Life Rolls ON — Surfer Jesse Billauer

Circa 2005

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-ofseason 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 upand-coming surfers by Surfer magazine.

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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 everything.

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. Sixtythree percent remain unemployed eight years after their injury.

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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.

A major source of funds for the Life Rolls On Foundation comes from its clothing line by the same name. Hurley International, which was founded by Bob Hurley of Billabong USA, designs the Life Rolls On clothing line, which has found its niche among the youth-oriented surfing and action sports culture. The success of the line exemplifies the support the surfing industry and community has provided Billauer since his injury.

Another key piece of Life Rolls On’s fundraising is the U.S. Open of Surfing Expression Session, held during the U.S. Open of Surfing, the only stop the globetrotting World Championship Tour makes in the United States. The 40-minute Expression Session presents the world’s most influential surfers showcasing their most creative, innovative and daring maneuvers in front of 80,000 spectators. Billauer now surfs alongside these masters, raising visibility and contributions for his foundation.

Life Rolls On differs from many organizations by focusing on raising awareness of spinal cord injury in youth culture through the influence of action sports athletes. Billauer travels throughout California speaking at middle schools and high schools. Among his messages are, “Enjoy today, because tomorrow is not guaranteed; the world as you know it can change in an instant,” “No matter how bad things may appear, happiness is just a positive thought away,” and, “Life does not judge you, you judge yourself—so be your own person.” He urges his audiences not to wait for a tragedy to tell their friends and families they love them. Billauer’s own story serves as a poignant testament to the power of his message.

Three years after his injury, Billauer decided he wanted to surf again. Before his accident, surfing was a way of life, and getting back to it was a natural return to something he loved doing. Ready to take the plunge, Billauer enlisted the help of a friend. He got ahold of a longboard, which he modified with the addition of foot straps. His buddy helped him get to the water and catch his first wave. News of Billauer’s return to surfing made quite a splash, so to speak. He was featured with other giants of the surfing community in the big-screen surf movie Step into Liquid, where the length of his appearance rivaled that of big-wave hero Laird Hamilton.

These days Billauer surfs several times a month and still travels regularly. He recently ventured 220 miles west of San Diego to the island of Guadalupe, where he fulfilled a lifelong dream to swim with the great white sharks he calls “beautiful creatures.” Last year, while at the famed North Shore of Oahu, he convinced a friend to tow him into a 10-foot wave off Sunset Beach. Billauer says he was neither scared nor worried. “I was not thinking about falling—I was just trying to focus on riding the wave and enjoying it.” Soon he will travel to the surf haven Tavarua, a tiny island in Fiji that ranks among the most highly desirable surf destinations, with its three flawless breaks in a tropical locale. In Tavarua he will pursue another longtime dream—to make the cover of a surfing magazine pictured in a tube large enough to hold a mid-size sedan.

It is Billauer’s work with Life Rolls On, however, that truly drives him. He talks of his motivational speaking with a touch of vulnerability in his voice: “When I was a kid I thought of assemblies as the time to go to sleep or talk to your friends, but when I go in and speak, the kids pay attention to me.”

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“These kids are the future and will be trying to make the world a better place. I want them to appreciate their own lives, enjoy the small things, appreciate each other and appreciate what they have to do to make the world better,” he adds. Billauer cherishes the times people tell him how his words have touched their lives.

Recently Billauer received the Casey Martin Award, presented by Nike to an athlete who has overcome physical, mental, societal or cultural challenges or a person who supports athletes facing similar challenges. With the award he received a $25,000 grant for Life Rolls On.

As chairman of the board of Life Rolls On, Billauer is working to find other athletes with spinal cord injuries to represent the organization across the country. The documentary Jesse’s Story, which chronicles Billauer’s life, is due for release shortly. Billauer is also helping market a DVD entitled Life Rolls On, from which proceeds go directly to his foundation. Produced by his friend Van Starling, the DVD shows footage of the world’s best surfers and features clips where they explain what the phrase life rolls on means to them.

But whatever the interpretation, Billauer’s life is rolling on. His dreams are becoming realities, and his future is as vast as the ocean.

by Jeff Guertin

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