Imagine you’re an up-and-coming surfer, gaining more and more national attention with each surf contest you enter. You have sponsorships coming in regularly, endorsements follow, and success is your common trait. Then, one day, it all comes crashing down. This is the story of a man who changed an entire demographic. While surfing one day, Jesse Billauer was pushed head first into a shallow sandbar, fracturing his neck and severing his spinal cord, leaving him quadriplegic. This is Jesse’s story. An up-and-coming superstar who had his entire career ahead of him but sadly had it end short. But Jesse didn’t give up there, knowing in his heart he would do whatever it took to surf again and not just surf again, but inspire others to chase and pursue their dreams even if they also had physical limitations.
Jesse founded Life Rolls On in hopes that people might be inspired, freed, hopeful, and happy about where they are in life. Life Rolls On (LRO) is a subsidiary of the Christopher & Dana Reeves Foundation. The Reeves’ goal is to improve quality of life for young people affected by spinal cord injuries. Their aim is to use action sports as a way to inspire limitless possibilities despite paralysis. They want to shift stereotypes and beliefs of the general public and those with spinal cord injuries that life does “roll on.” The Reeves feel that early outreach and communication immediately after an injury can have a huge impact on those affected by the injury so they offer LRO as a resource during the time that can be the most traumatic and overwhelming for an individual.
Jesse Billauer wanted to infuse a sense of accomplishment and drive in young people, and convince them not to settled for little just because they have physical limitations. Featured in the surf movie Step Into Liquid, Jesse continues his career in pro surfing while also inspiring others through motivational speaking. With programs like They Will Ski Again and They Will Surf Again (TWSA) , LRO is bringing hope to those who never thought something like this might even be possible. With over 1.2 million people in the United States alone with spinal cord injuries and approximately 12,000 new spinal cord injuries each year, there is a huge need to reach out to these individuals. Imagine if only a fraction of those individuals lived an extreme sport lifestyle, you would find a growing demand of at least hundreds to thousands that could be impacted by Life Rolls On.
In June 2010, I was able to partake in the program They Will Surf Again as a volunteer. It made a lasting mark on my life. The day began with an early morning set-up as the sun was rising. After a morning breakfast and orientation, the full purpose of why I was there began to take shape as participants for the day started signing in. We had paraplegics and quadriplegics, each excited for what the day would hold. Many were participants who had been to multiple TWSA events, and others had never even surfed before. I saw wheelchair after wheelchair come up as the participants arrived for the day’s events. The volunteers were split into groups of three with about sixteen people per team. Each team was responsible for the surf sessions of about six or seven para/quadriplegics.
With a frigid temperature of about 57 degrees fahrenheit in the water, all volunteers including participating surfers had wetsuits. Special wheelchairs were used made of largely rounded plastic tires that enable the participants the ability to quickly and, without problem, move on sand and get to the water. Our first participant had never even been in the ocean! You could see the excitement and anticipation in his eyes as he would not only enter the ocean for the first time, but also surf for the first time. Along with the wheelchairs, special boards were made to allow the surfer to lay down onto the board with a railing on both sides of him or her. At the front of the board is a bar to hold onto if they are paraplegic. This design worked quite well as the surfers seemed to fit snuggly on the board with little to no problem.
You could see the excitement and anticipation in his eyes as he would not only enter the ocean for the first time, but also surf for the first time.
We took the surfer from the wheelchair, and carried him out to about waist-high water where we could then transfer him/her to the board. We got them centered and comfortable, and then would tow them out past the break. This could be tricky at times as at certain intervals you would find fairly large sized waves coming at you. This seemed to be the most challenging. But once we got them out past the break, it was a matter of instilling comfort and confidence in the surfer. We waited for the right wave, saw it, and then told the surfer they were going. With a push into the wave, our first surfer rode it all the way in and was ecstatic with joy. His first wave was a success!
Joining us in this cause was extreme sports celebrity Sal Masakela, best known for his X-Games and Olympics voice as a commentator. Down-to-earth and humble, Sal cared for the participants just as much as anyone, always willing to carry them out to the board or tread water in the deeper areas to take the time and connect. He was assigned to my orange team and did an amazing job pushing the surfers into the right waves and making them feel very comfortable. Sal and I mostly stuck to the deep-water section so we could talk to the surfers and make them feel comfortable before going into a wave. The second greatest challenge we had were wipeouts. With quadriplegics having no ability to stay afloat, all volunteers were stationed throughout the water, from sand to deep waters. This way, we were able to grab a surfer and pull him or her out of the water if they went down or fell off without them being stuck under water for too long.
Surfer after surfer made their way into the water as our team came to aid the brave individuals teaching us all that nothing can stand in your way if you have the drive or passion. People of all ages showed the courage of trying something new. We had young teenagers to middle-aged fathers showing up to try surfing or shred the gnar once again. It was a testimony to myself and the other volunteers who witnessed the surfers that day. The surfers taught me that no matter what happens to you, you have the choice to make anything a simple road block or a dead end street. These courageous individuals proved that they would not let life get them down, that regardless of their bodily limitations, they were going to still have fun, be adventurous, and seize life by the tail.
It’s times like these and people like this, that make life all the more optimistic. These are some of the happiest people I’ve ever met. I never heard them complain once. And if we, in our constant state of bickering, have even more to be grateful for, one can see how much we have to gain and learn from them. This remains one of the most humble experiences I’ve ever had in my life. And I have those amazing individuals to thank. Arms or no arms, legs or no legs, these people continue living life to its fullest. It is in this state you see that life is never about ability, but rather being comfortable in your own skin and appreciating what life still has to offer.
For more information on Life Rolls On, please visit: www.liferollson.org