Life Rolls On

Text by Sarah Bentley Photography by Scott Toepfer Culture

The waves were pumping at 17 year-old Jesse Billauer’s home-break at Zuma beach, California. He threw on his wetsuit and was the first of his friends to get in the water and paddle out. The young surfer—nicknamed Little Dorian after Hawaiian big wave rider Shane Dorian—took a few waves on his own then caught a sweet line that turned into a heart-pumping, body-encasing barrel.

Suddenly, the serenity of the moment was punctured by a wave walloping him on the back. Its impact turned him upside down and drove his head into the shallow sandbar—hard. Surreal vibrations like he’d been hit by a tuning fork ran through his body. He knew something was wrong, seriously wrong. He called for help and his friend dragged him out of the water.

While lying on his back on the beach and looking up at the sky, an emergency response team tapped Jesse’s limbs and asked him if he could feel anything. Nope. As they started cutting him out of his wetsuit he protested, “Woaaah, don’t cut my wetsuit off. I’m gonna need that.”

If the emergency staff thought otherwise they didn’t have the heart to tell him then. But as it turned out, they would have been wrong: Despite suffering a C-6 complete spinal chord injury (making him quadriplegic), surfing remains as much a part of Jesse Billauer’s life as it was before, if not more.

Billauer is the founder and director of national outreach for Life Rolls On, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing day-long surf, skate and snowboard programs for riders—experienced and first timers—with spinal injuries. The project started out as a series of golf tournaments organized by Jesse’s family to raise funds for his treatment. The success of these gave Jessie options with regards to his lifestyle that many physically disabled people don’t have and it was this realization that served as the catalyst for Jesse founding LRO.

“I was meeting a lot of people in wheelchairs and I wanted them to enjoy all the things I was doing,” he says. “All the specialist equipment is way overpriced and if someone wasn’t insured when they got injured, then well, all you get is a smile and a handshake. It’s tough.”

The TWSA (an acronym for They Will Surf/Skate/Snowboard Again) days take place across nine states with each event attracting up to 50 athletes. When it rolls into town it does so with a wagon of adapted boards, water suitable wheelchairs, wetsuits, armies of volunteers (Citizens Of Humanity sponsored days at La Jolla and Malibu and founder Jerome Dahan and the team surfed with participants) and a surf celebrity or two.

The programs debut event was held on Topanga state beach on September 11, 2001—the day the twin towers went down. LRO was unsure about proceeding with the event, but after a slow start, the surfing world’s top guys turned up—Kelly Slater, Laird Hamilton, Gabby Reece, Todd Burrows—as did the participants, and everyone had an incredible, life-altering day.

“It was pretty cool to see the surf industry come together like that. All those legends in the water helping out—it was beautiful,” Jesse recalls.

Jesse, who is also a motivational speaker, aims to keep expanding TWSA. “My dream is to keep growing and growing. I want to go to more states, more beaches, hold them more frequently. Get it out there for everyone who needs it.”

With over 1.275 million people in the U.S. with spinal chord injuries and a further 6 million with some form of paralysis, reaching them all will be tough. “It will,” he agrees. “But it’s so valuable. Even if participants decide they never want to try surfing again, it’s opened their mind to the possibilities and given them the space to forget about their challenges for a day and be thankful for still being alive.”

As for Jesse’s own surfing career, he got back in the water a couple of years after the accident, “With a little help from my friends and Al Merrick who made me a board.”

On surfing and why, despite everything, it still has him in it’s grip, he says, “A wave is like a canvas, you can paint your description of how you’re feeling at that moment… Each time I get in the water, I feel cleansed of everything else going on. It’s beautiful, just beautiful.”

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