On 13 October 2012, Bonner Paddock will attempt to be the first athlete with cerebral palsy to master the unforgiving Ironman World Championships in Hawaii. His biggest challenge to date, however, will not be the unpredictable ocean, the gruelling cycle ride or the debilitating marathon. The greatest battle will be against himself.
Fancy a race?
We’ll start with a swim. I don’t mean a leisurely bit of sculling at the local pool, but a proper swim – a 2.4 mile crawl through choppy ocean surf with the odd shark nibbling at your toes.
Then, I thought we’d go for a bike ride. Less of a gentle coast down a country lane, mind you. More of a 112 mile sprint over scorched lava fields – the kind of race to make your lungs ache to the point of explosion and bring the stinging sweat pouring down your face so much, your eyes will dissolve!
And how about finishing off with a run? But today we won’t be jogging round the block a couple of times. Instead, I thought we’d nail a 26 mile marathon – something to really get those quads working!
Think you can do it? How about with cerebral palsy?
The making of a man of steel
It is one thing competing in the Ironman World Championships as an able bodied athlete, but it is quite another to attempt the race with a disability. And yet one 37-year-old aims to do just that.
Bonner Paddock developed mild cerebral palsy due to complications at birth. His brain was deprived of oxygen for a critical period of time, causing the incurable condition. However, it took 11 years until the correct medical assessment of his disability was made.
Like so many other disabled people, Paddock has never let his physical impairment hold him back. On the contrary, he leads a very full life, holding down an enviable job as Senior Vice President of marketing at Young’s Market Company, the fourth largest distributor of fine wines and spirits in the US.
Furthermore, his achievements outside of his career are nothing short of astounding. His inspirational climb of Mount Kilimanjaro in 2008, where he became the first person with cerebral palsy to conquer the 19,340 feet monster is well documented in the moving documentary, “Beyond Limits”. Paddock has run marathons, raised money for his charitable foundation, ‘1 Man 1 Mission’ and has inspired disabled people all over the world not to accept the limitations that society often places on the physically disadvantaged. But, enough of the platitudes! I wish to seek out the man behind these accomplishments.
What captured me when I first read about Bonner Paddock was his unwavering determination and unstoppable willpower. It is something that his grandfather taught him, he says. “Pain is temporary,” he told the assembled audience at a presentation he gave following the release of ‘Beyond Limits’. “But if you quit, it lasts forever”.
It is clear that he also possesses a clever kind of resourcefulness which has always enabled him to make the most of his disability. He is the sort of individual who adapts well and continually finds a way to put whatever skills he has to good use. For instance, as a child, the quick reactions he needed to check his balance and keep him from falling (too much!) were the same attributes he honed as a goalkeeper leading him to win him a place at Concordia on a sport scholarship. One also develops the impression that the strength he acquired to deal with the continual classroom teasing at school, furnished him with the thick skin which enabled him to climb the corporate ladder.
The angry young man!
Paddock appears to have derived great strength from his disability. This is not to say that it has been an easy journey. Reports about him point to his frustrated childhood when the constant falling caused by the cerebral palsy resulted in aggressive tantrums. These outbursts were a telltale sign of a child’s painful struggle against a body which he no doubt saw as inadequate and a source of embarrassment. This feeling of inferiority doubtlessly stung him often in the company of his able bodied brothers.
Growing up, he never really seemed to come to terms with his cerebral palsy. Instead Paddock denied he had a disability, hiding it with humour and quick witted remarks. Humiliating stumbles and falls were jovially brushed off with clever comments, though I’d hazard a guess that his own view of himself was never so relaxed or light hearted.
The psychological effects of disability are various. For the unfortunate ones who allow themselves to accept defeat, their handicap will always be seen as an impossible obstacle. Remorse and self pity soon sets in and their fight is lost before it has even begun. For those, on the other hand, who are lucky enough to truly accept and be comfortable with their condition, their impairment maybe nothing more to them than a characteristic, the same as having long hair or blue eyes.
A dangerous duel
Then there are the ones like Bonner Paddock. There is no doubt that they see their disability as a flaw, something to be shunned. Nevertheless, for these people it also becomes something else – a strange kind of companion half adversary, half ally; something which must be fought on the one hand, but which equally drives their ambition on the other, relentlessly spurring them onwards.
But this duel has its dangers. It can produce a closed and guarded individual. A friend once told me that one of the crucial elements of being happy with oneself is realising how other people see you. One of the real pitfalls of being so driven and determined is that one can become tunnel-visioned and isolated.
I believe Bonner Paddock may have well suffered from this limited view. He probably had a low opinion of himself and his own achievements. This is not to say he felt any degree of self pity. Far from it. But though his cerebral palsy encouraged him to excel, it is clear he saw his disability as a curse. He was probably ashamed by his crooked gait and foolishly did not realise just how lucky he was in developing only a mild form of the condition.
Therefore, it is of no surprise that he had little to do with disability beyond his own case of cerebral palsy. Indeed, he probably did everything he could to deny there was anything wrong with him. It was only fairly recently, when his employers actively encouraged him and his colleagues to involve themselves in charity work that Bonner found his outlet and true vocation.
His relationship with the Orange County chapter of United Cerebral Palsy opened his eyes to his own potential and gave him a well needed reality check. Paddock realised that his fight against cerebral palsy was not just a personal one. At UCP, he met children who could not walk or talk, whose opportunities and outlook were very different from his own.
Since then, he has found the release that he perhaps did not even realise he needed, raising money and disability awareness all over the globe. But his journey to be at peace with his inner demons is not over just yet. Despite all his successes his old ally is probably still very much a part of him.
Paddock’s most recent achievement was to win a place at the Ironman World Championships, which are due to take place in Hawaii on13 October 2012. His goal is to become the first ever competitor with cerebral palsy to complete the course. To have come this far is in itself an amazing feat.
I have no doubt he can do it. I have no doubt he can swim, pedal and run his way into the sport’s history books, just as he conquered Kilimanjaro four years ago. I just hope that he realises how much many (including me) look up to him. I hope he understands that the admiration that all those children at UCP feel for him and that this respect will be undiminished whether he succeeds in Hawaii or not.