Brave the Waves

04 May 2024

Life Rolls On brings the water to all

By Jade Neptune  »  Photos by Sherry Chevalier

Freedom is not a concept that is easily captured. But with the sea salt spray on his face, the sun beating down on his shoulders and the sound of the crashing surf in his ears is when Jesse Billauer says he feels the most “independent, joyful, peaceful, tranquil, empowered, and strong.” That is until it was almost taken away.

“Many years ago, I was one of the top 100 junior surfers in the world, weeks away from turning professional,” he says on his website, “On March 25th, 1996, on a morning like any other Malibu morning, I pulled inside a barrel and got thrown headfirst into a shallow sandbar. The impact broke my sixth vertebrae, and I instantly became a quadriplegic.”

When you ask him now, 28 years later, he focuses on the unexpected good that came from his injury. In 1996, there wasn't an organization like Life Rolls On that provided resources for adaptive surfing, but Billauer needed back in the water, so he made his own.

What is Life Rolls On?

As rhythmic as the waves, their mission pulses throughout everything they do at Life Rolls On… They will surf again. They will skate again. They will fish again. “They will, they will, they will,” says Billauer. And with his leadership, they did.

Life Rolls On is dedicated to improving the quality of life for people living with various disabilities and improves mental health through all adaptive sports. 

“The first event was on September 11th, 2001, when the Twin Towers were going down,” says Billauer. “We had our first event at Topanga. All these people showed up on the craziest day in U.S. history. The surfing community is really tight so for them to show up,” he trails off with a sense of awe. 

Even now, when his message has rolled across the globe, including twelve different major cities, he sounds in disbelief at the reach of the ocean's power. But it's not just the ability to be back on the water that Life Rolls On delivers to the community, it's the gift of possibility that they give again and again.

That movement gained more traction when the 2003 documentary Step Into Liquid came out. The film explores the diverse world of surfing and its greatest athletes, including Billauer's story. 

“They put it into so many places around the world where people were like, 'What? You can still surf and be paralyzed?'” he explains.  

Today, the Life Rolls On event, which is free to the community and largely volunteer-led, includes people of all ages with disabilities and their entire families to “come together for an epic day in the ocean” — no experience required.

Paddle Out in Carolina Beach

Originally based in Southern California, Life Rolls On has now made its way to Carolina Beach with the help of local teacher and surfer, Kevin Murphy. Murphy is the founder of Ocean Cure, an organization that works to make beaches more accessible by providing resources such as beach mats and beach-adapted wheelchairs. 

“Since volunteering with Life Rolls On, I have hundreds and hundreds of friends who rely on wheelchairs,” Murphy says. “Then that spawned in around 2015 into beach accessibility, and we started buying beach wheelchairs and getting accessible beach matting, and then working on state legislation to make sure that more beaches could have it, especially Carolina Beach.”

When Murphy first started exploring beach accessibility in New Hanover County, Wrightsville Beach had only two or three beach wheelchairs, and they were difficult to use. In all of New Hanover County, there were very few beach wheelchairs, no beach mats (offering a stable surface for those with mobility issues to safely navigate onto the soft sand), and inaccessible boardwalks. 

With the help of the Parks and Recreation Department and the Fire Department, Ocean Cure has paved the road to beach accessibility in the community. Wrightsville Beach now has approximately 5 beach wheelchairs and Carolina Beach has close to 40 beach wheelchairs. 

Carolina Beach also now has almost 4,000 square feet of beach matting — a goal they were able to accomplish with the help of Billauer and Life Rolls On.

“I was totally inspired by the Life Rolls On event,” Murphy says. “I mean, it literally changed my life since then. We have grown over this past year, and we've moved the event over to Carolina Beach. We had 115 surfers and over 500 volunteers. We pretty much maxed everything out.” 

With events across the country and even internationally, expectations for a small town like Carolina Beach were low. But over the past few years, the small community has blown the event out of the water, pun intended. 

“I always kind of laugh because the other ones are in major cities, you know, Venice Beach, Los Angeles, New York City, Atlanta, all these other places,” Murphy says. “We're a tiny little Carolina Beach in New Hanover County and we have one of the largest events in the country, if not the largest event.”

It's not just fun for the participants of the event, the volunteers and staff are included in the very best the day has to offer.

“There's honestly so many amazing stories, I can't even count them,” Murphy continues. “It's [great] meeting all these amazing people with so much dedication, faith, and trust in the community… You see a community come together, 400 or 500 people, and they help out over 100 people—not just get into the ocean on a surfboard, but to have an amazing day at the beach, to have an accessible day at the beach, to get to beach wheelchairs and just to be super, super happy and positive every time we host an event.”

Some of the young participants in Life Rolls On have even gone on to become part of the U.S. Adaptive Surfing team. Their Get On Board Tour includes local vendors and restaurants and, of course, surfing in several cities. 

“You see families crying, you know, they're having the time of their life. They're watching their children or family members who are adults just smiling and on cloud nine,” Murphy says. “Everyone's just having the greatest time.”

Rolling On

Billauer explains that he isn't the kind of guy who has a five- or ten-year plan, but his “right now plan” is right on track.

“If I never got injured, I would have never done any of this,” Billauer says. “After my injury, I had to figure out what my life was going to be like.  And it just organically grew into 'Jesse, you have been chosen to give back and to change people's lives.' I went through a lot and that's why we're here.”

His professional career has blossomed from surfing competitively to becoming a motivational speaker and the director of Life Rolls On. With it, his relationship with surfing has changed but is stronger than ever. 

“I don't necessarily have to go surfing or be at the beach as much as I used to,” he says. “I do like fishing, and I like being out on the boat, but I just like seeing other people do it for the first time and introducing it to them. So, seeing their smiles and their families' smiles—that makes me happy, too.”

That's the part of the ocean healing that makes it so effective, Billauer and Murphy agree. The vastness of its potential and opportunity gives and takes control, something that benefits everyone who steps onto the sand.

Carolina Beach's Life Rolls On event is one of Billauer's favorites to participate in and is considered one of the organization's flagship events today. Billauer learned what the Carolina Beach community already knows.

“You know what makes it?” he concludes. “The small community with people that are grateful that something like this would come through their town. Because a lot of times you associate big events with big cities. But in a small town like this, people just have love and appreciation. They're connected and friendly and at home. That's why I love North Carolina's event so much.”

Carolina Beach's Life Rolls On event will be held on August 3rd, 2024. Visit for more info. 

Prev Post Home Is Where You Make It
Next Post The Smoke House 
Nest Interiors