Life Rolls On

Life Rolls On

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Create Your Best Future

Life Rolls On

In three words I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life. It goes on.

~Robert Frost

I was about nine the first time I got on a board. Something inside of me connected to surfing unlike any other sport. I had played a bunch of different sports, like baseball, soccer and hockey, but surfing became my true life passion. I never regretted walking away from all other sports in the pursuit of surfing.

By the time I was eleven or twelve, I began to compete in surfing. Before long, I was rated number one in the Juniors level of the Pacific Surf Series. I was featured in surfing articles and magazines, and companies began sponsoring me.

I began traveling to surfing competitions to some of the most beautiful places in the world. Things were really looking up. My lifelong dream of becoming a professional surfer was finally on the verge of becoming a reality. Then came the day when my life changed forever.

I woke up like on any other day. I watched a little bit of a surf movie to pump myself up for my surf session. I was excited; the waves were going to be so good. I called my friends. When I pulled up to the beach at Zuma, the waves looked great. I put my wetsuit on and surfed for a while; then I caught this one perfect south swell peak. I stood up backside and pulled in the barrel. As I came out of the tube, the wave hit me in my back so fast that I didn’t have time to put my hands up. I hit my head on a sandbar beneath the surface of the water. My whole body went numb and tingly, then I was floating face down — unable to move. When the next wave flipped me over, I yelled for help. At first nobody came to help me, then finally my best friend, Brad, came over to me. I told him, “You gotta keep my head out of the water or I’m gonna drown!”

With the help of another friend, Brett, Brad was able to get me out of the water and onto the beach. I knew I was paralyzed. As I lay on my back, my dreams of becoming a pro surfer, of having a wife and kids, and my hopes of being in a big surf movie flashed in front of my eyes. What was going to happen to me? What kind of a life would I have if I was paralyzed forever? This can’t happen to me! Guess what? It did.

I was taken by helicopter to UCLA Medical Center where it was determined that I had suffered a severe spinal cord injury, just like Christopher Reeve. With the flip of a wave, I had become a quadriplegic with no sensation or movement below my mid-chest. In that split second, my surfing days as I had known them were over. With only limited use of my arms and hands, I spent most of my time in intensive care units and rehab hospitals instead of in the water surfing. My worst nightmare had come true, and I was forced to deal with it.

As bad as it was, and it was very bad sometimes, I surprised myself by maintaining the will to live. I can’t really say what made me go from not wanting to live if I couldn’t surf — to embracing life without surfing — but by some miracle, it happened. Instead of being angry or afraid, I realized how fortunate I had been the first seventeen years of my life. I realized that I was still better off and more fortunate than some others. I had surfed the world — more than many could ever say.

That fall, I returned to school. I was elected Homecoming King, which was pretty cool, and ended up graduating on time. Shortly after my high school graduation, I enrolled at San Diego State University, stayed as busy as I was before the accident and graduated. I’ve got to say that I’m living my life to the fullest.

Every year, I speak to thousands of students in schools across the country. I really want kids to know that dreams can change and life can turn out different from what we sometimes expect. At the start of an assembly, I show a video of me surfing in competitions, rippin’ on the waves and everything. They expect to see this high-profile surfer coming to speak to them, and then I come out in a wheelchair. They just don’t anticipate that at all. I talk about the fact that my life has really just begun. I explain to them about the importance of family and friends. I tell them about how, since the accident, I’ve gone out on wave runners, gone waterskiing and inner tubing, played wheelchair tennis and ping pong, competed in a billiards tournament — playing pool with the best of them — and have even jumped out of an airplane skydiving!

I’ve traveled to places like Australia, France, Mexico, Spain, Italy and all over the United States. So many people have gotten behind me. Celebrities have helped me raise public awareness of the need to find a cure for spinal injuries, and I’ve also hung out with some very cool, great musicians.

But the highlight of my life since my injury came nearly four years after that fateful day. It took surfers like world champions Rob Machado, Kelly Slater and my brother Josh, and the guys from the Paskowitz Surfing Camp to figure out just how to get me back on a board again — and they did it.

I finally got back in the water that I had missed so much — on a surfboard. They rigged a board so that I could hold on to something and ride the waves. I ride lying down, more like a body boarder would, but hey, it’s still surfing to me. It’s different — but I’m in the water.

Some people kind of freak out, thinking about me out in the water surfing again, but I don’t even think about the danger. I’ve got a lot of trust in my abilities and the people around me. I make my own path, my own decisions. I’m the last one who wants to get hurt. Still, if it weren’t for the help of my buds, I might not have ever had the chance to get back out there. I don’t know of another quadriplegic in the world who surfs.

I believe that someday I’ll regain some use of my paralyzed limbs. It is no longer a question of if, but when. I’ll be ready, when the time comes, to take advantage of the breakthroughs in modern medicine. I know I’ll never achieve my dream of being the world’s greatest surfer, but dreams are abundant. I still have so many that are just as worthy and exciting — so many dreams that I have yet to achieve. I know that I’ve got a lot of living left to do. Life rolls on, waves continue to roll on and I’m rollin’ and surfing right along with it all.

~Jesse Billauer

Editor’s note: To find out more about Jesse and his organization, Life Rolls On, log on to

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