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People with disabilities hit the waves, ride the surf with new program

Edward McQuillan, 50, (centre) was among the 24 surfers from P.E.I. and Nova Scotia to participate in the event. Julia Wong/Global News

HALIFAX – An organization dedicated to helping people with disabilities improve their quality of life descended onto a Nova Scotia beach and into the water on Saturday.

Life Rolls On held an event at Martinique Beach as part of its They Will Surf Again program. This is the first time the organization has held one of its events in Canada.

Julia Wong/Global News

The event helps people with disabilities surf and get back on the water. The disabilities range from arthritis to those who are paraplegic.

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Edward McQuillan, 50, was among the 24 surfers from P.E.I. and Nova Scotia to participate in the event.

The Milford, N.S. man broke his back four years ago in a skiing accident and now uses a wheelchair.

He remained physically active after his injury and finds time to row and ski, but he has never surfed.

“I’m excited,” he said as he waited on the beach. “It will be interesting. I like the water so it will be cool.”

McQuillan had not been at a beach since his accident and said he may not have had the opportunity to surf without Life Rolls On.

“It’s great. I’d never come surfing by myself or with my family. Just the support [Life Rolls On] has, the boards, the wheelchairs, the stuff to get down to the water.”

McQuillan was helped out of his wheelchair and onto a surf board by volunteers, surfers and therapists. Then he did several laps skimming the ocean’s surface and crashing into some waves.

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“It was fun. It was great,” he said with a huge grin after he got out of the water.

“It’s certainly exhilarating. You’re riding in there in that board and it’s just exhilarating.”

Paul Vinneau, 45, was another participant in the event.

The Halifax man got into a biking accident 23 years ago in Toronto after a tractor trailer knocked him off his bike.

“It snapped off my pelvis, ripped open a lot of internal stuff that led to a massive infection. It took my leg, a lot of the buttock and back muscle,” he said.

Vinneau had gone surfing right before his accident but had not been in the 23 years since. As he prepared to get out on the water, he described himself as full of adrenaline.

“I couldn’t go to sleep [last night]. All I could think about was what it’s going to be like to be in the water again,” he said.
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“I’ve been either sitting or laying on something for 23 years so the possibility of floating in water today is really, really exciting.”

Vinneau took a few spills during his time in the ocean but, as soon as he got out, said he wanted to try it again next summer.

“It’s really great [being] Surrounded by people who are just trying to make it happen is really cool,” he said.

“All I could hear was the water crashing into my eardrums. It’s a pretty liberating thing.”

That feeling of liberation from a wheelchair is exactly what Life Rolls On founder Jesse Billaeur wants for participants.

Billaeur was on the verge of becoming a professional surfer when he fractured his neck and became a quadriplegic.

Now he runs surfing programs across the United States and is bringing it to Canada for the very first time.

“When people get injured or they have a disability, a lot of times, they’re stuck at home or they feel like they don’t have an outlet to enjoy life, be it at the beach or wherever it may be,” he said.

“This event allows them to get into the water and surf, maybe for the first time, and to feel that freedom, that independence and just the joy and the beauty of what the ocean brings.”

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Billaeur said the surfing program allows participants to build up their confidence, which then gives them a sense of normalcy.

“[It] lets them know anything is possible as long as they put their mind and their heart to it.”

Organizers say they plan to turn the event at Martinique Beach into an annual event, and Billaeur said he is open to expanding the program to other cities across Canada.

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