On just about any given weekend during the summer if you go to a beach on Delmarva, you may catch something almost magical, a paralyzed man surfing.
His name is Jay Liesener and watching him do arguably the unimaginable is something to behold.
Liesener became paralyzed when he was in high school during the early 1990’s after a freak trampoline accident shattered his fourth and fifth vertebrae. A swimmer before the accident, Jay was given a chance to rekindle his relationship with the water after watching a movie called “Step Into Liquid.”
“It had a sequence with Jesse Billauer. He’s surfing out in California and how he worked with a team of friends… I realized that it was something I could probably do,” Liesener said.
Although Liesener was fresh off another surgery when he watched the movie he was determined to make surfing a reality. When he got wind that Billauer was bringing his team down to Virginia Beach Liesener made the trip from Milton, Del. to go see him and try his hand at surfing.
“Jay rode his first wave, wiped out massively, popped up with a huge smile on his face and that’s when I knew that this was something we were going to have to pursue locally,” recalled Melanie Liesener, Jay’s wife.
As soon as Liesener got back to Milton he quickly began plans to form his own team, “Team Surfgimp” as they would end up calling it.
At first it was only a friend of Liesener’s and a stranger and his son that had responded via a post on a surfing blog.
Jeff Land was that stranger. He and his son Adam recalled for 47 ABC what those first few trips out with Liesener were like.
“It was a disaster – we gave him a black eye,” said Adam grinning ear-to-ear.
"No that was the second time!” Jeff chirps in, smiling as well. “The second time out we had a good crew. It was about 10 of us and the waves were still breaking on shore and yeah… let’s not tell the whole story, but Jay did get a black eye.”
Now Liesener doesn’t get injured too often and wears helmet for protection. His surf board has also come a long way over the past decade.
“The first board I had I couldn’t stay on it more than five feet, which was good because we only had three people and if I would have caught a wave I would have just ended up all by myself and probably been in a little trouble,” Liesener said.
Since their incarnation almost 12 years ago team Surfgimp as grown quite a bit. Now they run a smooth operation.
When 47 ABC met up with the team at a Saturday surf session on Assateague Island Liesener had a group of at least 50 with him, as is norm nowadays.
The process of getting Liesener on the waves starts with getting him out of his specialized beach-ready motorized wheelchair and onto his fully customized surfboard.
Liesener’s board is the third incarnation he’s designed and features pads so he can prop himself up on his elbows and grips so he can have command of the board as he cuts through the waves.
Getting Liesener onto the wave is an art as well, one that Adam has mastered.
He is usually the one who holds Liesener’s board with Liesener on top of it and then pushes him out onto the incoming wave.
Liesener will ride the wave, but then comes the scary part – his bail out. Once off the board Liesener must rely on a team of members waiting near the shoreline to get to him before he drowns. If Liesener end ups face down it leaves the group only a small window of time to get him, making every second count.
Liesener though is never worried.
"I practice on land just getting my body and my brain comfortable without oxygen, just get rid of all the air and just sit for a while so that that feelings comfortable. So when I'm face down, you know it's usually only five seconds and it's not long, but it feels long to them when they're trying to get to me,” Liesener said. “I do get anxious, you know you see a big wave come and it's like ‘oh am I going to make it’ but you know someone's going to be there and it's all good.”
The trust the team shares has turned strangers into a virtually inseparable family. The beach is their living room and the ocean, their backyard.
“They're our family, that's it. Like all these guys, girls you know and usually there's a ton of kids running around and there's lots of kids who learn to surf here and have grown up and it's just a family, it's crazy,” Adam said.
This summer though the Surf Gimp family received tough new, this would be Liesener’s last hurrah. Complications from his surgeries have worn down his body to the point where it won’t last much longer.
“I decided to make the decision to stay up and live as much as I can for as long as I can and realize my body is going to break down on me and I'm not going to be able to stop it,” Liesener said.
So instead of letting the news bring him down, Liesener has decided to make a trip to the place he watched Billauer first surf in that movie years ago, California. Just like Billauer, Liesener’s team will be right with him every step of the way.
“It's a lot to process and think about because this is going to be his last summer and you know he's feeling healthier than we thought he would so that's how this trip came about,” Adam said.
Beyond this summer is uncertain at best, but what is certain is the legacy Liesener wants to leave behind once he's gone.
“What we're trying to find a way to get other people with disabilities to come out and join us. We have the equipment now, we have the people and the expertise it'd be great to share what I've experienced with other people that might not think it's possible for them,” Liesener said.
That is the legacy he wants to leave. Liesener hoping to show many other people with similar disabilities the joy of surfing the way Billauer did for him. Besides that, the only other hope Liesener said he has is to cherish the time he has left with his team, his family.
“I guess that's what lives on beyond you is the memories that are left with your friends and family,” Liesener said.
From talking with his friends and family I can tell you it’s no ‘guess’ those memories is what will live on. Liesener is the type that leaves a lasting impact on you regardless of how long you spend with him.
He’s unforgettable, Jay Liesener – the surfgimp.
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