Hi, my name is Layla. My first sport in Special Olympics was swimming when I was 10-years-old. Swimming was a huge part of my life. Before that, my life was blank and I didn’t know what I could do with my life. I was just thinking about normal stuff like drawing and school. However, my mom wanted me to get involved in something big that would benefit me in a healthy way and to help me socialize. That’s when she found swimming in Special Olympics Florida. The first time swimming for Special Olympics didn’t go so well because I was anxious and frustrated since the other kids seemed faster than me; but my mom told me that it was just the first day and that after time I would get better with hard work and dedication.
I’ve been in Special Olympics for 6 years and I’m currently involved in swimming, paddle boarding, alpine skiing, basketball, track and field, open water swimming, and surfing. I’ll be starting volleyball in the Spring!
I met my coach, Victoria Burgess, when I was 12 years old. She was my paddle boarding coach at Special Olympics and she is still coaching me today as well as competed with me. In 2018, Victoria became the Guinness World Record holder for being the first female soloist to cross from Havana to the Key West on a paddleboard as well as the fastest. This inspired me to do a crossing of my own.
I wanted to do a crossing that focused on raising money for cystic fibrosis. The reason I wanted to focus on that was because of my friend, Hannah. I met Hannah when I was 10 years old and she has CF. I’ve watched her live her life with CF every day and I wanted to do something for her to show her how much her life means to me. I wanted to show her how much I cared for her by dedicating so much time, energy, and love in preparing for the crossing in her name. I want to help find a cure for her and everyone in the world who has cystic fibrosis and the crossing was one way for me to support that.
The crossing was on June 27, 2021, starting at 12:45 A.M. Some of the things I did every day to train to get ready for the crossing was 100 pushups, 100 Russian twists with a 10 lb medicine ball, 100 squats, balance board workouts, and paddleboarding at least 4 days a week for a total of about 2,000 miles. If I wasn’t paddling or doing muscle training, I was running 5ks around the house along with skateboarding, rollerblading, and cycling. I did this to build endurance in my legs and lungs. I mostly did this by myself with some help from my coaches. Most of my training was done during the pandemic. Closer to the Crossing, I did two paddles; an 8 hour and a 12 hour to test equipment and nutrition. We did this to figure out what to eat and drink and how much I needed eat and drink to keep up my energy. We decided on 3 air fried potato wedges, half of a coconut almond Kind bar, a few gummy life savers and a ½ peanut butter bar. To drink I started with 2 liters of water, then switched to water mixed with Gatorade. After seven hours, the Gatorade made my stomach hurt. So when we did the 12 hours, we used Propel Kiwi Strawberry. We started with 2 liters of water, then 2 liters of Propel mix and then water again. I didn’t experience any stomach aches.
On June 23, 2021, my journey for the Crossing started with my first ever boat ride! I met my captain and his wife, Captain Pancake, in Port St. Lucie. We spent the night at their house and left in the morning with 3 other women who were relaying on a canoe. The boat ride over was very bumpy, but I enjoyed every second of it. It took us about six hours to get to the beautiful island of Bimini! This was my first time ever leaving my country. After getting through customs, we checked into our Air BNB at the marina, and we settled in. The 5 of us got along very well! We got to meet so many people that work for Piper’s Angel’s Foundation and we got all of our gear, shirts, hats, sunscreen, tons of stuff. Then it was off to sleep.
The next morning, I was feeling a bit tired and a little nervous. I decided to do yoga in my room and then I went for a morning paddle on the bluest most beautiful water I had ever seen! My mom met me at the shore and I paddled over and we swam in the ocean a bit and it was amazing. Later that night, we went out to the pool and all of the paddlers got together for a potluck dinner and told stories about paddling adventures! I got to meet so many cool people and see some old friends! My coach, Paolo, was there and I got to meet Johnny Puakea for the first time! He owns Puakea Designs and I am an ambassador for them! He is very nice!
The next day the captain came to get us and took us to an old shipwreck, the SS Sapona! I snorkeled for the first time and then climbed a rusty ladder to the top of the shipwreck and jumped off! Twice! It was so much fun! Then that night we went over to the North Island of Bimini and had dinner with all of the paddlers! We ate outside and got to eat amazing Bahamian food, like fish and jerk chicken! I also collected tons of shells, sharks’ teeth, and beautiful sea glass.
