‘On point’: Wounded vet tests prosthetic ankle designed by Cal Poly students for surfing

For someone who grew up in the “sticks” of Texas, surfing was something Iraq War veteran Kyle Kelly never considered. But following an amputation in late 2015 stemming from a previous combat injury, he was introduced to Operation Surf by his physical therapist and thought: “Why not?”

It ended up being a life-changing experience — in more ways than one.

The decision resulted in him meeting his now fiance, Emily Crews, and “some of the closest friends he has made outside of the military.”

Kelly is now a volunteer veteran ambassador for the program and tries to catch waves every time he visits California.

Crews, a chairman for the Central Coast Operation Surf event, has seen the change that surfing has had on Kelly.

“I see a big difference in his mental state,” Crews said. “It forces him to focus on what he’s doing in the water rather than anything else that might be stressful to him.”

The two are to be married this weekend.

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Cal Poly student Caroline Swanson, left, talks to Kyle Kelly, a veteran who lost his lower right leg to a roadside bomb in Iraq. Her senior project was a new prosthetic limb specifically for improved ankle movement while surfing. David Middlecamp

While Kelly joined the ranks of hundreds of wounded veterans who have found calm and serenity riding the waves with Operation Surf, their technical moves have always been restrained by the limits of their prosthetics.

Current prosthetics don’t allow for the balance needed for complex, variable movements such as riding a wave because they are made for activities like walking or running.

The first step in changing that was taken Tuesday morning in Morro Bay, when Kelly tried out new prosthetic ankle designed by a group of Cal Poly students as a senior project.

Kelly had to paddle hard, fighting against the drag of the prosthetic foot that hung over the edge of the board, but once in front of the wave, he popped up to a standing position before resting into a squat, a transition that was smoother than ever before.

The project was brought to Cal Poly by the owner of Operation Surf Camp, Van Curaza, who sought a prosthetic with ankle mobility, as well as a prosthetic that could be used by anyone that showed up to the camp.

After a few more waves, Kelly was standing on the beach huddled with Curaza and Cal Poly engineering student Caroline Swanson, where they examined the pieces of the prosthetic ankle that enabled his smooth ride.

“The flexibility in the ankle, that was on point,” Kelly said. “Squatting, how easy it was to actually get down and squat, it was a noticeable difference.”

The former Army combat engineer was injured in 2007 by a roadside bomb in Iraq. He suffered injuries to his head and leg, both of which needed reconstructive surgeries.

Over time, his head improved, but his leg didn’t.

Kelly underwent multiple procedures, and after meeting with an orthopedic doctor in 2015, he decided that amputation was the best decision moving forward.

Just a few months after his operation, he was introduced to Operation Surf.

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Kyle Kelly, a veteran who lost his lower right leg to a roadside bomb in Iraq, tests a new prosthetic limb with improved ankle flexibility designed by Cal Poly students. Van Curaza, founder of Operation Surf, left, assists. David Middlecamp

The prosthetic, although revolutionary, is still a work in progress. The next step will be adjusting the balance to the center of the foot, but Curaza said it’s “a step in the right direction“ and already had suggestions for improvement.

“Your weight actually goes down on your ankle, right, “ Curaza said. “One of the challenges for people who do board sports with prosthetics is that it’s hard to put heel pressure, and I think if you slide the thing forward and have more tail, it would give you more mobility to have that heel pressure.”

The group of students was made up of two mechanical engineers and two biomedical engineers.

“The biggest challenge was probably our inexperience with prosthetics,” Swanson said. “None of us had any experience working on prosthetics before.”

Swanson, along with the team, met with Kelly at last year’s camp, and the biomedical engineers surfed with Curaza to learn the bio mechanics of the sport.

Swanson, a recent graduate, has a job lined up at Nike and hasn’t ruled out prosthetics as a career path.

As for the future of the prosthetic?

“We’ll continue working together with Cal Poly and we’ll make this, and as with most things in life, through our challenges and adjustments, we can find really positive things on the outcome,” Curaza said.

Monica Vaughan reports on health, Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo County, oil and wildlife at The Tribune. She previously covered crime and justice in the Sacramento Valley, is a graduate of the University of Oregon journalism school and is a sixth-generation Californian. Have an idea for a story? Email: