Rolling with the waves
Paraplegic surfer Jesse Billauer got back on his board to help others get into the water and on with their lives
By Joe Piasecki
Confined to a wheelchair after a sudden neck injury at 17, Jesse Billauer is free again on the water.
“Just the joy, the speed of the wave, the water on your face — it’s a feeling you can only have in the ocean, on a surfboard,” he says. “You feel free and independent. When you lose your independence you lose a lot of your identity. To get a little independence back builds confidence, self-worth.”
It’s not a feeling he’s kept to himself.
Billauer, 36, is the founder and director of the Life Rolls On Foundation, a volunteer-driven nonprofit that helps people with physical disabilities — paralysis, multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, amputations — do what was once thought impossible: surf.
Run out of Billauer’s Westchester home and an office on Washington Boulevard in Marina del Rey, the Life Rolls On Foundation hosts annual surf outings for the disabled in Santa Monica, Huntington Beach and La Jolla as well as a wheelchair skateboarding event at the Venice Skate Park and a few surf outings in other states.
Free to whoever signs up, each gathering draws upwards of 100 participants and 400 volunteers. If a Sept. 20 beachside fundraiser with rockers Young the Giant at the Jonathan Club in Santa Monica is successful, Billauer hopes to expand the foundation’s event calendar.
To make Life Rolls On happen, Billauer had to learn to surf twice: first as a kid growing up in Pacific Palisades with dreams of turning pro; then as a kid who, on the verge of attaining that dream, was told he’d never walk again.
On March 25, 1996, Billauer broke his neck after tumbling off a wave in shallow waters off Zuma Beach.
“I was on the verge of being a professional surfer. That was my dream — travel around the world, surf. I had sponsors. I surfed every morning before school. That day was no different,” he says.
“Normally, I didn’t let my friends know I’d be surfing, but for some reason I told them to meet me up at Zuma. I was the first one to get in the water. It was 6:30 a.m., something like that. Gorgeous day. Sun was rising. Waves were pumping. Glassy. Nobody around.
“I remember I took off on a wave like any other wave. I pulled inside of this barrel, and when I came out the wave hit me on the back. I thought it was a little deeper than it was, that I could just fall and kind of dolphin back under the wave. I didn’t put my hands up and I ended up hitting my head on a shallow sand bar. My body just went limp and numb, tingly. I was floating there, face in the water, unable to move. A wave turned me over and I called for help. More waves tumbled me around. One of my friends was paddling out and saw me. I’m lucky he did. … I knew something was really wrong, but being 17 I thought everything healed.
“I woke up with tubes coming out of my through and my arms. It took a couple days before the doctor told me I broke the sixth vertebra in my neck and that I might never walk again. At that point I asked everybody leave the room. I had to think about what it meant to be a C6 quadriplegic.
“I was sad and questioning why, but I never was really down-and-out. I had a lot of love and support from my family and friends. … I would do anything to not have surfed that day, for sure. But I can’t go back, so I figure why not enjoy my life as much as possible instead of complaining about it.”
Almost three years later, in late 1998, Billauer returned to the ocean with a 10-foot surfboard shaped by celebrated board maker Al Merrick and modified by professional surfer Rob Machado. They figured that Billauer could ride waves prone if he could prop his head up with his hands by wedging his elbows into tow-in foot straps screwed into the edges of the board. It was a gamble; nobody’d ever really tried such a thing.
But the plan worked — so well, in fact, that the foundation still uses similar board modifications (straps, handles, rails) to take adaptive athletes into the waves.
At Life Rolls On surfing events, people power is also key.
Depending on an adaptive surfer’s level of ability, Life Rolls On volunteers will tow them into waves and even lay behind them on the board.
Dmari Von Lintel, a custom furniture designer in Westchester, who rarely misses a chance to volunteer, says the thrill of helping an adaptive athlete catch a wave is a feeling like no other.
“Just the pure elation. You don’t get that in regular life. I’ve never experienced a program where you can be that hands on,” he says. “You’ve got a kid with spina bifida laughing and having so much fun in the water. His parents hug you and cry and say they haven’t seen him have so much fun.”
Hunter Pochop, 10, is one such kid.
Five years ago, Hunter went surfing for the first time at a Life Rolls On event. Now he comes back every year, says his mom, Jacqueline Pochop.
That first time, Hunter was scared. Mom was scared. Cory Staley, the volunteer who took him out in the water and rode behind him on the board, was scared. Due to complications from spina bifida, Hunter had a tracheotomy apparatus in his neck.
If he fell off into the water, he could quickly drown.
“As a mother, I was a nervous wreck,” Pochop said. “But they carried him out on the surfboard like he was a king. Cory had his hand on him the whole time, and there were two lines of volunteers in the water just in case something happened. …
“To rely 100% on the volunteers — the trust that’s gained, the friendships made — we feel like they’re our family now.”
Surfing comes naturally to Staley: His dad surfs, his kids surf … even his grandpa surfed. But never like this. Never like Hunter.
“Hunter’s the same age as one of my sons, so to seem him grow from that first time being super scared to this year, when I pitched him into a wave and he rode it back all by himself — they got it on video and I didn’t realize how much I was screaming out of pure joy,” said Staley, 43. “With Hunter and me, it’s a forever friendship. … That’s what Life Rolls On is really all about: communication and freedom.”
In 2003, Patrick Ivison watched “Step into Liquid,” a documentary about Billauer’s friendship with Machado and return to surfing after paralysis. It changed his life forever, he says.
Ivison, now a film production major at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, was struck by a car when he was just 14 months old and has been in a wheelchair ever since.
He started going to Life Rolls On surfing events when he was eight years old. That first time, “the wave had to be only two feet tall but it felt like I was surfing jaws. It was the most thrilling time of my life. I was doing something I thought I couldn’t do,” Ivison recalls.
In two weeks, Ivison heads to La Jolla to represent Team USA in the International Surfing Association’s Adaptive Surfing Championship.
Ivison says learning to surf — and, through Billauer’s example, to persevere despite obstacles — gave him the confidence to get into USC’s film program and chase his dream of making movies like the one about Billauer that so inspired him.
“Meeting Jesse and seeing that a person in wheelchair can do this crazy, death-defying sport was a huge motivator,” he says. “I have to give credit to Life Rolls On for everything I do.”
The Life Rolls On Foundation’s “Night on the Water” fundraiser — hosted by action sports personality Sal Masekela and including an acoustic performance by Young the Giant — begins at 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 20 at the Jonathan Beach Club, 850 Palisades Ave, Santa Monica. Tickets are $250; sponsorships still available. Visit liferollson.org to learn more.