"I'm not bitter about life. I'm happy because I was able to see until I was 42"

Aitor Francesena
Aitor Francesena / IGNACIO PÉREZ
  • Aitor Francesena has been blind for seven years. When he left hospital, he persuaded the person looking after him to let him go back into the sea. And now he is a surfing champion

Aitor Francesena was born with a congenital glaucoma and a prognosis that one day he would go blind. When he was 14 he lost the sight in his right eye and seven years ago, while he was waiting for his third corn.ea transplant, a bad fall in the water left him with no vision in his left eye. He was plunged into darkness. However, as soon as he left hospital, still with stitches in place, Aitor was back in the sea.

He is nicknamed 'Gallo' (cockerel) because when he was little, in Zarautz - in the Basque Country, where he still lives - some thugs put a knife to his throat and forced him to make noises like a chicken.

In March he went to the US and became world champion of adapted surfing. When he got back, he came down with a fever and found he had coronavirus. But alone in his house, he couldn't see to check his temperature.

What did you think about durthat difficult time?

Our brains are so intelligent that, in critical situations, they know how to cope, whatever happens. I rang my daughter and said, "One day down, one less to go." But I didn't get better. I had no strength, I was sweating all day long; I got through a load of tee-shirts. I just kept well hydrated, had something to eat and then went back to bed. Then, I finally gained my strength back. The virus left me feeling destroyed, but I'm fantastic now.

Does surfing teach you to fall over and get up again?

I grew up in a working-class home with a congential glaucoma. That background has made me what I am. Because of the people I grew up with, or because I was always faced with a 'no' whatever I wanted to do, I became a fighter. I wanted to explore the world, to travel, because I knew that one day I wouldn't be able to see anything. And if I can't surf I'm not happy. If I don't swallow a bit of salt water I can't face the day the same way. All this has made me what I am. Positive, a fighter, and with a real will to enjoy life.

Your philosophy is to live life 'to the limit'. Can you live it with the same intensity a metre and a half away and wearing a mask?

I'm very happy and happiness comes from the sunshine, the rain, drinking water, going into the sea, walking in the mountains and my daughter every time she kisses me. I go to other countries and I see a chap, sitting against a wall, using a handful of twigs looking like he's sweeping. You pass him in the morning and he's sweeping, and in the evening he's still sweeping in the same place. But you say 'good evening' to him and he gives you a huge smile. We live at a super-powerful, dizzying speed, but we would be happier if we had less.

After all you've been through, doesn't it make you bitter about life?

No way! I'm not bitter about life. I'm happy because I was able to see until I was 42. Honestly, the only things I haven't done yet are jump out of a plane and go to Nias, an island in Indonesia. And the thought of jumping out of a plane without being able to see still gets my heart racing. I've done everything I wanted to do. I snowboard and people are amazed. If you leave me in the middle of a run, I'll turn one way for a while and then the other. I always stay in the middle.

How do you see the waves coming at you?

The first day I went into the water I realised that the sea was giving me clues. It tells me what the waves are like. If I face ahead and the wave passes in front of me, I'm north. If I turn left and the wave passes me on the right, I'm in the west. The first time I went in I sat on the bottom of the sea and I was fine. I had stitches in my eye, I paddled towards the shore, a wave passed beneath me and I noticed how it curved and the board tilted. The next day I went in thinking about what I'd learned. I started to paddle to the shore, a wave came and I stood up. I was surfing, and everyone was cheering.

Do you prefer to have your feet on the ground or in the water?

I feel safer in the water. There are no obstacles. I often surf at night and feel like a fish in water. The waves bring me peace.

Who lives on the crest of a wave?

I do! And the crest of the wave is the loveliest and most incredible place, one that really fufils you as a person. What you feel as you come down is amazing.