Katherine Donnelly | 06.28.2018

As part of Outdoor Project's Women In the Wild series this summer, I have had the honor of working with outdoor women from all over the industry to dig a bit deeper into who they are, how they got to where they are now, how they approach the outdoors, and more. These women are all rad in their own right, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, or how "badass" they might be. Whether they're mothers, daughters, sisters, professional athletes, beginners, weekend warriors, "instafamous," or anywhere in-between, their unique stories, journeys, opinions, and perspectives are incredibly valuable and insightful as Outdoor Project - and the industry as a whole - progresses and evolves to become more inclusive to every type of outdoors person. 

Through in-depth and often thought-provoking interviews, I hope to highlight these women's stories, their work, their adventures, and so much more with an eye toward giving them their well-deserved share of the spotlight while inspiring and empowering even more women to get outside!

In this feature we talk to Dani Burt.

Regardless of what the world has thrown her way, this Woman In The Wild has shown true grit and never backs down from a challenge. You'll likely find her in the ocean, either riding waves of her own or mentoring the next generation of adaptive surfers. Get the full scoop below.

Photo by Pat Weber.

OP: Give us the skinny on who Dani Burt is.

Dani Burt: I am a professional surfer, speaker, Doctor of Physical Therapy, and above-knee amputee. In 2004, I was in a motorcycle crash that put me in a coma for 45 days. The toughest time in my life was when I woke up from my coma. I felt hopeless, lost, confused, hurt. I thought my life was over. Today, I works as a Doctor of Physical Therapy at Sharp Memorial Hospital, the same hospital where I was a patient. I chose that career path because I want to be there for patients after they go through the darkest moments in their lives to show them what is possible.

I'm also the first known female above knee amputee surfer in the world. I've been competing against male competitors since 2010. In 2017, I competed in an all women’s division for the first time in the history of adaptive surfing. I was crowned the first ever women’s World Adaptive Surfing Champion at the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championships. I also competed against the men and placed 7th overall. I have represented Team USA for three consecutive years at the ISA World Adaptive Surfing Championships. In 2016, I was crowned the U.S. Adaptive Surfing Champion, defeating male competitors.

OP: When did you first know that you were going to spend your life in the outdoors? 

Dani Burt: As far back as I can remember as a child I knew I belonged in the outdoors. I was never the type of person that would spend a lot of time inside. I had a huge affinity for the ocean and have always considered it home.

OP: What has the outdoors done for you, and how do you pay it back? 

Dani Burt: The outdoors has shaped the person I am today. It’s taught me so many life lessons that I didn’t receive from an adult figure growing up: respect, patience, confidence, and compassion, just to name a few. I pay it back by valuing and respecting it every chance I get. It’s important to me to minimize any trace of my presence as much as possible and to educate others on how to respect and admire the outdoors. We are privileged to be able to take part in the outdoors, and I feel it is immensely important to check that privilege and take the steps to encourage and provide the opportunity to those who don’t have easy access to it. I volunteer my time with organizations like Challenged Athletes Foundation and Outdoor Outreach to help provide these communities with access.

OP: Conservation and protection of our public lands are central themes in today’s outdoor recreation narrative. As someone who spends a significant amount of time outdoors and on public lands, what role do you think surfers - and outdoor enthusiasts, in general - should play in this evolving conversation and landscape? 

Dani Burt: We play a pivotal role of leading by example and educating our communities on how and why we need to respect and nurture the outdoors. From a surfer's perspective, the effects of pollution are always in our faces, whether it is litter on the beach or in the water beside us, or it is an advisory to stay out of the water for 72 hours after it rains because the runoff is too polluted. It is our responsibility to step up, educate ourselves, and participate in politics so the next generation has the opportunity to fall in love with the outdoors just like we have. 

OP: Who has inspired you along the way? 

Dani Burt: The outdoors inspired me more so than any person I could name.

OP: What does adventure mean to you? 

