Three factors aligned my senior year in high school that changed my life forever. A friend of mine introduced me to an article about a guy from California who was dropping into 15 ft waves on his stomach. When I first read about Jesse Billauer, I learned that he was a quadriplegic who sustained his high level injury in a surfing accident at his home break in Zuma Beach, CA. The article in Transworld Surf Magazine instantly captivated me.
Jesse grew up an avid competitor and accomplished surfer who was destined to become a pro. One day Jesse and his friends were surfing before school when he dropped into a massive shore-breaking wave. For those of you who don’t know surfing, that is a wave, which breaks in very, shallow water. Shore breaks are typically very fast, powerful, and steep. Only experienced short boarders even mess with shore breaks. Jesse could do it with his eyes closed, but on that particular day there was a freak occurrence. Dropping in he was thrown forward and dove head first into a sand bar. He sat in the water eventually being turned facedown before his friends miraculously found him. The photos that accompanied the article showed Jesse surfing after his accident at a famous Fijian spot called “Cloud Break.” There his friends helped him achieve his dream of getting “barreled” once again. After reading the article I then saw Jesse in the great surf movie, “Step into Liquid,” Jesse became my hero and fueled me in my mission to get back on the waves.
I spent that winter browsing the Internet for resources that were available to disabled athletes, eventually finding the Challenged Athletes Foundation. CAF is a San Diego based organization that works to provide support and opportunities to those with physical disabilities so they can pursue active lifestyles through physical fitness. CAF provides thousands of grants to disabled athletes across the country. No matter what level one wishes to perform at, CAF encourages everyone in they’re physical aspirations. A year after seeing that guy out on his wave ski, and months after finding CAF I was booking a ticket to Dana Point, CA where my new wave ski was waiting for me. Before I even filled out the application with CAF earlier that winter, I had told Steve Boehne from Infinity Surf Co. that he could start making my board and that I would be buying one with or without help from a grant. By the time April rolled around I had forgotten all about the grant application when I opened the mail box and was suddenly reminded of it when I opened an envelope from CAF which carried a check for the full amount of my new ski.
Boehne was an awesome guy, a total So Cal surf legend. He not only shaped me a ski for a discount, but also offered to host me for a week in his home so that I could learn to use my new ski with the best of them. My first impression of So Cal was exactly how I had always pictured it. After flying into San Diego, I hopped on the train to Orange County. For an hour the train swept through valleys and passed beautiful beaches and coastal villages. Finally I got of the train in San Juan Capistrano, a little beach side mission town. There I made my way from the train through a beautiful vine covered alleyway with brick walls on either side of me. Once through the alley I was on the main rd. I could smell the ocean and the So Cal aura was thrown in my face; From young guys who just got off work that were headed down to the beach to sneak in a dusk surf session to the seventeen year old blond Cali girl who was being carted around by her Abercrombie model boyfriend in a convertible Porsche 911. I had made it and from that moment on I would never be the same again. With two huge bags and a dead cell phone I made my way to the address of the Infinity shop. The bus brought me as far as the bottom of the massive hill that I ended up having to wheel up. I was determined. Once at the top I found a little tiki style Mexican restaurant called Taco Surf. It was the original Hobie surfboard factory, which looked over the Dana Point harbor. I figured it would be a great spot to plug my phone in and call Boehne. The second I entered the place, the last thing I expected to hear was someone calling my name. It was Boehne. “You must be Zack, how did you know where to find us.” I told him I was stopping in for a drink and to charge my phone to call him.
Steve introduced me to some great people that week, everyday we would rise at 5 am and were at the beach by 5:45. Boehne was the unofficial mayor of San Onofre state beach, and I learned my new sport in the best possible environment. A week later, when I returned home with my new ski, I brought back a piece of California in my heart. Something I never plan on returning.
So it was those three factors that changed my life. It was Jesse’s poster taped to the desk in my room staring at me, constantly asking, “when are you gonna join me.” It was the incredibly generous check from CAF that surprised me in the mail that day in April a year after my accident. And it was the awesome So Cal experience Boehne gave me at his home by the Beach in Dana Point. It was these three things coming together that impacted my life irreversibly. An impact that gave me an identity other than “the guy in the wheelchair.”