At 17 years old, Jesse’s life was forever changed when a spinal cord injury (SCI) resulted in quadriplegia.
As a youth, Jesse Billauer was a star athlete, excelling in baseball, soccer, and floor hockey. He began surfing at the age of nine and his desire to surf soon overcame the urge to participate in other activities. Jesse found the ocean soothing. He would go surfing whenever he wanted to relieve stress, or be alone.
By age eleven, Jesse was surfing competitively. As his renown grew, he was featured in magazines, such as Surfer, Surfing, Transworld, Wave Action, and others. With surfboard, apparel, and sunglass sponsors, Jesse went international. He was surfing and competing in Hawaii, Tahiti, Indonesia, Mexico, and Costa Rica. By the mid-90’s, Surfer magazine had named him one of the Top 100 up-and-coming surfers of the world. Jesse wanted to give back to his community, and at the age of 16, he became one of the youngest members of the California State Lifeguard team. This coveted and difficult job was one of which Jesse was very proud.
Driving to school one October morning in 1995, Jesse’s SUV was broadsided by another vehicle. The impact caused his car to roll and threw him from his car via the closed driver’s side window. He was transported by ambulance to the emergency room, where his first words were, “Please don’t let me be paralyzed. I would rather be dead.” Jesse was lucky, and after several months passed he recovered from serious whiplash and a torn ligament in his right thumb.
He was soon able to resume competitive surfing, and in March of 1996 was rated number one amongst Juniors in the Pacific Surf Series. The rating attracted new sponsors. Negotiations were underway to put Jesse on the pro surfing tour, a lifelong dream, now on the verge of being realized. The fateful morning of March 25th, 1996, put an end to that dream.
While surfing, Jesse was hit by the crest of a wave and flew headfirst into a shallow sandbar. Immediately, his body went limp; he found himself floating facedown in the water, unable to turn over. Jesse held his breath, waiting for the ocean to flip him over. Once a wave provided the initial push that he needed he was able to call out to his friends for help. At first, they thought he was joking, but the severity of the situation soon dawned on them. His friend quickly swam over and managed to get Jesse safely out of the water and onto the sand.
With the help of another friend they kept Jesse stabilized until the helicopter arrived and transported him to the hospital. It was determined that he had suffered a complete spinal cord injury, the kind sustained by Christopher Reeve. Jesse was now a quadriplegic. He had no sensation or movement below mid-chest and limited use of his arms and hands.
As Jesse recovered in the Intensive Care Unit and rehab hospital, he contemplated the drastic change in his life. Jesse felt that he had been extremely fortunate in the first 17 years of his life, and he realized that, even now, he was more fortunate than many others. It was not until three months later that Jesse was able to return home to his room, his bed, and the comfort of his own home. He was on a new path and a new journey.
A few years after his life changing accident, Jesse founded Life Rolls On, a non-profit organization and division of the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation, serving as its West Coast headquarters. Founded in 1999, Life Rolls On improves the quality of life for young people affected by spinal cord injury and utilizes action sports as a platform for inspiring infinite possibilities despite paralysis. Its signature program, They Will Surf Again, is an award-winning series of bi-coastal events that empower paraplegics and quadriplegics to experience the freedom and mobility of surfing a wave with the assistance of adaptive equipment and dedicated volunteers. Through quality of life programs, spinal cord injury awareness initiatives and outreach to individuals at the onset of injury, Life Rolls On impacts the lives of more than 100,000 people each year. In 2007, Life Rolls On received an Emmy® nomination for Best National Public Service Announcement and its outstanding work has been featured on international television, radio, and in print.
Billauer has been featured on television shows such as Good Morning America, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, Dateline NBC, Entertainment Television’s True American Story, TLC’s While You Were Out, and in the feature film, Step into Liquid. A recently-released documentary movie about his life, Jesse’s Story, inspires a worldwide audience to enjoy today knowing tomorrow is not guaranteed. The movie shows that your world as you know it can change in an instant and you should not wait for a tragedy to live your dreams. No matter how bad things may appear, happiness is just a positive thought away.
With such dedication and love for life, over the past 17 years Jesse has inspired people to look at their lives in a more thoughtful and thankful way. He has been delivering motivational speeches to thousands and has inspired audiences to realize there is more to life than many people believe.
For information about Life Rolls On, Jesse Billauer, and his Motivational Speaking Tour, visit:
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Testimonials from people with a spinal cord injury