Life is swell
Paralyzed in a 1996 surfing accident, former teen phenom turns tragedy into triumph with grit and grins. Never stop believing ...
By Jen Brown
February 3, 2003

K.C. ALFRED / Union-TribuneJesse Billaur of Pacific Beach awaits a wave with the help of former world champion Izzy Paskowitz. Jesse Billauer of Pacific Beach awaits an August wave with the help of former world champion Izzy Paskowitz. K.C. Alfred / Union-Tribune

Nice. A set is coming through. Don't take the first wave &ndash the second is better.
Now paddle, paddle &ndash and you're on.

Up on the feet in one instinctive motion.

Carve up to the lip. Back down. Cut back, cut back. Here comes the barrel.
Crouch down, speed up.

You're in!

Feel the breeze sweeping through the tunnel. The coolness on your sunburned cheeks. See the water cascading around you. Breathe the salt air. Listen to the silence. Let go. There is nothing else but this one moment.

No better feeling in the world. This is perfection.

Here comes the end of the tube. Hold the line. Beat out the close. You're almost there.

Jesse Billauer's last moment of perfection came the morning of March 25, 1996. One minute he was a 17-year-old hanging with friends at Zuma Beach north of Malibu, enjoying the perfect break on a perfect Southern California day and dreaming of a future on the professional circuit.

A split second later, his life and that of all those around him changed forever.

He never saw the lip of the wave come crashing down on his back. He never saw the sandbar racing toward him at alarming speed. He never felt his spine snap, severing the nerves that send electrical signals from midchest down.

K.C. ALFRED / Union-TribuneA quadriplegic who never stopped loving to surf, San Diegan Jesse Billauer &ndash now 23 &ndash still feels free to catch a wave.

The next thing Jesse knew, he was facedown in the water, unable even to turn himself over. He held his breath. He waited. He tried not to panic.

Finally, a wave did the job Jesse's body could not, flipping him face up in the wash. With all his energy, Jesse called to his friends, Brad and Brett.

At first they thought he was kidding. Then Brad realized Jesse was in serious trouble. He swam over to his friend and together with Brett held Jesse's head above water while they dragged him to shore.

Jesse lay motionless and perfectly calm on the wet sand as paramedics assembled around him in a frenzy. He didn't even try to move when they asked him to wiggle his toes. He knew he couldn't.

Instead, Jesse looked up at the clear blue sky, felt the sun that he loved spread warmth on his cheeks, listened to the lap of the water hitting the shore.

He thought about all his dreams &ndash turning pro and joining the World Championship Tour, traveling the world and living the lifestyle of a famous surfer, falling in love, getting married, having kids.

K.C. ALFRED / Union-tribunePersonal assistant Sonny Reece carries Jesse Billauer into the surf at Pacific beach. Billauer uses a specially made board to surf on his stomach.

As the drugs entered his system, the world around Jesse grew fuzzy and dark. Slowly he lost sight of his future. But before he closed his eyes, one thought stuck in his mind:

Who will I be now?

Cecile Billauer rushed into the emergency room at UCLA Medical Center, her eyes darting from one face to the next in a frantic search for her son.

When she spotted Jesse, he was barely recognizable. Tubes seemed to be coming out of every part of his body, men and women in white coats were hovering all around him, and he just lay there. Lifeless. So small in the giant white bed. So helpless.

Cecile barely listened as one of the doctors explained that Jesse had broken his spinal column, that they did not know if the break was complete, that there might be permanent damage.

She just wanted to get to her son.

Between tests, Cecile took Jesse's hand, but he did not squeeze back.

"What if I'm paralyzed?" he asked, tears welling in his vibrant brown eyes.

"You're not," his mother answered defensively. "There's just been a little trauma to your spine. It's just like last time. You'll be walking in a few days."

Jesse didn't smile. "But how do you know?"

"I know," she said, wanting desperately to put her son's mind at ease.

