Jesse Billauer and Bethany Hamilton-surfing disabled

Murugami, Margaret. "Disability and Identity." Disability Studies Quarterly 29.4, 2009.


It is human nature to relate one's self to a larger entity. They identify with a group to which they belong in some way. This is especially true for athletes. Athletes will often adjust their entire lives to accommodate their participation the activity of their choosing. This is especially the case for surfers, who commonly go to drastic measures to participate, including quitting jobs and living out of cars for extended periods of time. It is clear that surfers have a very strong association with their sport, and are willing to go through great trials to continue participation. Two surfers exhibit this phenomenon possibly more so than any others: Jesse Billauer and Bethany Hamilton.


Jesse Billauer was an amateur surfer, slowly clawing his way to the top of the competitive ranks. On March 25, 1996, while surfing Zuma Beach, just outside Los Angeles, he was hit by the crest of the wave and was hurled forward into the sandbar (Surfline 2008). Unable to get his arms out to protect himself, he landed on his head, compressed his upper body, and injured his spinal cord. The injury left him with the inability to use anything below the waist and little use of his extremities above. Wheelchair bound and athletically neutralized, Jesse put his energy into relearning how to surf and spreading the message that life rolls on.

Bethany Hamilton was a successful young surfer as a child. She won many contests as a junior, as becoming a well known free surfer on her home island of Kauai, Hawaii. In late 2003, at the age of 13, Bethany was surfing with friend Alana Blanchard and Alana's father, when she was attacked by a tiger shark. The shark tore Bethany's arm off just below the shoulder (Surfline 2008). She was immediately sent to the hospital and into the operating room. Because of the nature of the attack, they had to close the wound to save Bethany's life. Bethany, like Jesse, now had to cope with the obstruction of a life in surfing and damage to the personal association she held with her sport.

Disabled Athletes
It is easy to understand that the loss of ability to do something that one does everyday and is part of their being would be an extremely hard situation to deal with. Sometimes athletes lose their sense of self when removed from participation. Many, however, strive to continue participation in some manner. Tedy Bruschi was an all-star linebacker for the New England Patriots from 1996 - 2008. In 2007, he suffered a mild stroke that kept him from the game. However, he fought back and returned to football for a final season. He now is an auxiliary analyst for ESPN, remaining connected to the game. He was more fortunate than many, such as those, like Jesse, who are paralyzed. This brings to light all the athletes who compete in the Paralympic Games. Many were formal athletes who had tragic injuries. But, their athletic identity remains. In the words of Steve Bailey, "These disabled athletes are exactly that; Athletes. They may compete or participate in a manner which is unusual, but they are athletes first, disabled second" (Bailey 88). These athletes manage to maintain a state of participation, and in so doing keep their athletic identity in tact. This need is prevalent in surf society. There is a certain, inexplicable gravity involved with surfing once a relationship has been started with the sport. As noted by 10x world champion surfer Kelly Slater, "Once you are a surfer, you are always a surfer. You are stuck. Its like the mob, ya know? You are not getting out."(Step Into Liquid) Jesse and Bethany have experienced the pull of surfing, even after their accidents. They had to find a way to be surfers post tragedy. This study examines how participation both physically and socially in surfing has allowed Jesse Billauer And Bethany Hamilton to retain their identities as surfers.


Life now

After Jesse was injured, it was unclear how he would continue with life. The one most significant thing in his life was surfing. His friends and relationships, and future job all were dependent on, involved with, or revolved around surfing. It would have been accepted if Jesse had given up his surfing lifestyle, but that was entirely too difficult for him. Jesse was not to be held away from his life in surfing, in any manner. Not long after his accident, it was evident that Jesse could no longer resist being out of the water. As a testament to his belonging in the surf world, several notable surfers, including but not limited to World Champ and previously mentioned Kelly Slater and Rob Machado offered to help facilitate a return to the ocean. Despite the inability to use the lower half of his body, Jesse relearned to surf in an adapted fashion. "Surfing is surfing. It doesn't matter if you sit, stand, or lay down. The act of riding the wave is surfing." -Jesse Billauer (Step Into Liquid). This notion is seconded by the vast majority of the surfing population. It is evident that even though his methods are nontraditional and possibly not as aesthetically pleasing, Jesse is clearly considered a surfer by his peers. His physical involvement with surfing has been a large key to Jesse functioning. To have to give up something so intrinsic to his being was impossible, and therefore he must continue to participate. His physical participation, in part, allows him to feel he is a part of the surfing world, just as he was prior to the accident. In addition to still be able to surf, Jesse is very much a part of surf culture. He leads a surf lifestyle, and even his job revolves around it. In order to help other paraplegic individuals, Jesse started the Life Rolls On foundation. A sister portion of The Christopher Reeve foundation, it specifically helps young individuals get into the water and have fun in an effort to show that obstacles can be overcome, no matter the size or gravity. His contributions through and to the surf community have solidified him as a surfer for all time.

Bethany found herself in surfing after her accident just a Jesse did. She simply could not stay away from the water. Participation was necessary for Bethany, even at that young age. She hardly waited to get back to the sport after the attack. She adapted her style and technique in order to be able to catch waves and surf, despite the loss of her limb. Since the accident, Bethany has been hard at work pursuing a career in surfing. Though she currently concentrates on free surfing for films and traveling the globe in search of fun waves, she is widely seen as one of the top female surfers on the planet. She is ranked 58th in the world, outside the ranks of the world tour. In a recent Surfer Magazine article, she was ranked number two among the hottest young female talents in the industry. She is deep within the roots of the sport, right were she is most comfortable. When asked what her goals are, she replied "I am a surfer. I just want to travel and surf, and have fun. We will see where it takes me." (Surfline). Outside the fact that she is truly gifted at surfing, she is one of the most famous surfers on the planet. In 2004, as a token of her fame, she was nominated for a teen choice award. She now has a series of books and products that bear her name. Later this year, the film Soul Surfer will be released to the public. The film documents her accident and her career so far in the industry, as well as the fame garnered from her situation. "The release of the movie could be a watershed moment for a young woman who, when asked what her interests are outside of surfing, stumbles for an answer." (Surfing Magazine). The public and surf industry clearly associate Bethany with the sport of surfing, and she embodies that interpretation to the fullest.


Surfing is Surfing

Being a surfer means you are part of something very big. It is much bigger than a single person, and it is very important to those who associate themselves with it. The activity is such that when participation is lacking for any reason, whether its weather, injury, other responsibilities, or money, there can an most likely will be emotional consequences. Jesse and Bethany had tragic events occur that could have eliminated the possibility of ever surfing again. However, the fact that both identify so strongly with their surfing lifestyle pulled them back to the sport they love and push them to adapt and continue. This demonstrates a gravity that most surfers feel. "Sometimes you fall. Sometimes you mess up. Sometimes you fail. Get on your board, paddle back out. Always paddle back out. Surfing is a lifetime commitment. A good surfer knows this." (Surfing Magazine). These to individuals embody this statement. Through adversity, they pursued involvement in the sport they loved, the same one which had taken so much from them. That is what being a surfer is, however. Jesse and Bethany participate regularly, and are directly involved in the surf culture. Through their desire to maintain this state, they have solidified themselves as surfers. Before and after their setbacks, through everything it took for them to get back in the water, they always paddle back out. They are quintessential definitions of what it means to be a surfer.

Surfing Magazine
Surfer Magazine- Aug 2004
Step Into Liquid. Movie. 2003.
Bailey, Steve. Athlete First-History of the Paralympic Movement. 2003.