We’ve all heard the message before: appreciate life, relish your freedom and share your love. But the words resonated profoundly coming from Jesse Billauer, a 24-year-old surfer who knows of what he speaks. Billauer is a quadriplegic, a survivor of a complete spinal cord injury at the C-6 vertebrae in his neck. He cannot use his legs, and has no sensation below mid-chest. He has limited use of his hands and arms and is dependent on others for the simplest of tasks. Yet, in December, Billauer will surf one of the most famous waves in the world: Hawaii’s Pipeline.
Billauer spoke at Malibu High School Saturday night to spread the message that life is for loving and living fully. Tristan Prettyman, a singer/songwriter from Del Mar, opened the evening with her guitar and sultry, gentle voice. Her music set the mood for Billauer to tell his story, both tragic and full of light.
A natural born athlete and surfer since the age of nine, Billauer became the youngest member of the California State Lifeguard team at age 16, a coveted and difficult accomplishment. By age 17, he was surfing in places like Tahiti, Costa Rica, Indonesia and New Zealand. His athleticism and magnetic personality attracted sponsors such as Hurley and Reef. Magazines such as Surfing, Transworld and Wave Action featured Billauer, and Surfer chose him as one of the Top 100 up-and-coming surfers in the world. Soon, he was rated No. 1 among juniors in the Pacific Surf Series and was on his way to the Pro Tour. Billauer’s lifetime dream was becoming a reality.
Everything changed on March 25, 1996. It was a typical morning for Brad Stanley, Brett Sanson and Billauer. The three friends were surfing Westward Beach before school at Malibu High. After a short time, Billauer caught a “left” (his back to the wave) that crashed on his back, knocking him off the board and headfirst into a sandbar. His body went completely numb. Floating face down in the water, Billauer calmly held his breath until a wave flipped him over. His friends thought he was fooling around, until they heard Billauer scream for help. Stanley and Sanson were able to keep Billauer stabilized until a UCLA Medical Center helicopter arrived. On the way to the hospital, Billauer dared to contemplate the future.
Would he surf the U.S. Open? Be featured in a big surf movie? Graduate from college? Marry and have a son?
Billauer spent the next three months in emergency rooms, intensive care units and rehabilitation hospitals before contemplating these questions. For many at this point, dreams would have been abandoned. His father, George, in the audience Saturday night, said he would have given up hope, without Billauer’s positive attitude and vigorous will.
Jump ahead seven years, and that same will has turned dreams into reality. With the help of Sonny Reece, his fulltime caretaker, and his family and friends, Billauer has surfed in front of 85,000 people
in the U.S. Open at Huntington Beach, graduated from UC San Diego with a communications degree and was featured in the recent surf film “Step Into Liquid.” Billauer showed a clip from the film. Another surfer helps him into the water, sets him up to catch the wave and then lets him go. He looks calm and elegant, lying on the board; hands strapped near the rails, upper torso raised.
Billauer hasn’t married yet, but smiled mischievously when he told the audience that he was “taking applications” in the back of the auditorium.
Billauer’s life is not easy. He says the hardest thing is depending on other people. He misses his independence-driving his car, brushing his teeth, walking to the beach where he lives in Cardiff, just north of San Diego. Still, he has new dreams. Surfing Oahu’s Pipeline is one of them. Opening a surf camp for disabled people is another. But his biggest dream is to raise money for his foundation, Life Rolls On (www.liferollson.org), which motivates, supports and provides hope to those affected by spinal cord injury (SCI). He has teamed up with actor Christopher Reeve, who was left paralyzed after a horseback riding accident, to educate the public about SCI. Billauer, and Reeve on videotape, told the audience that it is now a matter of when, not if, survivors can improve rehabilitation, improve quality of life and even possibly regain sensation in their limbs. The goals are to raise $1 million dollars and to pass the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act of 2003 (www.christopherreeve.org) to fund the necessary research.
Bearing no grudges against the waves, Billauer said, “Water is healing, it takes away all my burning sensation and pain.”
Two young members of the audience on Saturday, Jamie and Tyler, both 12, agreed that what they liked the most about Billauer’s talk was that “you should live your dreams, no matter what.”