But inside Cecile was doing everything she could to fight off hysterics. How could this be happening again? Only five months earlier she had been in the hospital listening to Jesse say he'd rather be dead than paralyzed.

That time it was a car that broadsided Jesse, ejecting him from the closed driver's side window onto the middle of the road. It had not done permanent damage. That time Jesse had walked out of the hospital.

Could he be that lucky twice?

For a week Cecile remained hopeful, drawing strength from the endless stream of friends who came to visit Jesse in the hospital and the outpouring of support from the congregation of Kehillat Israel temple.

But then came the official diagnosis &ndash a complete spinal cord break at the C-6 level, similar to actor Christopher Reeve's injury, though not as severe. Jesse had no sensation from his midchest down.

Though physical therapy and rehab would eventually give him limited use of his arms and hands, he would use a wheelchair until someone discovered a cure.

Things didn't get better when Jesse moved back home in Malibu in June. He hid his anger from his friends, but to Cecile it felt as though all of it was directed at her. There was friction between her and her husband, George. It was hard to be positive when she felt her life was ending, her dreams for her son dying, her image of her perfect family falling apart.

They decided Jesse needed to be in a place where he could feel more independent, that he needed to see if he could handle living on his own with his caretaker before going to college.

A month before Jesse's high school graduation, Cecile and George helped him move into a new apartment in Malibu. That same day George moved out. The Billauers separated and later divorced.

Amid the heartache and pain, something positive happened.

Cecile watched as Jesse thrived in his new living situation, their relationship improving with distance. And to her amazement, Cecile thrived as well. It was the first of many lessons she learned from Jesse's accident &ndash life is too short to continue down a path that only makes you unhappy.

Starting down a new path can be scary, but eventually you will find your way.

Sept. 1, 2001.

Nine days before the third annual Life Rolls On Golf Tournament.


This e-mail is very important and you must read it. Several times.

Just so you know, in the past two weeks, I have spent hours upon hours at work organizing your Tournament to make sure it is the best ever. In fact, I have spent 80% of my time at my job doing this. Only 20% of my time is actually going to what I do for a living!

Your whole life Jesse you have gotten things that you wanted, you know people are always there for you, and will never let you not have the things you need to survive . . . ... The thing is, these are also things that you are FULLY capable of doing yourself, and hopefully as a soon-to-be college graduate, you will WANT to start doing yourself. I hope you take this e-mail the right way.
I love you, your bro, Josh

To those who don't know Jesse Billauer, the e-mail might sound harsh, perhaps a lot to ask of a young kid who lacks the use of two-thirds of his body. But Josh knows his brother. Well. More than anything, Josh knows Jesse is not an individual to be pitied.

Jesse could accomplish anything he put his mind to, whether that be surfing, water skiing or sky diving. And though his injury may have prevented him from joining the world tour, in many ways Jesse still leads the charmed life of a pro surfer.

He hangs out with friends, goes to concerts and surfs with Rob Machado or Izzy Paskowitz on his specially made Al Merrick board. The size of the surf is still more important to him than the amount of his credit card bill.

This drove Josh - the Type A personality of the family - nuts.

He hoped Jesse would grow out of it, that once he received his communications degree from San Diego State last year he would realize that Life Rolls On - the nonprofit group the family established - was his meal ticket, his way of earning a living through motivational speaking and contributing to the search for a cure through donations to the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation.

It also was a great opportunity for Jesse to teach others what he had learned from his accident, the life lessons he bestowed upon his older brother - take life a little less seriously, since tomorrow is not guaranteed; life is too short to let the little things get in your way; don't take friends, family or your way of life for granted; and Jesse's favorite: Love life because life loves you.

It was amazing to Josh that Jesse had emerged from the beach accident with such a positive attitude. He hoped Jesse would use his status in the surfing community to spread the word.

In a way, the celebrity status Jesse enjoyed is ironic. He had been named one of the Top 100 up-and-coming surfers in the world. But of all the juniors on that list, how many actually made it?