Saturday morning was the day of the Crossing. I felt nervous and excited, but I was ready. I was well rested, hydrated, and well fed. I went to the beach to unwind, collected more sharks’ teeth, and swam in the ocean. Then it was time for the rose ceremony. Everybody got on their board and paddled out to the spot and got in a big circle. The boats surrounded us to protect us from other boats coming through and to keep us all together. Travis, Piper’s dad, talks to everyone about why we were there and to think about who we knew that had Cystic Fibrosis and with all of our might, scream their name and throw our rose into the air and just send it into the universe! It was the most amazing moment! There was a beautiful rainbow!
Later that night we had to go and get our night gear, a night vest, a whistle, my GPS, and my ankle monitor! We got our paddler numbers on our hands and were ready to go. I went back to the room and rested as much as I could while my mom packed everything up! It was almost time to leave this beautiful place.
Next, all 140 paddlers gathered on the beach and got ready to launch in 4 different groups. My group launched at 12:45 AM! They were blasting AC/DC’s Thunderstruck from the speakers! I was so pumped up when me and my group launched onto the water! There was a full moon, and the water was very calm! There was a nice current that was pushing me! I paddled to the boat where my mom was waiting, and we took off! I was ready in every way to make it the 80 miles until things took a turn for the worse. No one expected the water to be rough, but it WAS! We had 4-to-six-foot waves coming from behind us and rogue 8-foot waves coming from the side…in the DARK! I was getting thrown around and had a hard time telling which direction the waves were coming from. Then my stomach started to hurt. I couldn’t eat or drink anything, but I pushed myself harder than I ever had before for 3 hours! I didn’t have training previous for this situation. I had minor training at Special Olympics with about 2 miles, but I have done 12-mile river races, mostly training herself.
My mom knew that I couldn’t keep going like this unless I drank something, so I tried but I immediately threw it up and fell off my board. My mom told me to come in so she could check me. This is the scary part because the ocean was so wavy, it was very hard for them to get me onto the boat! A huge wave came and knocked me down between the boat and the board, and I almost got sucked under the boat. They pulled me up and my mom checked me out. She made the call at that point that I was not going back on the water because it was too dangerous. Now a lot of us were getting seasick because the boat was stopped and rocking like crazy.
It turned out that out of 140 people, only 20 finished the 80 miles. The conditions were really rough, and they ended up pulling a lot of people off the water and ending the crossing early. A captain told some people that it was too dangerous to go out into the water, some people only got to paddleboard for 5 miles. My board was damaged, and I still don’t have it back two and a half months later!
When people ask me about the crossing this is what I tell them. “Bimini was the most amazing adventure of my life! My dream was to participate in the Crossing for Cystic Fibrosis and my dream came true. My plan was to finish the 80 miles, but the sea had other plans for me.” I am so proud of everything I did to get ready and prepare for that journey. I am so proud of my 3 challenging and beautiful hours I got to paddle! The crossing was the best time I have had. I was first super apologetic, but I had to acknowledge that my safety was my priority. I am still proud that I showed up and I am so proud to have raised money for a cause that is so important to me. I have been training for 1.5 years for it so I have been focusing on the Crossing for so long. I want people to know that one thing that I learned is, you can put your heart and soul into something, work and train to be ready and still not get what you wanted. But don’t give up! I am proud to say I WILL be doing the Crossing again! I want to inspire other girls by moving on and showing that you just must keep going.
I have been busy for so long, so I am experiencing Crossing grief – what am I going to do now? Well, I am starting to set up new goals and will be busy again for the next 10 months. I have eight races set up between now and March. Now, I will be representing Team Florida in the Special Olympic USA Games for 2022 for Surfing in June. It is a big deal and I can’t wait to represent! I will be participating in a training camp in March, and if I prove that I am independent enough since I am so young, I hope to one day be competing in World Games for swimming or Alpine skiing! Just remember one thing, no dream is too small, no dream is too big! If your heart needs it, make it happen!