After catchinʻ a wave: Spike Kane, in chair at center, deep water volunteers flanking, Exekiel team rider Kyle Foyle making shaka at right.
Image: Tiffany Hervey

Wheelchair riders switch to surfboards for a day of liberation and learning

I’m having a hard time not swearing right now,” Spike Kane says in his UK accent, all smiles after his first surf session at the second annual Hawaii “They Will Surf Again” event hosted by the Life Rolls On Foundation (LRO). “It just feels so good to be in the water again.” Kane beams. Dedicated to improving the quality of life for people with spinal cord injury, LRO uses outdoor sports as a platform to inspire perseverance and infinite possibilities. Supporters and volunteers include Kelly Slater and “Hawaii 5-0”’s Scott Caan.

A lifelong waterman before a motorcycle accident left him paraplegic, Kane had seen LRO founder Jesse Billauer in the surf film, Step Into Liquid. In the 90’s, Billauer was a 17-year-old Californian on the fast track to professional surf stardom when, at his home break in Zuma Beach, he took a headfirst plunge into a shallow sandbar. It resulted in C6 spinal cord injuries, leaving Billauer quadriplegic.

“He was a hero of mine before I was injured and meeting him today was an honor,” Kane says, recalling that, just a year before his own accident , he had been so inspired by Billauer’s work in the film that he had taken a disabled friend to surf on the Oregon coast.

“The enthusiasm of the people I was lucky enough to be out there with today was something I hadn’t really anticipated,” Spike relates. “It was infectious, which just enhanced an already brilliant experience.”

While many of the participants in wheelchairs on this day can reference a time in their lives often termed, “before the accident,” this isn’t about mourning a former life, this day is about their commitment to life.

More than one million Americans are living with spinal cord injuries and 5.6 million Americans are enduring some form of paralysis. Billauer’s community and the global surf network came together to help pay his medical bills following the accident while the LRO foundation emerged as a way for Jesse and his brother Josh to foster hope and independence for others coping with these daunting conditions.

Eleven years later, LRO has partnered with the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation to serve as a subsidiary and its West Coast headquarters. LRO’s signature program, “They Will Surf Again,” hosts nine events each year in seven different states. With the help of qualified volunteers, adaptive surfboards, and wheelchair-accessible equipment and beaches, even those with paraplegia and quadriplegia are able to experience the freedom of surfing a wave.

Kauai native and pro surfer Leila Hurst’s entire life revolves around the very physical act of surfing, while her sister Sophia, who has spina bifida, watches from the beach. “My sister grew up on Kauai but had never surfed in her life,” Hurst recalls, “which I always felt really bad about.”

Hurst took her sister to an LRO event in San Diego last year. “It was the best experience of her life and it brought us so much closer together,” Hurst says. “It was cool because all the attention was on her. There were 20 people in the water and they were all there for her. There were a bunch of cute guys and she was just psyching, flirting with them all.”

Another Kauai pro surfer, Roy Powers, is a repeat LRO volunteer, noting that the event hits close to home because he too has a disabled family member.

“This is what a true surfer really is,” Powers says, gesturing to the day’s participants. “[You have] that passion and love that makes you rise above any obstacle in your way. It’s so inspirational to me. Being out in the water all day with them makes me just as happy as if I was surfing Pipe when it’s going off.”

Jesse Billauer watches enthusiastically from shore as participants use his black custom board for their first surf sessions. “I’m like the proud father,” he says. “Looking at everyone else doing things for the first time, coaching them a little bit, letting them use my board, watching them grow up and sharing whatever knowledge I have.”

One of the many volunteers helping push, catch, and facilitate the surf sessions, Kyle Foyle, a North Shore lifeguard and surfer sponsored by Ezekiel Clothing, said he was deeply touched by the event. “I’m going to be wearing this smile I got today for a long time,” he says. “Ezekiel helped sponsor this event so I came down to put up tents and be of use in any way I could, but I had no idea it would be so life-changing. Surfing with Spike deepened my respect for how the ocean can not only bring us together but set us free from what troubles us.”

Itʻs a healing experience for all, Kane said. “LRO events are really good therapy,” he says. “Sometimes it’s hard for people with spinal cord injuries to get motivated. There is so much to deal with and pain is always an issue. I think now that I have been exposed to this I have never felt more motivated.”

For more information and to get involved, go to [liferollson.org]