It started out as just another day at the beach in Malibu, Calif., for surfer Jesse Billauer, until one wave brought his world crashing down.
"The wave hit me on my back and I went head first into the water and didn't have time to put my hands up and my head hit the bottom sandbar my whole body went numb and tingly and I just had this numbness go through out my whole body," Billauer said.
Billauer said he knew something had gone terribly wrong almost immediately. He soon found out that his gut instinct was right. The surfing accident had left him a quadriplegic, with no sensation or movement below his mid-chest and only limited use of his arms and hands.
But at just 17 years old in March, 1996, Billauer handled his injury with grace and maturity. He took on a grueling physical therapy schedule and re-trained his muscles in his arms. He even learned to ride a special bicycle, pedaling with his hands.
But Billauer, who was once rated one of the top 100 surfers in the world, still wanted to hit the waves, so his brother, Josh, who is also a surfer, and his friends found a way to make it happen.
Call of the Ocean
His brother and friends created a surfboard that could hold Billauer lying flat. After he's escorted to a wave by his best friends, Billauer takes it from there. He uses his elbows to help him steer the board. When he falls into the ocean, he floats with his head above the water until his friends can assist.
Billauer says the sense of peace he achieves when he's in the water just doesn't compare to anything else.
While the transition to a life with limited physical movement has been difficult for Billauer, his brother, Josh, has been hit almost as hard. Since the accident, Josh has wanted to do everything for his younger brother.
"I've been accused of putting myself last. I just want him to have everything. So if he can't do it, I'll do it for him," Josh Billauer said.
Jesse and Josh Billauer's father, George Billauer, says it's been difficult to come to terms with the accident that changed his son's life forever.
"Behind the scenes, it's a terrible thing. It's so unfair for someone so young to have to go what he goes through," George Billauer said.
But Jesse Billauer doesn't have time to dwell on the bad stuff. He's too consumed by his work. He raises money for spinal cord research and with his brother, Josh, runs Life Rolls On, (www.liferollson.org) a foundation that promotes awareness about spinal cord injuries and spinal cord injury research in an effort to improve the lives of everyone who has been affected by them.
His work has inspired many to join the fight for a cure for spinal cord injuries.
"He has an ability to touch people within a few seconds of meeting them … you're just hooked," George Billauer said.
"I want people to realize to that you need to enjoy life today," Jesse Billauer said. "You don't know what's going to happen tomorrow, so don't dwell on the small things people get caught up in — the traffic, how cold their latte is, how cold their French fries are," he said.
The National Surfing Championships honored Jesse Billauer with a special exhibition session that raised money for Life Rolls On. During the event, Jesse Billauer, with his brother's help, took to the water on his custom board and left everyone there in awe of his unique spirit and strength.
Meanwhile, Jesse Billauer's relationship with his brother continues to grow stronger every day. Jesse will serve as best man at his brother's wedding this fall.
"He's going to roll down the aisle with me," Josh Billauer said. "Maybe when he gets married he can walk down the aisle and I'll be his best man."
Josh Billauer and his father both have high hopes for Jesse's future.
"You know, my heart was broken when he was hurt. I don't know that it will ever be 100 percent, but you know, he continues to warm my heart when I see how he affects other people," George Billauer said.
Jesse Billauer says he hopes to walk again, but is not counting on it. No matter what, he says he will never stop smiling, hoping, believing or surfing.
"I'm always going to be a surfer, whether I'm walking kneeling or sitting," he said.
Jesse's Story, a movie by filmmaker Mark Jacobs, documents Jesse Billauer's amazing story. For more information about Billauer and this film, visit: