SURFSIDE BEACH — It really felt like fate that her daughter ended up on a surfboard.
“She watched the movie Soul Surfer, and she said she wanted to try that,” said Lynn Grayden-Labiak, keeping a watchful eye on her 17-year-old in the distance.
“It was all in timing, and I was like ‘Well, I just got this flier.’”
The flier was from Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), explaining how children with cystic fibrosis (CF) like her daughter, Bree Labiak, could benefit from the sport of surfing. CF is a chronic, life-threatening disease that attacks the lungs and digestive system — Bree was diagnosed at 21 months old.
Now, the teenager grabs her board and goes to the beach every day. Even though she hates the biting cold of the December waters, she’s out practicing her craft like she does the other 364 days of the year, no matter rain or shine, windy or still, waves small or large.
On this brisk Monday afternoon near 13th Ave. in Surfside Beach, Bree laid chest down on her board, and waited for her wave. The ocean was calm, therefore required patience. Finally spotting the beginning of a crest, Bree turned herself toward the shore and paddled. Once the wave caught up to her, she quickly propped herself up, stood up and began her dance.
As a two-time East Coast longboard champion with the Eastern Surf Association, footwork is second nature to her as she maneuvered herself up and down the board. The key to surfing longboard is how unique and skilled a surfer is in their footwork and tricks — such as the iconic “Hang 10.”
Her mother, Lynn, on shore with a digital camera, chuckled and explained that Bree has done tricks such as headstands before.
Despite her CF diagnosis, Bree is defying odds with her surfing, and getting to travel to places like Costa Rica and Nicaragua for competitions and receiving sponsorships since she was 10. In October 2020, she placed first in the girl’s longboard final at the East Coast Grom Tour Championships, and competed with the World Surf League at the Junior Tour as well as the Women’s Qualifying Series.
Bree was diagnosed with CF after her parents noticed she would eat adult-sized portions of food as a baby. It is a progressive disease, and according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, a woman of Bree’s age is only predicted to live to 45 years old.
A 2007 study titled “A Controlled Trial of Long-Term Inhaled Hypertonic Saline in Patients with Cystic Fibrosis” proved, though, that inhaling salt water vapor is beneficial to the lungs of CF patients. The vapor thins the mucus that often exists in their lungs and other organs.
These findings led to a now standard treatment for CF, inhaling nebulized hypertonic saline, and support surfing as an excellent sport for children with CF.
Lynn called Nissen Osterneck from the Mauli Ola Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing surfing to children with genetic diseases, and he took Bree out on the water for the first time when she was 5 years old.
After the first session, Osterneck told Lynn that her daughter was a natural.
“I was so infatuated with (surfing) and just being out on the water,” Bree said. “It’s like swimming, but you’re swimming on plastic, and it was so weird but I loved it so much.”
By 8 years old, Bree was competing locally, meeting new friends and sponsors and achieving things that Phil Jackson, a mentor of Bree’s and founder of Surf Dreams Foundation in Myrtle Beach, said is unheard of for someone with CF.
“The things she’s done with her condition, I don’t think they’ve ever been done before,” Phil said. “Her being in the water every single day is helping her condition, and is further proof that salt water does a lot for illnesses and diseases.”
Liz Hicks met Bree when she first began competing, and said she doesn’t know a single other female surfer in South Carolina as determined as Bree is.
At 37, Hicks sometimes has to ask Bree, a teenager 20 years her junior, how to do certain tricks and moves.
Liz said Bree is probably the most decorated female surfer from South Carolina, and attributes part of the movement in Myrtle Beach of women becoming more involved in surfing to her.
“What Bree has done, especially with the titles she's won, she’s brought legitimacy to (women in surfing). It used to be hard for girls to paddle out in some of these areas where it's mostly guys, and now we can paddle out wherever we want to,” Liz said. “And with Bree having cystic fibrosis, the fact that she can do all of this, and it's just beyond amazing.”
Bree said her form of CF is pretty light compared to other forms, though there have still been some troubles along the way, including lung infections and intestinal obstructions. Bree takes enzyme pills to thin the mucus in her pancreas and allow her to digest food, and said that usually keeps her condition at bay.
As her daughter surfed, though, Lynn disclosed how much Bree downplays her condition. Bree said that her CF doesn’t limit her very much, but Lynn said she has to take multiple medications, do twice daily aerosol treatments during certain seasons and has to be more careful than others about germs and getting sick.
Because of this, when the pandemic hit, doctors at MUSC highly recommended Bree switch to fully online classes at her school, Coastal Leadership Academy. She tried it, but really hated it, and now attends in-person classes four days a week. She also works at a Kentucky Fried Chicken, and has throughout the pandemic.
Decisions like allowing her daughter to go to school and work during times like this are hard on Lynn. She knows Bree just wants to be a kid — a kid that doesn’t have to worry about her health.
Since the moment Bree was born, though, Lynn said she would never keep her daughter in a bubble, no matter how scared she is every day as her mother.
“If she can experience it, if I can financially do it, even if I have to struggle, I am going to let her experience it,” Lynn said. “I don't know how long I have been blessed with her, I don't know how long she's going to be here. So for the length of time that God has given me with her, I am going to try to let her (have) as much life experience as possible and see as much and do as much as possible.”
Bree doesn’t talk much about her surfing awards or sponsorships, and some would call that being humble. But for her, it is just reality: the competitions aren’t the reason Bree surfs, the friends she’s made and the feeling she gets when she catches a wave are.
Because of this, when Bree looks forward at her life as a surfer, as a woman and as a person with CF, she keeps a young and carefree mindset.
“I just kind of take it day by day, and I'm pretty grateful for it,” Bree said. “I love (surfing) for fun, the competition's not very much, I just I really love the fun part of it, and I'm definitely gonna keep doing it for fun and hanging out with my friends.”
The sponsored trips across the globe, the rankings and the name recognition are just added bonuses to her. She lives for the days she can take to sea with friends like Liz, and just walk on water.
“If I didn’t have my surf friends, I don’t know what I’d do,” Bree said.