Presented by Tonic Haircare
On a Friday afternoon a few weeks ago, I logged onto Facebook and the first post I saw was from Leila Hurst who mentioned that she’d be attending the Life Rolls On event with her sister Sophia the following day. After a bit of schedule reshuffling I grabbed some camera gear and made my way down to La Jolla Shores. I had some knowledge of Life Rolls On but had never attended one of their events and didn’t really know what to expect.
As I walked up to the Life Rolls On tents, a few thoughts struck me immediately. First, there are a lot of colored jerseys. To ensure the safety of each surfer, a team of volunteers is assigned to each participant. Although it isn’t necessarily a contest, I could sense some friendly competition between the volunteers as to which team cheered and hooted the loudest for their surfer. Another thing that became abundantly clear to me…the best barrel, the loftiest air, the hugest frontside hack…the type of turns you think you’ll remember forever instantly become insignificant compared to the world-changing smiles that each Life Rolls On participant has on their face as they exit the water. I loved everything about They Will Surf Again…the enthusiasm, the overwhelming joy, the thunderous applause and the deep emotions that affected both participants and volunteers. I saw this firsthand when Leila Hurst burst into tears during Sophia’s first ride.
“Going into the event all I could think of was how happy and excited my sister was to be a part of it,” explained Leila. “I didn’t expect an emotional experience but once my sister hit the water and was laying on the board with all the love and support around her, it all hit me. I was balling like never before. Tears filled with happiness and joy. It was an incredible feeling …a feeling I had never experienced before. For a second there I felt like a proud mother which was funny because she’s my older sister. Ha ha.”
About halfway through Sophia’s surf session, the volunteers encouraged Leila to ride some waves with her sister. (After their first ride this photographer had a knot in his throat as well.)
“The volunteers talked me into riding a couple of waves with my sister and I have never been so nervous in my life,” shared Leila. “I thought I was going to screw up and have Sophia fall of the board. I was so worried she would get held under if we pearled but we managed to pull it off and it was an unforgettable feeling. We rode a couple waves to shore while everyone’s faces filled with Joy! I can honestly say that this past weekend being a part of Life Rolls On was the best weekend of my life …better then any surf trip. It was amazing!”
While Leila and Lauren Otonicar of Tonic Haircare were in the water assisting Sophia, the biggest applause of all was coming from Sophia’s good friend, Natalie McPeek, who jumped up and down in waist-deep water, threw her arms in the air, and cheered loudly for every ride…all while somehow keeping a very unprotected camera dry.
“We all grew up together on the North Shore of Kauai and Sophia was my best friend from the start. We were 2 years old and having so much fun everyday. As we got older I started surfing and Leila joined in as well and it has been heart-aching not having Sophia out there with us.” Natalie continued, “Watching and cheering her on was the biggest blessing for Leila and I. We wanted so badly our whole lives for Sophia to share what we grew up loving our whole lives. I love Sophia like a sister and feel so blessed to have gotten to share that day with them.”
After spending the morning watching Leila and Sophia ride waves, I wanted to get Sophia’s take on her special day and the experience of surfing with the Life Rolls On crew.
Jettygirl: Tell us about your decision to go surfing at the Life Rolls On event. Was it spur of the moment or something you’ve been thinking about for a while?
Sophia Hurst: I guess it’s a little of both. My sister called me about a week and a half before the event and I pretty much immediately jumped at the opportunity, but I’ve known about the Life Rolls On Foundation since I was about 16 when Jesse Billauer spoke at a youth rally I went to. I had wanted to get involved since then, but was a little too shy to talk to the people I needed to talk to in order to get involved at that point so this was the perfect opportunity!
Jettygirl: The stories of each participant were as varied as all the personalities involved that day. As Life Rolls On deals specifically with spinal cord injuries, would you like to share a bit about your story?
Sophia: I was actually born with my “DIFability” as I refer to it. I have a birth defect called Spina Bifida. Basically what happened, is that when my mom was pregnant with me, the skin around my spine didn’t close completely so I was born with a hole at the base of my spine. It’s kinda weird because the hole is on my spine so you would think I’d be paralyzed from that point down, but I’m actually only paralyzed from just above my ankles down.
Jettygirl: Having never surfed before, were you nervous before your heat was scheduled to go out? What was going through your mind in the moments before you hit the water?
Sophia: I actually have surfed a little bit before, but never in water that deep and definitely not on waves that big. Up until this event, the only person I had ever surfed with was my dad, and that was on pretty small waves in water where I knew I could stand up if I wiped out.
Jettygirl: Most beginning surfers head to the whitewater but you charged straight to where the outside sets were breaking. I myself would have been freaking at that point but you looked really calm. Tell us about your first ride.
Sophia: I was a little nervous about going out so far into the water, but when I saw how many people were going out with me, I knew they would make sure I was safe. In fact, at one point I even told them I wanted them to let me wipe out so I could experience what that really feels like. They looked at me like I was crazy for a minute, but I got one good wipe out and I thought it was actually pretty awesome!
Jettygirl: It must have been really special to ride a wave with your sister. Her tears of joy while you were riding your first wave spoke volumes of her feelings for you. How important was it to have Leila there to share the experience with you?
Sophia: I’ll be honest, at the beginning of this whole thing I was more excited by the opportunity to meet Jesse, but at some point I realized that this was way more about bonding with my sister. I spent a lot of time in and out of the hospital around the time that she really started getting big in the surfing world, so we never really got the opportunity to share her passion. I didn’t even realize she was crying until I was already way out in the water and the people helping me pointed it out. At first I kinda laughed it off but when I saw her I realized how special it was and I got a little choked up too. As for actually getting to surf with her, that was without a doubt the highlight of the day. I will remember that for the rest of my life.
Jettygirl: Finally, with the thousands of people with spinal cord injuries who may have never considered trying something like surfing, do you have any words of encouragement for them?
Sophia: In the words of Walt Disney, “If you dream it, you can do it.” Follow your dreams and if someone tells you you can’t do something, use that as fuel to prove them wrong and make them eat their words!
Words & Photos: Chris Grant / Jettygirl.com
Life Rolls On
Special Thanks: to Lauren Otonicar and Tonic Haircare for their support of this JettyGirl.com feature!