Jay Liesener grew up with a love for surfing. When he was seven, he rode his first waves at Waikiki Beach in Hawaii, an experience “that started the love affair,” he says. But a decade later, Liesener suffered a trampoline accident that crushed the fourth and fifth vertebrae in his spine, paralyzing him from the waist down and confining him to a wheelchair. The accident sidelined his life on the waves—but it didn’t end it altogether. After conquering an adapted form of surfing later in life, he found his way back on the water despite that devastating spinal injury. However, Liesener, now 45, has to finally hang up his wetsuit. Here is his story featured in Men’s Health Magazine.
“It is with great sadness that Jay has very recently announced that this is likely his last season for surfing,” wrote Brad Dennehy, a friend who started a YouCaring page to fund one last surf adventure for Liesener. “He has been struggling with chronic health problems related to his injury for the past decade and they have taken their toll. Rather than wasting away on bed rest, Jay has decided to keep charging and pushing himself until his body fails.”
Liesener has an open wound on the lower back portion of his hip bone that he’s struggled with for years. Repeated aggravation to the wound by his wheelchair has resulted in chronic, debilitating pain. What once bothered him for just a few days out of the year has become serious enough that any amount of time in his chair causes further damage to the injury, leaving him bedridden for months. At this point, his doctors can only advise him to spend more time in bed, which can be tough for him to recover from physically. He had to spend five months in bed after last summer’s surfing season and it took weeks for his muscle strength to return once he was mobile again.
“It’s reached a point where I knew I had to make a decision,” he says. “If I stayed in bed to stay healed, I would lose so much of the function that I have while I’m up. I need to live as fully as I can for as long as I can instead of just living for a longer period.”
Liesener’s perspective has no doubt been shaped by the fact that, before he was able to get back on the board, he never felt complete.
“There was always something missing in my life after my injury,” Liesener says. But 15 years ago, after eight surgeries “to try to piece me back together,” Liesener saw Step Into Liquid, a 2003 documentary, a 2003 documentary featuring quadriplegic surfer Jesse Billauer, who had endured the same spinal injury. After molding his surfing style and board, Billauer was able to get back into the water. By laying across the board, and outfitting it with special equipment to help him steer and stay securely aboard, Billauer could confidently coast on the waves.
“It was the first time I had ever thought there was a chance to get back to riding waves,” Liesener says. “It provided a lot of hope that I might be able to get that part of myself back.”
In 2001, Billauer started Life Rolls On, an organization dedicated to helping disabled people get back into the water. When the group came to a beach a few hours away from Liesener’s home in Delaware, he was there.
“That was my first time back in the ocean for 18 years,” he says. “Even before I caught a wave, just the feeling of floating out over the ocean was amazing.”
Liesener says he rode a big longboard, due to the fact that they’re more stable than shortboards, but it wasn’t exactly comfortable.
“I have a hard time holding myself up, and I had propped myself up with life vests,” he says. “But the second I would fall out, someone would have to grab me up.”
Nonetheless, Liesener persevered. Intent on mastering adaptive surfing, he and a friend went to surf shops at the beaches in southern Delaware and put up fliers asking if anyone would be willing to help him. After joining forces with a few board repair specialists, he devised his own modified surfboard. A pad is secured underneath his chest to keep his torso elevated as he lays his body across the board. At the front, a curling bar is attached to help keep his elbows in place. Eventually, a piece of wood was added as well, so that he could stabilize his wrists—but he smashed his head on that during one trip and ended up with 15 stitches. He had a friend who welds aluminum create pockets for his arms instead, started wearing a helmet, and got right back on the water.
Since Liesener’s trampoline accident left him unable to swim, he needs support on the water. A minimum of six people are stationed along his surfing route at all times. His helpers, who Liesener dubbed “Team Surfgimp, are a group of local residents. (The team’s moniker, Liesener says, was devised to help redefine a derogatory term for people with physical disabilities into something positive.) From the beach, they lift him onto his board and bring it out to the water to catch a wave, while others are there to help if he falls off his board. If Liesener falls face down, he can’t roll over, but he never panics in the few seconds that it takes for someone to get him. He knows that his team has his back.
“It creates a very close bond—we’ve become a big family through this,” Liesener says. “Creating friendships with other men was kind of difficult after my accident because bonding usually happens through activities, but this has opened up a world of friendship for me and my wife. These people mean the world to us.”
Liesener and his team surf his local beaches weekly from May through October, as he doesn’t have the body circulation to go out when the water temperatures drop below 60 degrees. They’ve taken regular trips to places like Hawaii, Puerto Rico, and the Outer Banks of North Carolina.
When Dennehy created the YouCaring account to help fund Liesener’s last surfing trip—to southern California, an area Liesener’s always wanted to visit—it was mainly for Team Surfgimp. Liesener and his wife, Melanie, could’ve afforded to take the vacation on their own, but needed to raise money to bring the eight to 10 people they need to help him in the water.
Liesener says he hopes Team Surfgimp will continue after he’s no longer around, and team members have also expressed interest in helping other adaptive surfers. As for this last surfing trip, which began on August 13 after surpassing its $15,000 fundraising goal, Liesener says he just wants to create lifelong memories.
“It really is just having these memories with the team and people who have given so much to me,” he says. “I want to create memories for them that they can look back on once I’m gone. That’s really all you leave behind is memories.”