Jesse may or may not have obtained surfing fame. But because of his injury, Jesse secured a reputation in the professional surfing world and counted people such as Machado and Kelly Slater among his closest friends. Before the accident, they weren't asking him to go with them on vacations to Hawaii.

He made connections in the music world. Josh would not be surprised if Jesse was at a show right now, smooth-talking the bouncers to meet the band. It was not unusual to see Jesse rolling into a backstage party at an Eminem show, his unmistakable wheelchair - with leopard-skin seat, chrome wheels and covered in custom art - tucked in a corner of the room.

Jesse, sporting a purple velvet jacket with animal print trim and his signature bowler hat (a gift from Kid Rock), would be surrounded by beautiful girls. And Josh would add another celebrity photo to the "Life Rolls On" Web page the next day.

Josh smiled. Jesse certainly had a way with people, an undeniable charm. It was how he got all the support for his charity. People did not come to support spinal cord research so much as they came to support Jesse.

It was the same reason Josh was up at 2 in the morning working on the tournament, why he took hours out of his day managing Jesse's finances, why he spent his weekends fixing up his brother's apartment in Pacific Beach.

Jesse had a way about him. And Josh loved him for it.

George Billauer could hardly believe he was about to watch his 23-year-old son surf in the biggest professional surfing event in the continental United States.
He took in the throng of fans spread across Huntington Beach or leaning over the pier to catch a glimpse of the pros coming out of the staging area. This was the moment he had dreamed of since Jesse was a small boy, a dream he thought had died along with the nerves in his son's spine in 1996.

George turned his attention back to the beach, where Sonny, Jesse's caretaker, lifted him from his wheelchair and carried him down to the water's edge.

George grimaced at the thick padding wrapped around Jesse's elbows, a reminder of how delicate his son had become in the six years since his accident. It was an outward sign of the atrophied limbs he knew were hidden by the thick wet suit.

In a movement practiced so many times it looked almost natural, Sonny lowered Jesse stomach-down on his surfboard. He quickly adjusted Jesse's feet, made sure his elbows were properly wedged into their custom grips and helped Jesse hook his arm around Rob Machado's ankle so he could be paddled past the break.
Sixteen of the world's top surfers joined Jesse in the special expression session at the U.S. Open this last day of July. Even Kelly Slater, who was not competing, got wet to raise money for spinal cord research.

With all that talent in the water, fans had plenty to take in - but it was clear all eyes were on Jesse.

The beach fell silent as he caught his first wave, cutting and carving on the face using the strength of his shoulders to maneuver. When he got caught up in the chop and slipped into the water, his board carried toward the shore by the wave, the crowd grew tense, nervous Jesse would drown. He was, after all, a quadriplegic.

But George wasn't concerned.

He knew Jesse was happiest floating in the water on his own, treasuring the few precious moments of independence that were once so important to him and now almost completely lacking.

Machado and a few other pros paddled to Jesse and lifted him by his wet suit, repositioning him on his board. As the grace and agility of his son on the soccer field used to impress George, so now did his son's grace and dignity as others did for him what he could not.

George still obsessed on finding a cure, reading every article, every study, even flying across the globe to visit cutting-edge research centers.
But at this moment George was just proud.

As Jesse rode his final wave up to the beach, the crowd rose to its feet. It was the only standing ovation of the entire event.

Josh met Jesse in the white water and the older, stronger brother took the younger into his capable arms. Film crews formed a tight circle around George's two children; fans came running toward the pair; cameras flashed from all directions.

A tear slid down George Billauer's cheek. Unlike the tears of rage, sorrow and self-pity he had cried in the past, these were tears of joy.

"There was one day when I thought he would have been better off if he didn't survive," George said in a guilty whisper. "Then once I saw how his personality hadn't changed, I realized how lucky we were that he was alive.

"It took Jesse to make me realize that. Life goes on. It just goes down a different path."

The Life Rolls On Foundation is a nonprofit organization that raises money to help find a cure for paralysis caused by spinal cord injuries. For more information, see