Adaptive Surfing Magazine caught up with iconic Jesse Billaur a few months back for a bit of insight on what surfing means to him. For those who missed it, here is that interview...
photos: Courtesy of Jesse Billauer
Tell us a little bit about how you first got into surfing, your injury, and how you go into adaptive surfing.
I started when I was nine, and then when I was 12 I met Paul Gomez from Billabong and he sponsored me. Then Bob Hurley took me in, and I was with them from 12 until I was 17. When they changed from Billabong to Hurley, he just kept supporting me and kept me on the team. That was huge for me, just being able to travel around the world and surf and do that. That was my whole life.
I figured when I got paralyzed, I wanted to get back in the water. I had to figure out how to do it. There wasn’t really anybody doing it, so luckily Rob Machado, Al Merrick and I came up with a board. I laid down on it, we put those straps by the rail. It was amazing. Then the technology got better, and better. We put fins on the back of the board so my feet don’t slide off, because I broke my leg like five or six years ago surfing six- to-eight foot Sunset Beach. I broke my femur.
What age was your injury?
17. It was a month after my seventeenth birthday.
And it happened surfing?
Yeah. I was at Zuma Beach at Drainpipes early morning before school in like a six-to-eight foot south swell.
How long was it before you were able to get back in the water?
I think like three years or something, because nobody was doing it. Plus, I wanted to get physically fit, figure out the right board, where I was going to do it, find the right people and just had to get strong enough to do it.
Was it a goal to get back in the water and ride waves from the moment you got injured?
Yeah, pretty much; it was the goal for me to want to do that (surf again). I always wanted to do it, and then when I did, we did it at Cardiff Reef right in front Rob Machado’s house for the first time.
Incredible. You inspire a lot of different people, who are some of your inspirations?
Growing up, my idol was Shane Dorian. So, that was my huge inspiration. And now, seeing what he does with his family and his kids, that’s a huge inspiration for me.
Ok, so I know this may be a tough one, but what does surfing mean to you? Essentially, as part of your everyday life and being a surfer before your injury.
It’s just freedom and independence. I don’t get to do it much, I only get to do it when the waves are good. It’s not like skateboarding, where you can just do it all the time. Surfing, you have to wait for the right conditions, the right people and to me that’s just pure freedom when I’m on the wave. Once I’m on the wave, I actually don’t need any help. And with this Wave Jet, I get to ride the wave and then kick out, and go back into the lineup. It’s just huge (advancement from a few years ago), I can’t even believe it. It’s so rad.
That must be a huge sense of independence.
Yeah, just reading the wave. Doing a bottom turn or cutback, looking down the line or kicking out, just every decision I make is totally up to me, from the knowledge when I surfed before. I know how to read the wave and where it’s breaking and what it’s doing and that’s just fun. I love it. Like Malibu, sometimes if it’s too perfect, I almost feel like it’s a little boring, like I kind of want a section to happen where I can go around it. So Malibu, if it’s too boring I might go a little bit deeper and just read it, do a bottom turn around a section and come up and finish just because it’s fun.
I love big waves, but a lot of times big waves in California are mushy and kind of slow. So Malibu when it’s smaller, the inside ones are just reeling and you’re going so fast. For me, I think speed is better than height.
So, how long have you been riding with the wave jet?
Something like three years. Maybe four years.
I imagine that made a big difference for you.
Well that was life changing. I’m just waiting for the next technology to be even better. But, that was life changing with regards to having a couple people help me to now I can do it with just one person because if I’m surfing a good wave that doesn’t close out, I can just kick out and go all the way back to the person that pushed me into the wave.
Soon with the technology of maybe a joystick, it’s going to be even bigger. If you have a joystick, then it’s like a jet ski where it just turns on a dime. Right now, I have to just power on and you have to lean and to make a circle it’s just too big. With a joystick, I will be able to just lay right, look at the wave, turn right around and do it. That’s going to be amazing. That’s what I’m looking forward to.
If somebody falls, and I’m on my way back out, I’ll be able to turn around fast, whereas now I can’t do that. That’ll be even more feeling like normal. And I’m looking forward to the battery life getting longer. With
technology, batteries right now die fast. But, I think soon they’re just going to get better and better and that’ll make the sessions last longer and there’ll be more power for the jet. Because over a bit of time you can feel the jet losing a little bit of energy and then it’s a little harder to get into waves. So you lose power, which means you’ll lose a little bit of safety.
It’s great to see how much it’s progressed in the last couple of years. It’ll be very cool to see where it goes in the next few. So tell me a little bit about Life Rolls On, when did you start the organization?
I think it started in like 1999, but then it became a 5013c in 2001.
How many events have you done since then?
Well for the past ten years we’ve been doing events at ten different locations, but before that it could’ve been six locations, so hundreds.
So it’s safe to say, thousands of participants have come through your program?
Yeah, per year. I would say a thousand per year.
Wow. So you guys are doing big numbers?
Yeah. And then we have about three to four thousand volunteers.
That’s incredible. So the Life Rolls On community has grown quite large?
Yeah, for sure. They started off with 10 or 20 surfers and 50 volunteers, now the events are close to 75 or 100 surfers and 300-400 volunteers.
And how does it feel to see some of these younger kids coming up and they all cite you as their inspiration.
I think it’s cool to see anybody get to go through a program, from kids to adults, and surfing for the first
time. It’s just super cool to see the smile. Going from super nervous, like, “I don’t want to do that,” or, “that’s too scary”, to going, “Oh my god! When’s the next event?” If the registration is opening up at midnight 45 days before the event, they’re signing up at midnight 45 days in front of the event.
Yeah. And it’s the volunteers too. The volunteers are frothing for the registration to open. That says a lot, where you don’t have to chase all the people to help you, they’re eagerly hoping to sign up first. That’s amazing.
Rad. Well you’ve been inspiring a ton of people for a long time and a lot of the people that are doing adaptive surfing now are doing it because they’ve been through your program or seen your program or other people have started programs similar just to expand.
Yeah. I love it. I love that there are more programs all around the world. That’s super cool. We can’t do it everywhere, so the more events the better for people. So, I’m all for it, but it’s cool to see that people look up to Life Rolls On and me.
So what is the biggest challenge, if you had to give advice to these other smaller organizations?
The biggest challenge is trying not to grow too fast. People want to just grow, grow, grow and you kind of got to just keep it a grass roots, smaller, intimate, family-like vibe. I just tell people to take it slow and get help.
That’s good advice. In your career, what would you say your biggest success is? You won Gold at the first ever ISA World Adaptive Championships, I’m sure that ranks pretty high up there?
Winning the world title is amazing, that was super rad. Just seeing that the kids that are going through the program right now getting inspired by Life Rolls On and me winning a world title, that’s saying that one day maybe they could win the world title, and that’s so cool.
You do public speaking, as well, correct?
Yeah. I travel around the country and go to schools and companies and they hire me to do motivational speaking. I love talking too, whether it’s ten people or a thousand people, just talking about life and appreciating it, never giving up on your hopes and dreams and all those kinds of things.
Speaking about life, obviously it’s the next chapter in life coming up for you guys, I heard the big news about the twin baby boys coming.
Yeah. Two boys coming in September. We’ll try to get them sponsored by Channel Islands and Hurley right out of the womb. Signed contracts!
What you are doing right now is helping to make it that much easier for adaptive surfers of the future, so thanks for that. So, what’s next on your agenda?
I’m just traveling and trying to find amazing waves. Heading to Fiji and Mexico in the next month and a have to enjoy some more good waves and I am excited for my growing family.