Dani Burt: The ocean means adventure to me. You never really know what you’ll get. I can always look at the swell forecast and have an idea of what the surf will be, but you never really know what will happen. Every wave is unique, and you never know what else will join you in that session. For instance, today I went surfing at dawn, and five dolphins popped up 20 feet from me and stayed in that vicinity the whole time I was jumping out of the water and riding waves. At one point, a dolphin showed up an arm's reach away. It was incredible. That’s an adventure.

OP: What does the term "badass" mean to you? 

Dani Burt: I use that term when someone commits to something challenging and doesn’t hesitate. They are even more badass when they enjoy putting themselves in that position. For example, when someone drops into a big wave even though falling means they will pay the price of a heavy beat down, but they love it! That’s badass.

OP: How have you managed to align your career with your passion for the outdoors? And do you have any advice for someone who is looking to do the same? 

Dani Burt: My career as a physical therapist has kept me in shape and educated me about how to take care of my body. My job is physical, and I'm on my feet all day assisting patients in regaining their functional mobility. When I get an injury or feel an imbalance in my ability, I know how to correct it. I also only work four days a week, so I get an extra day of outdoor time.

I’m fortunate to have a career that I enjoy and that also allows me ample amount of free time. My advice would be to look for a career where you can have a work/life balance. Also, if you are interested in becoming a physical therapist, be aware that there are a ton of different settings. I work in acute care at a hospital. Many people don’t understand what I do because it is very different from the more well known orthopedic sports med PTs. If you follow this career path, be open to all that it offers.

OP: We are seeing a shift in what the term woman or female might bring to mind (LGBTQ), both in the outdoor community and throughout the world. What does being a woman mean to you? Femininity? 

Dani Burt: To that I have a question: Whose mind are we talking about? When I think of women, my mind does not jump to LGBTQ. It jumps more to the fact that women are so underrepresented in the outdoors. If you add some more marginalized labels on top of that (i.e. POC, LGBTQ, a person with a disability… mind you, I hit all of those), I feel disturbed that society chooses to not see and embrace diversity. The outdoors does not discriminate. It’s a showcase of how important diversity is to the sustainability of the cycle of life. 

Femininity means grit and resiliency to me. I feel society has tried to keep women out of the outdoors, but we have the strength and toughness to keep coming back. Every time we do, it’s louder than the last. 

OP: What mantra or set of words do you live by? 

Dani Burt: Make it possible. “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” Frederick Douglass

OP: What is one thing that you never leave home without? 

Dani Burt: My surf leg.

OP: Let’s talk gear - what are your thoughts on women-specific gear? Love it, hate it? Are there any companies out there doing it right? And how so? When does it matter to you most to have gear specific to women versus unisex products? 

Dani Burt: This impacts my wetsuits the most. I’ve been wearing men’s wetsuits lately because the material is better, there’s way more options, they have key strings (apparently women don’t drive?), and they come in neutral colors instead of pastels or bright pinks. 

I would love to have a wetsuit that doesn’t have a long crotch, but keeping me warm and maintaining flexibility is the most important. I’ve yet to wear a woman’s suit that I loved. 

I will be getting my first custom wetsuit by 7till8, a brand that seems to understand diversity and that has top-of-the-line materials, so I can give you an update once I try it.

OP: If you could give one piece of advice to yourself when you were just starting out as an adaptive surfer, what would it be? 

Dani Burt: I feel I surpassed the level of surfing that I thought was obtainable, and there is no limit in sight, so my advice would be that everything is possible. 

OP: What’s next for you in the coming months and years? 

Dani Burt: Competition-wise I will be on Team USA for the fourth time this year in the World Championships defending my title. What means most to me would be achieving equality in surfing. 

OP: If our readers were to take one thing from this interview, what would you like it to be? 

Dani Burt: The outdoors is for everyone. 

Learn more about Dani and follow along on her adventures online and on Instagram


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