The beach is Nathan Gocke’s muse. He surfs there. He hangs out there.
Some familiar with Gocke’s circumstances might find his gravitation to the beach puzzling. Courtesy of a surfing accident in the waters of Hermosa Beach, Gocke, 35, is now a quadriplegic.
Gocke’s surfing friend since junior high—Brendan Simmons—witnessed Gocke’s accident firsthand on March 29, 2008. Simmons pulled Gocke’s limp body out of the water.
"All of a sudden I saw him get pitched, go over the falls, head first, and I didn’t see him come back up. I was down the beach a bit, so I got over there, and found him basically starting to go under water. I was able to get him up, get him out and get him to the beach," Simmons said.
Thinking Gocke must have just been "knocked silly," Simmons told Patch he didn’t realize at the time the severity of the injury, which was a broken neck that subsequently left Gocke paralyzed.
A life-changing wave
Before his accident, Gocke worked at Fuel TV and described himself as "100-percent independent." After the accident, things changed.
"If I didn’t have a car to get around in, I’d still be sitting in an apartment right now—I’d be nowhere, simply put," Gocke said. He drives a lowered and wheelchair-accessible Honda Element.
As people in the South Bay took note of this surfer’s struggles and triumphs, they put on a fundraiser three years ago at Patrick Molloy’s in Hermosa Beach to help Gocke cover health expenses.
Another (see accompanying photo gallery.) Many of Gocke’s extended and nuclear family attended, along with a fair-sized crowd of others inspired by, or curious about, Gocke’s story.
Gocke’s friend, event co-organizer Colleen Preitz, sold raffle tickets at Patrick Molloy's three years ago. Then in December, Preitz stepped up her involvement with the fundraising efforts, and helped organize the second fundraiser at Saint Rocke in conjunction with Shon Tomlin.
A total of $3,350 was raised at the event. Preitz and Tomlin agreed that Gocke, who is unemployed, deserved the support.
"He has never gotten down, at least not in public, about what has happened to him. He’s just so positive about it, he’s like, 'Hey what am I going to do? Sit around and complain about this?'… That’s inspiring to me," Tomlin said.
While others like Tomlin said Gocke and his story inspire them, Gocke told Patch he didn’t feel comfortable having the fundraiser events.
"I don’t like asking people for things, but… it’s a necessity now," he said. "Insurance does not cover nearly what it should. It's really a backwards system we live in with the whole disability situation."
Reflecting on the support received from the community, Gocke said he is grateful.
"It means the world to me...without them [my friends and family], I have no world. I definitely, definitely need this," he said.
After all, along with acquiring new expenses following his injury, Gocke said going from a fully functioning, independent adult to paralyzed from the chest down wasn't an easy road.
Returning to the water
Gocke credits one of his aunts, who housed him after he completed physical rehab therapy, for helping him move forward in life after the accident.
"I spent a lot of time at the house, or in the neighborhood at the beach, not really doing much," Gocke said.
At the time, his aunt told him it was time to find an apartment where he could live independently.
"My mind at the time was really focused on mobility [not on moving out]," Gocke said.
But with the help of his customized car, Gocke was able to be mobile. He moved into an apartment, found independence, and the beach.
Despite the ocean taking away Gocke’s livelihood—and almost his life—Gocke still gets in the water on a regular basis. As recent as the end of December, he surfed off of the Santa Barbara County coastline at a famous set of surf breaks known as The Ranch.
"It’s inspirational to see how far he’s come… for him to know he could surf again was his will to live, you know? That’s his life. Once a surfer, always a surfer," said Heidi Gocke of Canoga Park—Nathan Gocke’s sister. "I can honestly say my brother is my hero."
Gocke said it's difficult to explain exactly why he’s a surfer for life.
"A friend of mine put it this way: a lot of people say it’s an addiction, addictions you can quit. A sickness…is with you and that’s it. That’s really what it is—surfing, for those who it really grabs, is a sickness," Gocke said, adding that it’s not a bad sickness.
Now that a new year has begun, Gocke said he believes working again one day may be in the cards.
"I think I can do some things. It wouldn’t be the same as before, but with a lot of the computer stuff and automation, I think I could get back into it…right now I’m not working. I’m still getting my life together," Gocke said.
Meanwhile, Simmons said he hopes that more fundraisers will not only help Gocke financially, but also push his motivation into fifth gear.
"I think support means so much to your mental health," Simmons said.