Big Waves, Big Attitude

Ryan Levinson struggles just to put on a hat due to FSHD — yet still manages to rescue people on the high seas

Ryan Levinson is a member of a San Diego water safety and rescue team that watches out for surfers at major competitions.
Article Highlights:
  • Despite weakness caused by facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSHD), Ryan Levinson is an emergency medical technician and certified rescue watercraft operator.
  • Levinson relies on adapted equipment and adapted techniques to manage to keep doing what he loves.
by Bill Norman on May 19, 2010 - 5:39pm

“Even though I struggle to put a hat on my head or walk up a staircase, I can still operate in 40- to 60-foot waves and provide a service that may save someone’s life.”

Ryan Levinson, 38, lives life to the fullest, and he’s not going to let a disease like facioscapulohumeral muscular dystrophy (FSH) deter him.

Levinson recently became a certified water safety rescue watercraft operator in San Diego. That means he’s qualified to ride a motorized personal watercraft (PWC) for two international water safety and rescue organizations that provide certified professionals for maritime events.

 Levinson is certified to operate a water safety rescue watercraft in the San Diego area

This could mean working “big wave events,” where top surfers from all over the world compete in some of the world’s biggest (and most dangerous) waves, or at long-distance swimming events, triathlons or sea kayak competitions where safety is a critical consideration.

For each event, Levinson and three to six other team members pull rescue sleds behind their PWCs and stay close to the action. If a surfer is knocked down by a big wave, Levinson scoots in and gets the rescue sled near enough to be grabbed. “There are usually 14-18 seconds between waves, and the surfers are sometimes so tired from the wipeout that it can be more of a rescue than an assist,” he said.

Like a fish to water

Water-related sports are nothing new to the Florida native, who moved to California 20 years ago to be closer to bigger and better waves. He’s a certified scuba instructor, and has many other water certifications. As his website ( reflects, he’s as happy in water as on land. And, since learning about 13 years that he has FSH, he has earned dozens of awards from MDA and other organizations for achieving personal excellence.

Once a world-class triathlete, Levinson was running 10K (6.2 mile) races as recently as two years ago. Now — although he still can run — doing even half a mile on the beach causes severe pain in his legs, he says.

Levinson also is an EMT (emergency medical technician), working a week or so out of every month. He’s had to adapt his physical abilities to the job requirements over time. “I can’t raise my right arm high enough to hang an IV bag from an overhead hook,” he explained, “But if I hold the bag in both hands and swing them upward, I can get to the hook.”

Adaptation is key

That adaptation is characteristic of the way Levinson copes with many other aspects of his life as well. On the PWC, he wears a back brace and sometimes knee braces — “because I don’t have a whole lot of stability there.” He wears ribbed gloves to improve his grip and traction, and help compensate for his lack of strength.

“Altogether, it’s about 20 percent modified equipment and 80 percent modified technique,” he says.

The introduction on Levinson’s website sums out his outlook on living with disability.

 “When I was diagnosed, doctors advised me to 'take it easy' and 'not overdo it',” it says.  “I respect the doctors’ advice, but I choose to define my own limits.  I can no longer do a pushup, a sit up, or even raise my arms over my head, but I live every day with a deep passion that comes from loving what I do and knowing that it will be increasingly challenging to do it.”

For information on how Levinson trains, go to "Profiles of People Who Exercise" and scroll down to "Food Influences Performance Says Multi-Athlete."

Levinson works "big-wave" events such as this one in San Diego where world-class surfers compete.
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