Life Rolls On: Surfer Jesse Billauer

Life Rolls 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 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. 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


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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... subscribe!

More excerpts from the Jane Pauley issue: 2005

Jane Pauley: Interview by Chet Cooper and Dr. Gillian Friedman

Coming of Age: Statewide Independent Living Councils

Harriet McBryde Johnson: Civil Rights Activist

Americans with Disabilities Act: 15 Years

Senator Harkin: Setting Our People Free

Employment: Building Healthy Relationships