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Surf Princess Maile, 3, Rides the Waves at La Jolla

Princess Maile is carried to the surf
Princess Maile is carried to the surf.

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.

Princess Maile is exhilarated
Princess Mail, riding in, is exhilarated.

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.

check in board
Check-in board.

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.

See more on LRO's They Will Surf Again program.

The Adaptive Sports Center (ASC)A non-profit organization located in Colorado that provides year-round recreation activities for people with disabilities and their families.

Achilles Track Club Achilles is a worldwide organization, represented in sixty countries. Our mission is to enable people with all types of disabilities to participate in mainstream athletics, promote personal achievement, enhance self esteem, and lower barriers.

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Golf for People with Disabilities (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Hunting for People with Disabilities (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Sailing for People with Disabilities (PDF)

A Reeve Foundation Fact Sheet on Mindfullness (PDF)

American Association of AdaptedSportWorks to enhance the health, independence and self-sufficiency of youths with physical disabilities by facilitating adapted sports programs in local communities, in cooperation with schools, parks and recreation, YMCA/YWCAs, hospitals, parents and other groups.

Blaze Sports501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that advances the lives of youth and adults with physical disability through sport and healthy lifestyles. BlazeSports provides sports training, competitions, summer camps and other sports and recreational opportunities for youth and adults with spinal cord injury, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, muscular dystrophy, amputation, visual impairment or blindness as well as other physical disabilities.

Challenged AmericaThe Challenged America program is dedicated to introduce sailing as a therapeutic and rehabilitative enhancing activity to individuals with disabilities, their loved ones, and professionals in healthcare and rehabilitation.

Disabled Sports USAOffers nationwide sports rehabilitation programs to anyone with a permanent physical disability. Activities include winter skiing, water sports, summer and winter competitions, fitness and special sports events. DSUSA, as a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee, is the governing body for winter sports for all athletes with disabilities, and for summer sports for amputee athletes. Nationwide chapter network of sports and rec programs.

The Handicapped Scuba AssociationPromotes the physical and social well being of people with disabilities through the exhilarating sport of scuba diving.

Hand CyclingWhether for fitness, serious competition, or pure recreation, here's a sport that can be enjoyed by many and provide quite the "ride" at the same time.

National Wheelchair Basketball AssociationBasketball is perhaps the oldest organized sport for athletes in wheelchairs. The game is fast and fun, and played in dozens of cities across the U.S.

The National Center on AccessibilityNSCD provides recreation for children and adults with disabilities. In addition to recreational downhill and cross-country skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing, NSCD provides year-round competition training to ski racers with disabilities. Summer recreation opportunities include biking, hiking, in-line skating, sailing, therapeutic horseback riding, white water rafting, baseball, fishing, rock climbing for the blind, and camping.

Piers Park Sailing CenterA non-profit community sailing center that uses Boston Harbor and the seas beyond to provide year-round recreational, educational, and personal growth opportunities for people of all ages and abilities!

Quad RugbyFormerly known as murderball, Quad Rugby is a game for quads who can push a chair. Fast, rough and very competitive.

The United States Tennis AssociationTennis has been adapted for the wheelchair player: the ball can bounce two times. This allows chair-players to give standup players a run for the their money. The sport is growing fast and is very competitive at the elite level. Click on "community tennis."

World T.E.A.M. SportsUnites people with and without disabilities through unique athletic events taking place all over the world.

Paralysis Resource Center The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm ET. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

Reeve Foundation Online Paralysis Community Connecting people living with paralysis, families, friends and caregivers so we can share support, experience, knowledge, and hope.

Quality of Life Grants DatabaseFind resources within the PRC Quality of Life Grants Database. Search by Zip Code, State or an Entire Category.

Library Books and VideosFind resources within the PRC library catalog.

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The Reeve Foundation Paralysis Resource Center Information Specialists are reachable business weekdays, Monday through Friday, toll-free at 800-539-7309 from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Eastern U.S. Time. International callers use 973-467-8270. You may also schedule a call or send a message online.

This project was supported, in part by grant number 90PR3001, from the U.S. Administration for Community Living, Department of Health and Human Services, Washington, D.C. 20201. Grantees undertaking projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their findings and conclusions. Points of view or opinions do not, therefore, necessarily represent official Administration for Community Living policy.