On: Surfer Jesse Billauer
It was just another
day at the beach. Jesse Billauer, a California native about to launch
his professional surfing career, was surfing with a couple of friends
at one of their local spots before school. Billauer casually caught a
wave and pulled into the tube, with the crest of the wave rising to arch
over his head. Instead, the lip of the wave crashed against his back and
rushed him face down through the shallow water into the sandbar. His body
lay limp. Although he survived drowning, he would later learn he’d
sustained a complete spinal cord injury at the C-6 level (sixth vertebra
of the neck). For most, such such an accident would bring the end of a
surfing career. Not for Billauer. Pursuing life to its fullest, he has
continued to follow his dreams.
Sports were a way of life for Billauer. While growing up he demonstrated
considerable athletic talent, excelling in baseball, soccer and floor
hockey (for which he earned the nickname Wayne Gretzky). At one end-of-season
awards banquet, he needed a shopping cart to take home all his trophies.
Older brother Josh and friend Josh Hearn introduced Billauer to surfing
at age nine. He instantly fell in love with the sport, and by age 11 he
was entering surfing competitions. His family traveled the length of the
state, bringing him from contest to contest. As his surfing progressed,
he traveled up and down the California coast to surf different breaks,
living the quintessential lifestyle of the hard-core surfer. His hard
work and perseverance paid off: good contest results brought sponsorships
from surfing companies Billabong, Reef and Arnette, allowing him to travel
to Hawaii, Tahiti, Indonesia, Mexico, Costa Rica and New Zealand. By the
mid-1990s, Billauer was getting noticed by surfing publications and was
included as one of the top 100 up-and-coming surfers by Surfer magazine.
At the age of 17, Billauer’s dream of being a professional surfer
was becoming a reality. Then the unthinkable happened when a serious car
accident threatened his career. But Billauer proved unstoppable, and a
mere six months later, in March of 1996, he earned first place overall
in the juniors division of the Pacific Surf Series. Having proven his
talent, Billauer joined his sponsors in making plans for him to turn professional
and seek a coveted spot on the professional tour. Then one wave changed
One second he was about to live out the dream he had held since age nine,
and the next he was lying in a hospital bed discovering he would be paralyzed
from the chest down. His mood would occasionally drop when he saw a picture
of himself surfing, but with so many adjustments necessary for his life,
when and if he would ever surf again were questions for the future.
Billauer stayed surprisingly upbeat during the recovery. Family and friends
surrounded him so often that he rarely had time to dwell on the negatives.
“I never got too down because it took energy away from what I wanted
to do,” recalls Billauer in an interview with ABILITY Magazine.
Instead, his energy was directed toward physical therapy and the new ways
he would have to learn to sit, eat and sleep, among countless other tasks.
Billauer kept his focus on the “whole different lifestyle I had
to get used to,” where he had to rely extensively upon others to
assist with even the most simple things.
Billauer and his family next had to deal with the financial realities
involved in the ongoing care of a person with a spinal cord injury. According
to the University of Alabama National Spinal Cord Injury Statistical Center,
the average first-year expense for a person with quadriplegia—including
an initial hospitalization cost of $140,000—is $417,000, and the
average lifetime cost from the age of 25 for a person with quadriplegia
is $1.35 million. Furthermore, only half of people with spinal cord injury
are covered by private health insurance at the time of injury. Sixty-three
percent remain unemployed eight years after their injury.
Billauer’s family organized the Surf and Turf Charity Golf Series
to help with the expense of his rehabilitation and care. They enlisted
a number of surfers from the Association of Surfing Professionals to help
raise money for the Jesse Billauer Rehabilitation Fund, with Goldie Hawn
and Kurt Russell serving as the honorary chairpersons for the first event
in 1999. The affair was a success, and the Jesse Billauer Rehabilitation
Fund subsequently broadened its focus to become Life Rolls On, a foundation
that raises awareness about spinal cord injury and raises funds for research
toward the treatment and cure of paralysis from spinal cord injury. The
second charity golf event raised $40,000, with model/actress Angie Everheart
serving as the honorary chairperson. The Surf and Turf Charity Golf Series
is now in its seventh year and remains one of the main fundraising events
for Life Rolls On.
The foundation also hosts an annual concert and dinner event alongside
the charity golf tournament, with appearances by popular musical artists
and celebrities of the screen and the surfing world. Last year’s
event included Ziggy Marley, Matt Costa, The White Buffalo, former surfing
world champion Tom Curren, six-time surfing world champion Kelly Slater
and the influential professional surfer Rob Machado.
by Jeff Guertin
continued in ABILITY Magazine subscribe
Other articles in the Jane Pauley issue include Letter From The
Editor, Gillian Friedman, MD; Humor: Whats up Doc?; Headlines: MS Cruise,
Breast Cancer & Court Ruling; Michael Rogers-A Journey of Self-Discovery;
Butterfly Power: Native American Healing; Bipolar Disorder: Standup Comed
Showcase: Sixth Annual Event; World Ability Federation; Events and Conferences...