By Mary O’KEEFE
On June 4, several Crescenta Valley community members joined hundreds of others at Santa Monica Beach to participate in Life Rolls On, They Will Surf Again.
Jesse Billauer, who in 1996 at the age of 17 had a promising professional surfing career, founded the organization Life Rolls On in 2002. When a wave pushed him headfirst into a shallow sandbar, he fractured his neck and injured his spinal cord rendering him quadriplegic. But his injury didn’t stop him from wanting to continue to surf; he also wanted to share that love of surfing with others.
Several times a year volunteers on both coasts take to the beach to surf with wheelchair-bound athletes.
“Life Rolls On is dedicated to improving the quality of life for young people affected by spinal cord injury. Believing that adaptive surfing and skating could inspire infinite possibilities beyond paralysis, Life Rolls On began as a splash into the unknown on Sept. 11, 2001; it achieved 501c3 nonprofit status in 2002; and now touches the lives of hundreds of thousands,” according to the LRO website.
Surfers and volunteers preregister for the events. Volunteers can choose jobs that match their comfort level, from going into the surf as experienced surfers to staying on the sand.
The waves are usually calm but then there are days like June 4 when Mother Nature tested the skills and energy levels of volunteers and surfers.
“It was really rough for the event,” said Garrett Leum.
Leum, along with his entire family, has been involved with LRO for years, and said that Saturday was one of the most challenging.
“There was a sandbar out there that made the waves break sooner and they were a lot steeper,” he said.
Leum and his brother Hunter are both experienced surfers, and both were at the event.
“My main concern was keeping the [adaptive] surfer on the board,” Hunter said.
Surfers are brought to the shore in a specifically designed wheelchair and then helped onto a surfboard designed for the wheelchair athlete. Volunteers carry the board into the water; other volunteers in the low, mid and deep levels of water support them. Then, when the wave is right, the board is positioned and a volunteer paddles and controls the back of the surfboard as the surfer rides the wave.
Hunter guided the board. Under ordinary circumstances it can be challenging, but on June 4 it was a little more demanding.
“The waves were so big and the board is so big I wasn’t heavy enough to [keep] the nose from going into the water,” said Hunter. “It was pretty tough.”
Hunter and his dad, Mike, took turns controlling the board while Garrett and other volunteers kept a watchful eye on the surfer, making sure that if they fell into the water help would be there within seconds.
“The waves were steeper and harder [than previous events],” Leum said. “You want it to be more cresting. It starts at the top and slowly works its way down.”
In addition to the challenging waves there was a strong rip current and wind. The current was so strong volunteers had to swim rather than tread water most of the time to avoid being pulled out further into the sea. And the wind made the waves “choppy,” Leum said.
And then there was the temperature.
“It was cold, a lot colder than we expected,” Leum said.
“The water was cooler than usual, the waves bigger and stronger than I have ever experienced with LRO,” Hunter added.
But both of them, and the other CV volunteers, said they will be back next time LRO has an event.
Uncertain weather and surf are just something surfers deal with, whether they get to the water via a wheelchair or by walking. It is the love of surfing and the experience that keeps those who volunteer, and the surfers, coming back.
“I do it just because I like helping people,” Hunter said. “It is really a humbling experience.”
He added the surfers have a positive attitude and are very brave and trusting to get on the surfboard.
“It’s all just to see the reaction of the participants,” Garrett said of the reason he will continue to return to the LRO beach, “to see them overcome their fears and to see their faces as they [ride] the waves.”