‘FOLLOW YOUR HEART & YOUR MIND’
When Jesse Billaur was 17, he thought his dreams were coming true.
Growing up in Pacific Palisades, Mr. Billaur had been surfing since the age of 9 — quickly becoming one of the best.
Competing around the world, Mr. Billaur was ranked amongst the top 100 surfers in the country and had major sponsors, all before his 18th birthday. But on March 25,1996, a month before turning professional, Mr. Billaur thought his dreams were gone.
On a beautiful day surfing with friends, Mr. Billaur suffered a major spinal injury that left him quadripeligic.
“I pulled inside this barrel and came out and that wave hit me in the back and I went head first into the water. I didn’t really know how shallow it was and I hit my head on the shallow sandbar. My whole body went limp and numb and tingly. I was floating there. Luckily my friends pulled me out of the water or else I would have died,” Mr. Billaur told the News-Press.
Despite his devastating injuries, Mr. Billaur wasn’t ready to give up on the life he loved.
He needed to surf again.
“I knew I wanted to surf after my injury. I knew I wanted to surf but I just didn’t know how,” he said.
When Mr. Billaur set out on his three-year journey of getting back on a board, adaptive surfing was not what it is today. Unlike today, there were no programs, contests or world championships in which he could participate.
But with the help of therapists and his friends Rob Machado and Al Merrick, Mr. Billaur regained his strength and designed a board with straps and extra fins that allow him to lie down and catch waves once more.
“After my injury I had a choice: Was I going to go down a negative road and feel sorry for myself, stay home and maybe just do nothing? Or was I going to go down a positive road, follow my dreams, do the things that I love? It might be hard, it might take a lot of work, but that’s the road I wanted to go down,” said Mr. Billaur.
Now, more than 23 years later, Mr. Billaur has not only become a world champion adaptive surfer, he has become a leader in bringing adaptive sports to men and women around the country.
Some call him the godfather of the sport, Mr. Billaur said.
Through his organization Life Rolls On, which he founded in 2001, and their programs They Surf Again and They Will Skate Again, Mr. Billaur has empowered people of all ages suffering from paralysis to overcome their limitations and enjoy the sports they love.
“I just figured it gave me so much freedom and independence and joy, and I was like, ‘I bet other people in my situation would love this’. I’ve been given a lot in my life by a lot of people and companies and stuff and I just wanted to give back to people who didn’t really have a lot,” said Mr. Billaur.
A more impressive story is hard to find, but Mr. Billaur knew his work wasn’t done. Since 2006, he has shared his story with people across the country. He hopes that his life will inspire others, whether they can walk or not, to turn their passions into reality no matter the challenge.
On Thursday evening at the Lobero Theater, Mr. Billaur brought his inspiring message to Santa Barbara as a part of the Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital’s Empowerment Series.
The hospital, the premier provider of medical rehabilitation on the South Coast, has worked for nearly 30 years to bring adaptive sports to Santa Barbara with year-round sports programs, which include golf, ruby, tennis and kayaking camps.
The Empowerment Series is a part of the Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital Foundation’s efforts to fundraise for those programs and events in order to keep them free for the community. When the Foundation learned of Mr. Billaur, they knew they had to work with him.
“Jesse, because of his passion for surfing, his recovery, and the way that he started this whole program was just a perfect fit for what we do,” said Rene Van Hoorn, Lead Recreational Therapist at Cottage Rehabilitation Hospital. “As recreation therapist, our goal is to get people back into life and one of the best ways that we all know is through sports, recreation, and connection.”
It seemed the Foundation could not have found a better spokesman, as Mr. Billaur, cracking jokes the whole night, shared his powerful experiences with a packed house.
“As long as you follow your heart and your mind, all those things you thought were impossible or way too hard, you might actually be able to accomplish. So sometimes slow down and think about things a little bit longer. Think about what it means to accomplish some stuff,” Mr. Billaur told the audience.
Mr. Billaur’s work with the hospital didn’t end with his talk Thursday night. The Hospital and Life Rolls On are currently working with the city to bring an adaptive surfing program to Santa Barbara. In 2020, the hospital hopes to get the local paralysis community back in the ocean, whether they want to surf or just feel the salt water again, said Ms. Van Hoorn.
Help is always needed at the hospital and at Life Rolls On — with Mr. Billaur encouraging interested parties to utilize liferollson.org to find ways to help.
“These events are free to the public. It takes sponsors, it takes donations, it takes help, so whether you want to donate or participate or just volunteer . . . get involved.”