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  • Writer's pictureCharlotte Wells

Power in Perspective (Mia Groeninger '25)

“Close your eyes for a moment. Visualize your dreams. Think about where you see yourself a few years from now; think about where you are, who you’re with, what you’re doing, and whether or not all the dreams you’re thinking about right now are coming true. Store those thoughts in the back of your mind.”

On January 22, Jesse Billauer, a distinguished member of the Surfing Walk of Fame, visited the Mesa to share his compelling journey and how a traumatic injury fundamentally altered his perspective and way of life. A Los Angeles native, Billauer developed his passion for surfing from a young age, earning a Billabong sponsorship at twelve and traveling with the U.S. national surf team at only sixteen years old. He was ranked in the top 100 surfers in Surfer Magazine.

Billauer recalled three transformative events that have had a profound impact on his life and shaped his outlook. On his way to school one morning at sixteen, Billauer’s car was hit at full force, causing it to spin out of control, flip around, and eject him from the driver’s seat. As he lay on the PCH pavement, his dreams flashed before his eyes, like a giant swell looming overhead. ‘Will I ever be a professional surfer? In that feature film? Will I be able to graduate college or have a wife and kids?’ That day at the hospital, he told his dad that he would rather die than be unable to walk or surf. However, he soon returned to school and sports relatively unscathed, never ruminating over it again. Billauer recalls thinking he was invincible. 

The morning of March 15, 1996, began like any other, a beautiful day in L.A. when Billauer and his friends took to the water before school. Stoked after several fun rides, he pulled inside a barrel and suffered a devastating blow to his back, knocking his head against the shallow sand bar. His entire body went limp, as he lay still, face down in the current as waves crashed all around him. The next thing he knew, he was hooked up to all sorts of tubes and machines, utterly helpless. He did not become aware until a few days later of how serious this injury was; in the two weeks before he was to become a professional surfer, he had broken the sixth vertebrae in his back, forever losing the use of his legs. 

Several weeks after the injury, Billauer was still coming to terms with this new way of life. A doctor urged him to try out a new sport, wheelchair rugby, and he hesitantly complied. Still in a neck brace, he was already feeling quite defeated when he fell from his chair and hit his head on the concrete, feeling completely vulnerable. Once again, he saw his dreams dashed and divided, like the whitewash of a menacing wave. 

Billauer addressed the Cate community, reflecting on how precious life truly is and how tomorrow is never guaranteed. His advice to Cate students was, “All anybody really asks of us is that we try, and if you follow your heart and mind, everything else will fall into place.” Billauer wondered whether he would spend the rest of his life feeling sorry for himself, or continue to do what he loved. When Billauer realized that life was meaningless without passion, nothing could stop him. Since then, he has been skydiving and swimming with sharks, and has gone on to become a world champion in the sport he pioneered, adaptive surfing. 

The first time Billauer surfed again following his accident, the tide of newfound freedom and independence washed over him. This inspired his desire to give back and establish his foundation, Life Rolls On. The nonprofit seeks to improve mental health through adaptive surfing and other sports, by hosting events all over the world. Ten minutes down the road from Cate, on the backside of Rincon, Life Rolls On holds an annual beach day in October for people with disabilities to connect with the ocean. Parents who have never before seen their children smile are able to bear witness to them beaming as they experience the healing powers of the sea for the first time. The organization also offers to teach children and adults with disabilities adaptive skateboarding, introducing them to tricks and flips that they would have never imagined being able to complete. Billauer has been incredibly fulfilled, remarking that this was his dream and saying, “It’s up to you to make your life amazing. It’s up to you to make a difference. A lot of people say one person can’t make a difference, but I was just one person too.”

While dreams do change, and the unexpected in life can take precedence over the journey we have mapped out, Billauer conquered a massive set and rode it all the way to shore. He graduated from San Diego State in 2002 with a degree in communications. He was featured in the documentary, Step Into Liquid, and in numerous other media outlets such as Good Morning America. Billauer is a three-time world champion in adaptive surfing and got married in 2014. Today, he continues to surf, lead Life Rolls On as the CEO, cultivate meaningful relationships with those around him, raise his twin six-year-olds, and travel as a motivational speaker. 

“Say it with me. My power is in my perspective, not my circumstance. No matter what I’m facing, I have infinite potential. I’ve got this!”


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