ONLINE UPDATE: Thanks to Life Rolls On, they surfed again

by Daniel Bowden
Sunday, July 29, 2012

 It's hard to imagine a place less suited to the needs of the physically disabled than the ocean. But for the participants of They Will Surf Again on Saturday, July 28., the ocean provided hope, and a chance to prove that contrary to what the term disabled implies, anything is possible.

The line of tents and flags stretching from Wrightsville Beach Public Access No. 4 gave the impression that the Sweetwater Pro/Am decided to go ahead with the contest this year after all. Until, that is, you noticed the line of 90 large plywood boards leading from the beach access to the tents, and the roughly 30 participants sitting in wheelchairs underneath them.

Once in the water, participants were helped onto longboards which had been specially equipped with handholds and led out past the breakers where volunteers assisted in pushing them into waves and then helped to catch them once they reached the inside.

More than 200 volunteers showed up to take part in the event, including Wrightsville Beach Mayor David Cignotti.

“There's not a lot of things like this out there [for the physically disabled] on a regular basis,” said Brandon Roberts, a freshman biology student at the University of North Carolina Wilmington from Charleston, S.C., and first-year volunteer with They Will Surf Again. Roberts’ sister, Ashley, has multiple sclerosis. “It's nice to be able to do things like this and help get them out of the house. I just wish my sister could have made it up here.”

Kevin Murphy, who has organized the event in Wrightsville Beach the past three years, reported the event could not have gone better. The waves held up all day, and even managed to get bigger into the afternoon. Many participants were able to paddle out for seconds.

“The smiles on everyone's faces were ear to ear,” Murphy said. “There were four guys from the Wounded Warrior Project out there that just kept wanting to go bigger and bigger. They wanted to wipe out.”

Several participants showed up only intending upon observing the proceedings, but upon seeing how much fun those in the water were having, decided to give it a shot. Those that chose to stay on land were able to take advantage of one of the few days that the beach became handicapped accessible.

“There were parents there, who were in wheelchairs” Murphy said, “that got to watch their kids play on the beach and in the tidepools.”

The event went off without a single accident, minus one anonymous participant who briefly lost his bathing suit. Fortunately, he wore compression shorts underneath and was spared an embarrassing moment. Colder temperatures that kept several would-be participants sidelined last year, as doctors refused to sign their medical releases, were also not a factor this year.

Jessie Billauer, founder of Life Rolls On, was also among those attending the event. Jessie was on his way to becoming a professional surfer when he broke his neck surfing a shallow sandbar at his home break in Zuma Beach, Calif.. After getting back out in the water himself, he made it his goal to inspire others who were similarly affected by spinal cord injuries.

His story was made into an award-winning documentary entitled “Jessie's Story,” and played in Wrightsville Beach Park on Friday, July 27. After the movie, surfboards and other prizes were raffled off, and almost $4,000 was raised for Life Rolls On.

“Jessie was unbelievable.” Murphy said. “He was fun, kind, open to people coming up and talking to him. He had to catch a plane out at 4 o'clock on Saturday, but before he left he pulled me out of the water and personally thanked me and the Wrightsville Beach community.”

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