Jesse Billaeur was once a promising amateur surfer with dreams of turning pro. A native of Los Angeles County, CA, Jesse seemed destined for greatness. By the mid-90s he was winning amateur competitions, traveling the world and was named to Surfer Magazine’s list of Top 100 up and coming surfers in the world.
Then on March 25, 1996, during a surf session at Zuma Beach north of Malibu, Jesse got caught up in the crest of a breaking wave, which tossed him headfirst into the shallow sandy bottom, breaking his neck. The resulting spinal injury left him a quadriplegic, with no feeling from the chest down and limited use of his arms and hands.
Not one to quit, Billauer worked hard to maximize his remaining facilities and three years later founded a non-profit foundation, Life Rolls On.
Based on his love of surfing and “getting back on the board” mentality, Billauer, with the help of friends, took to the ocean and began surfing again on an adaptive longboard. Lying prone, and using his body weight to maneuverer, Jesse was again able to do what he loved most.
By the early 2000s, the inspirational imagery and buzz of Billauer rediscovering surfing fueled support by surf industry brands such as Hurley and Channel Islands and paved the way for a successful new career as a motivational speaker.
Billauer’s efforts and foundation grew so much that later merged with the Christopher Reeve Foundation.
Yet despite his ability to surf, and inspire millions, Billauer still needed assistance paddling out to the lineup as well as catching waves. This required a group of friends to aid him during each session.
That changed this week on the North Shore of Oahu, where Billauer demo’d the water-jet propelled surfboard – the Wavejet. Controlled by the touch of a button the built-in propulsion of the board enabled Billaeur to essentially surf unassisted, coasting quietly out to the surf lineup and even catching waves with no help.
A video produced by friend and fellow surfer Peter King, documented the experience and Billauer’s emotional reaction to combining his love of surfing with a long lost sense of freedom.
“That board just changed my life forever,” a choked up Billauer said post-session. “Being able to just push the button with my teeth, it’s just amazing. I went out there all by myself and there were times when I did a wide circle and caught my own wave with no one ever pushing me in.
“For 15 years I always need someone right next to me at all times. They’d push me into the wave and then there was someone there at the end waiting for me at the end of the wave and then they’d paddle me back out. And now I don’t need that. I can just surf with one friend and he’s not all tired and beat because he doesn’t have to come pick me up at the end of the wave and paddle me back out. And now I’m towing him around and it’s just mind boggling.
I feel like I might not even need anybody!”
– James Sullivan