Tumbling through the surf and tossed by waves – and loving every minute of it.
By Mary O’KEEFE
“The best surfer out there is the one having the most fun.”
– Author Unknown
If that quote is true, there were about 72 “best surfers” hitting the waves on Sunday, all participating in They Will Surf Again, the signature program of Life Rolls On, a series of bi-coastal events that empower paraplegics and quadriplegics to experience the freedom of surfing. They surf on adapted surfboards and are assisted by volunteers.
Life Rolls On was founded in 2002 by Jesse Billauer, who in 1996 at the age of 17 had a promising professional surfing career. When a wave pushed him headfirst into a shallow sandbar, he fractured his neck and injured his spinal cord rendering him quadriplegic.
On Sunday, volunteers joined novice and experienced Life Rolls On surfers at Zuma Beach. The volunteers were separated into five teams designated by colors. The team members were given specific areas and duties in the surf. Some are in deep, others are in mid-depth and some assigned to shallow water. Surfers were transported to the board on a specially designed water wheelchair. Then he or she was placed onto the surfboard and, with the assistance of the volunteers, paddled out to the surf where, like all surfers, they wait for that perfect wave.
On land, Matthew Viole is in a wheelchair. However, on Sunday the CVHS ninth grader put on a wet suit and hit the waves. Matthew has surfed in the past with the Life Rolls On program and at the beach with his family.
“He water- and snow-skis and has been swimming in the ocean with his three older brothers since he was little,” said Rick Viole, Matthew’s dad.
His mother Mandy praised the program and all the volunteers. Both his parents said Matthew was never held back due to his disabilities. He was always involved in everything and with his brothers had to learn to hold his own in the water and snow.
“It was awesome!” Matthew said of his Sunday surf. “It was a little cold but perfect. Being in the ocean and doing what my brothers do … it’s amazing.”
For those new to the program, or perhaps needing some support, a volunteer will go onto the back of the board and ride the wave to the shore with the surfer. Those in the mid-water area keep a watchful eye as the board goes by, then the shallow water volunteers assist at the end of the ride. All volunteers then ask the surfer if they want to go again and almost every time on Sunday they said yes, then headed back into the surf.
One team used a motorized board that was donated by WaveJet. It allowed the users to get farther out into the ocean and to catch more waves.
“I used the surfboard and when others were catching three or four waves, we were able to catch nine,” said Chris Thomas. Thomas surfed with Billauer before his accident.
The board has a wireless wrist controller and will automatically shut off if it separates eight to 12 feet from the controller. The company has supported the program and plans to donate enough boards for all five Life Rolls On teams in the future.
With each breaker, those in the water and on the beach cheer the surf riders. The program gives participants a chance to join a family of surfers and to share the universal feeling all experience while waiting for that perfect wave. In the water, all are equal.
“My son’s social worker heard about this program,” said Ruby Fujii. Her son Nick, 33, had looked on the organization’s website and decided he wanted to join.
“It takes away [the hardships] that he deals with on land,” she said.
Johnny Noyes and his son Mark joined Ruby and Nick.
“Mark loves the water but he has never surfed,” Johnny said.
Any fear was not evident as Mark and Nick took to the beach. What were visible were their smiles as they rode their first wave to the shore.
The program is not just inspirational for the surfers but for the volunteers as well. James Porcell, 16, is on the CV High School swim and water polo teams. Sunday was the fourth time he had joined in to support the event.
“I am in the deep water [area],” he said.
When asked why he liked the program, he responded, “Seeing the smiles on [the surfers’] faces.”
He spoke to his family about those smiles and how amazing the program was when he got home. That inspired his brother, Matthew, 15, who is on the CVHS track team, to join.
“I heard him talking about it and wanted to help,” Matthew said.
The Leum family has been involved with the program for a long time. Mike, with his sons Garrett and Hunter, are avid surfers. This was the third time Garrett had been in the water with the program. He was assigned, along with his dad and brother, to the deep-water section.
“I love it. The smiles on their faces,” he said describing his experience with the program. “I have never seen anyone without [a smile].”
Singer/songwriter Jason Mraz is a strong supporter of Life Rolls On. He joined the team that the Leums were on and that Matthew Viole surfed with. Actor Victor Webster was also on the team, but whether an actor, a member of Montrose Search and Rescue like Mike Leum or a CVHS Falcon, all were on an equal footing and all had a similar goal – to help those special surfers enjoy their day at the beach.
For more information visit www.liferollson.org. The next Southern California event is on Sept. 15 in La Jolla.