I kind of quit surfing when I got out of high school, but then a few years ago I started to take it up again. I’m not an expert by any means, but it’s so wonderful to get out in the ocean and get a different perspective on things.
~ Jeff Bridges
By Mary O’KEEFE
That different perspective is something that the volunteers and the surfers experienced last weekend in Santa Monica at Life Rolls On/They Will Surf Again.
In 1996, Jesse Billauer was very close to becoming a professional surfer. He was surfing at Zuma Beach when he was pushed into the shallow sandbar. He fractured his neck and sustained a C-6 complete spinal cord injury, resulting in quadriplegia.
He said after the injury he still wanted to surf and wanted to share his love of surfing with others. Initially, he fundraised for spinal cord injury research and support through Life Rolls On golf tournaments.
“Life Rolls On” was his philosophy, and in 2001 he teamed up with They Will Surf Again, a foundation that introduced adaptive surfing for the paralysis community. They held a successful event that reached across the world. In 2002, the Life Rolls On (LRO) Foundation became an official non-profit organization and garnered the support of the U.S. Open of Surfing, according to the LRO website.
And the organization goes beyond surfing.
“We have They Will Skate Again, too,” Billauer said.
The focus of LRO is to raise awareness of the paralysis community, and “freedom beyond paralysis.” Anyone on that Santa Monica beach on Saturday could see that freedom as surfers took to the water supported by volunteers.
For Terina Sprague, surfing was a new experience.
“It’s always been on my list of things to do and I finally decided to sign up and do it,” she said.
Sprague has been in her wheelchair for 23 years. She is not one to back down from a challenge – she snow skied “back in the day” and paddle boards on a specially designed board – but surfing? That’s another thing entirely.
“For me it was the water I was scared of,” she said. “You look out there and you see 30 volunteers who are all there for you, so you know you are going to be safe – somewhat. But I think it was just the water that I feared.”
After she got on the board and rode her first wave it was a little easier.
“It wasn’t as scary as I thought it was going to be,” Sprague added.
The “scary” thing for many of the surfers is falling off the specially designed surfboard which, with the waves on Saturday, happened quite often.
“When you fall off the board, you fall completely off the board, and you are under the water. Those waves are all over you,” she said. “But [the volunteers] are right there for you … they are completely there for you.”
LRO/They Will Surf Again volunteers get as much out of helping as those who are surfing. For seven years, Mike Leum, his wife Nancy and two sons Hunter and Garrett have been part of They Will Surf Again.
“It’s really a CV [Crescenta Valley] connection. One of Hunter’s swim team coaches at CV [high school] had the team participate,” Mike said. “It sounded like something the entire family could do.”
During the last seven years the Leums have not only volunteered but introduced several of their fellow Crescenta Valley friends to the event.
“The Sheltons, Steve Goldsworthy and [his sons] and this time Paul Dutton all came along,” Mike said.
For Mike, the day of surfing is hard work but rewarding. Though each surfer is in the water for about 20 minutes, the volunteers are in the water almost all day.
“You are surrounded by amazing people,” he said of the surfers and the volunteers. “The water is a great equalizer.”
While the volunteers and surfers have fun they also deal with what Mother Nature has to offer … and sometimes that includes some really treacherous waves.
“We crashed hard [a few times],” Mike said of Saturday’s event. “Usually after a crash [a surfer] would want to go back [to the shore] but most of these athletes said, ‘Give me more.’”
He said he is amazed at how brave the surfers are.
“Like Terina. How much guts do you have to have to [do this]? You are not familiar with the ocean and you are putting your life in the hands of people [you don’t know],” he said.
The volunteers are confident in the water and with what they have to do but for many surfers this is the first time they are not only on a surfboard but also in the ocean.
“Terina is a great example of why we do this,” Mike added.
Mike is a team leader; he surfs behind the surfer, holding onto the board and guiding them. There are volunteers positioned in mid-water and low water to support the surfer. On Saturday, Hunter was the co-team leader, so it won’t be long before he will be the one on the back of the board.
The entire day runs like clockwork and, Mike said, that was due in large part to Nancy.
“I have to say the things run so smoothly because Nancy gets the surfers ready and there is no down time,” he said. “We would finish with one surfer, then back out in the water right away.”
It is easier for volunteers to stay in the water and move from surfer to surfer than get out of the ocean, warm up and then go back in.
Each team works in concert to make the surfers’ day the best experience, whether it is their first time or, like the founder Jesse, surfing is like coming home.
For Sprague the experience was something she loved.
“I can say I will do it again,” she said.
For information on LRO or to find out more about They Will Surf Again and They Will Skate Again, visit www.liferollson.org.