“Scuba diving helped me find my place in the world. I made friends and it brought me out of my shell. It has taught me perseverance and responsibility.”
In less than one year, PADI Master Scuba DiverTM, Riley McNamara, completed the PADI® Open Water Diver, Advanced Open Water Diver, Enriched Air, Altitude Diver, Underwater Navigation, Night Diver, Peak Performance Buoyancy, Rescue, and Emergency First Responders courses.
After losing both legs four years ago, McNamara has dedicated his life to helping other amputees and scuba diving has become a huge asset to this process. He is currently working with his PADI instructor, local hospitals, the Handicapped Scuba Association, and Veterans Affairs to bring diving to others with disabilities.
We reached out to McNamara to learn more about his journey to becoming a PADI Master Scuba Diver and the impact scuba diving has made on his life.
What first inspired you to start scuba diving?
Me and my friend and prosthetist, Sam Weisberg, had discussed options for getting our patients active. We had talked about different activities that we could get our guys into, but everything we talked about seemed too dangerous for our patients who were mostly just starting to get active again. We had investigated a local adaptive scuba group, but nothing ever came of our talks with this other group. We had just stopped by The Scuba Company to have a talk with them. We talked to PADI Instructor Yasmany Fuentes about getting me certified and he was immediately willing to help figure out ways to get me diving. Sam asked when the next open water class was and he signed us both up for the class the following weekend.
What motivated you to continue your education all the way to MSD this last year?
The first time I dove in January of 2017, I was hooked. Yasmany and team treated me just like one of the guys. I hate being pitied and I want to be as independent as possible. Yasmany and all the Divemasters have helped me find my strengths and overcome my weaknesses. I feel that as I progress through the programs and specialties, I learn just a little bit more about what I’m really capable of. As time went on and my diving skills improved, I noticed I was not only more confident under the water, but also in my everyday interactions with others. I felt better and my pain was better controlled after diving regularly. I decided that I would take this as far as I could, not only for myself, but also for the other people with disabilities that I hope to reach as a Divemaster. I hope that becoming a Master Scuba Diver will show other people with disabilities that anything is possible!
Which specialties did you take for your PADI Master Scuba Diver rating and why?
I took Peak Performance Buoyancy course because let’s face it, buoyancy is hard when you don’t have legs. I needed to master my buoyancy because when I started, I floated sideways and any other direction than the direction I wanted. I followed up by taking Underwater Navigation because I wanted to feel comfortable navigating even if I did not have underwater landmarks. Next was Enriched Air. I was trying to add safety to my diving skillset since I will work harder than most abled-bodied divers will. Night Diver was my all time favorite, besides Rescue Diver that is. Being able to dive at night is incredible. You get to see things that no one diving during the day will ever get to experience. Last was my Emergency First Response® certification because I would like to be useful in case of an emergency. Knowing that I can help if someone gets hurt increased my confidence as a diver.
What was the most challenging part of this rating and why?
The most challenging part of my entire dive career was figuring out appropriate prosthetics that would work in water and fins that would fit. We had gone through several designs and configurations before finding the right combination that worked the best. I can’t thank Sam Weisberg Prosthetics and The Scuba Company (Yasmany Fuentes) enough for helping me and always going out of their way to find a better solution for my legs and fins. We have finally perfected our design, and it’s one less thing I have to worry about. Though in the beginning it was very difficult!
Which courses have you enjoyed the most?
Hands down the best course ever was becoming a PADI Rescue Diver. Although it was exhausting, it was so worth it. It was one of my proudest moments in the past four years – first was learning to walk again after my accident, and then becoming a Rescue Diver. Knowing that I can take care of myself and rescue someone else in their time of need changed my life. Often times after becoming disabled you begin to feel somewhat powerless. As a young man this can really take a toll on you. Becoming a rescue diver gave me a sense of pride and made me feel like I could take care of business even if there’s a few less pieces of me these days!
How has scuba diving impacted your life?
Diving has changed my life for the better. I feel more confident, I’m getting stronger, and I am feeling better. I’ve noticed that my pain levels are lower and I have less phantom pain after I dive. Having less pain means I sleep better and I have fewer nightmares about losing my legs which are often triggered by the pain. When I started diving I couldn’t lift my gear and during my first dive I actually had to get lifted out of the water and put back into my wheelchair. That’s definitely changed. I can now carry all my gear like any other diver and I can walk in and out of the water. This has resulted in better health in all aspects of my life. I want to eat right and take care of myself now so that I can keep my fitness level high, so that I can respond in an emergency. I also feel like I can just talk to folks more easily. Hanging out with my dive buddies has made it easier to talk to others as well. It’s changed every aspect of my life in the best ways imaginable.
What advice would you give another amputee that is interested in scuba diving?
Find an instructor that is really willing to work with you and talk to your prosthetist about your plan, then just dive in. It’s not going to be easy, but it’s going to teach you that you are capable of achieving things that you never thought possible!