Survives Life Threatening Injury in the Water, Returns to Surfing Post-Recovery
Kaleb Kirshenbaum | Fletcher Middle School (prior to injury) | NF | April/May 2017
Written by: Sarah Turner