Surf Princess Maile, 3, Rides the Waves at La Jolla
Article and Photographs By Gayla Elizabeth
I first learned about Life Rolls On (LRO) last July when my three-year-old niece Maile helped set the Guinness World Record for moving wheelchairs, sponsored by the Reeve Foundation at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles. LRO, founded by injured surfer Jesse Billauer, and now part of the Reeve organization, sponsors events called They Will Surf Again. Ironically, Maile had recently mentioned her desire to go surfing, which seemed like a pretty big dream, since she uses a wheelchair due to her spina bifida.
We were told she may not ever be able to walk but I always thought we could prove the medical professionals wrong. Alas, I was wrong. When she had a wheelchair custom made for her when she was a mere 18 months old, it saddened me to think she would be constrained to two wheels for her mobility. However, the minute I saw her get buckled in her chair and buzz around like a tiny Jeff Gordon, a huge smile on her face, I realized that while she may have challenges, she will be fine. She might be different, but fine.
I often wonder what goes on in her little mind as she sees others her age walking, running and jumping like there is no tomorrow. Is she thinking she'll be able to do that someday? Maybe she thinks with time she will walk. I do know, though, that she thinks anything is possible. She has tremendous courage, strength and determination, and in her mind, she can do whatever she wants to. Surfing? Let's do it!
Everyone had to register by 8 a.m. at La Jolla Shores Beach. There wasn't a peep of sun in the sky; it was a little foggy and a bit overcast. The water was… uh… freezing! There were lots of folks in wheelchairs; young and old, big and small, wheeling around on plywood placed on the sand near the tables and tents. This being my first TWSA event, I was curious how this was going to happen. I saw the surfboards and all the surfing volunteers, but still wondered, how are these guys going to surf? I was drawn to five wheelchairs by the shoreline. Nobody was in them, they were just sitting there, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. There were surfers out in the water. It was so symbolic and beautiful.
I stopped at the equipment checkout area, filled with swimming fins, lifejackets and wetsuits of all sizes. I gazed at the rack of wetsuits and didn't see one that would fit Maile. Program Manager Sarah Donaldson hopped on the phone; within 30 minutes, we had a brand new wetsuit for Maile that fit her tiny little body perfectly.
Five teams of surfers were formed; each participant would have 30 minutes in the water. Volunteers wheeled the athletes to the shore in special beach chairs. Maile was assigned to team orange and scheduled to surf at 11. She had to gear up with a bathing suit, followed by the wetsuit, then a life vest, and topped off by her team orange jersey. She looked like a miniature fullback for the Oakland Raiders, ready for the big game!
Maile was anxious and excited to get in the water; she didn't care about the layers and layers of attire. "I wanna go in the water," she cried. When it was her turn, volunteers carried on a surfboard her above the water like a princess, turned her around and let her ride a wave in. Maile doesn't like water in her eyes, so we weren't sure how well she would handle the splashing. But, after her first wave, she seemed fine, so they carried her out again and again and again. She caught maybe seven waves before she came in. It was so cool.
As the surfers rode waves into the shore their faces were filled with joy and happiness. It gave me chills and buckets of happiness in my heart. It was magical.
It has been a blessing that Life Rolls On came into our lives. Not only have they changed Maile's life by giving her avenues to live to the fullest and to be among others who share similar challenges, the organization also changed mine. LRO has given me a new outlook on life and a reason to reach out to help others.
Lastly, a big MAHALO to all the volunteers who made this and other LRO surf events possible. Thank you for fulfilling my niece's dream of surfing and for allowing her such joy. Life does in fact roll on.
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