By Maximillian Wollner
“One more step, then another.”
Bonner Paddock pushed himself through the final turn of the 2012 Ironman Triathlon, gasping, staggering and sweating in the Kona, Hawaii, heat. He’d already completed a 2.4-mile swim and a 112-mile bike ride; finishing the marathon would put him in the ranks of the physically elite. It would also put him in the record books: The world’s first Ironman with cerebral palsy.
This Ironman event wasn’t the first time Paddock broke an athletic record. As he recounts in his new book, One More Step, he had already run multiple marathons and become the first person with CP to climb the tallest free-standing mountain in the world, Mount Kilimanjaro.
Cerebral palsy (CP), a brain disorder caused by an injury or abnormality during fetal development, affects body movement and muscle coordination. CP is usually diagnosed at an early age and can range in severity from minor muscle spasticity to major paralysis.
Paddock’s cerebral palsy is mild compared to most, which allowed him to be competitive in soccer and baseball as a kid, even though he would drag his feet and often lose his balance. But his active life was the reason for several misdiagnoses until he turned 11.
Growing up with a physical disability is never easy, and Paddock was the frequent subject of jokes and teasing. “Kids can be tough on each other, especially when you’re different from them,” he says. “I walked on such underdeveloped legs it was obvious there was something wrong with me.”
But his disability often went unacknowledged at home. “[My family] whitewashed a lot of my problems. They wanted to convey that everything was fine and rarely talked to me about my CP,” he recalls.
Inspired by a Boy Named Jake
Paddock didn’t address his disability publicly until he was 30 years old, when he gave a speech at the United Cerebral Palsy Foundation of Orange County (UCP-OC), in California. Sharing his CP experience led him to meet the person who became his biggest inspiration in life: Jake Robert, a 4-year-old boy with severe CP.
Jake’s father, Steve, invited Paddock to join the UCP-OC’s board, where Paddock jumped into the foundation’s fundraising activities, including running in the 2006 Orange County half marathon. Paddock struggled during the run, as he had only trained twice for the event, but he fought through the pain and tightness in his legs.
Steve and Jake cheered for him at the finish line. Jake sat crooked in his wheelchair, his muscles rigid, but smiling and laughing all the same. This fleeting moment with Jake would define the next decade of Paddock’s life.
The next morning, he learned that Jake had died in his sleep. Paddock was devastated and vowed to raise awareness of CP any way he could. “The light bulb went on,” Paddock says. “I knew I had to run the full OC marathon next year for Jakey. Fundraising for the marathon gave me the confidence to spread awareness about a condition not often talked about. Jake was my inspiration and motivation.”
Paddock’s training regimen was fueled solely by a Google search: “how to run a marathon.” He ramped up his daily mileage week by week, but soon his body began resisting the distance. He decided to rest during the final eight weeks before the run, believing that if his legs couldn’t carry him 26.2 miles, his determination would.
Running is not a natural motion for someone with CP, because the condition causes your leg muscles to be out of sync with your brain. Nine miles into the marathon, Paddock’s knees were buckling and his legs were cramped. His poor body mechanics only added to his fatigue, but he kept pushing. Five hours later, he stumbled across the finish line amid cheers of “Way to do it for Jake!” He spent the following three days bedridden but proud, thinking about what he’d do next.
The Next Mountain
Paddock wanted an even greater physical challenge, something big and dramatic that would get people’s attention. He decided on Mount Kilimanjaro.
He trained over the next year by climbing smaller mountains, including Mt. Whitney in California, the tallest mountain in the continental United States. On August 28, 2008, he was off to Tanzania.
Before his trek, Paddock visited the Usa River School, the only center for children with disabilities in Tanzania. Even without the resources Paddock had in the United States, these children — just like Jake — projected happiness and hope that their lives would one day get better. It was all the motivation Paddock needed. On the morning of September 1, he wrote the letters “J” and “R” on his hiking poles and set off for the climb of his life.
Paddock scaled Kilimanjaro with a team of experts, friends, and a pair of documentary filmmakers. Each step of the eight-day expedition drove a sharp, searing pain down his legs, and each day was more difficult than one before. But it was the mental fatigue that threatened to cut his climb short. He began to doubt he could finish. Maybe the people in his past who had questioned his ability to be successful were right?
But he used these negative memories to power up the mountain one step at a time. Leaning heavily on his poles in memory of little Jake, Paddock dragged his feet up the slope until he reached Uhuru peak, high above the limitations of cerebral palsy.
Swim, Bike, Run
When the documentary of the climb, Beyond Limits, was released, Paddock saw what his awkward, stiff gait looks like to other people. Watching himself go through episodes of despair and self-pity, he was forced to confront the fact that he still had not accepted his own disability. While he had become a role model for many others, he was more embarrassed by his mental shortcomings than his physical ones.
“It’s one of those things in life where you think you’ve accomplished something great, but if you don’t go deep into the darkness to figure out why you’re really doing it, you missed the point,” Paddock says. “I thought that if I had gotten to the peak I’d confront my limitations, but I needed something more.”
That “something more” was the 2012 Ironman Triathlon in Kona. He trained for two years with legendary athlete and former Ironman Greg Welch.
“The progressive training experience was difficult, paling in comparison to Kilimanjaro,” Paddock says. “Not only did I have to focus more on my core, I had to monitor my nutrition to make sure I was fueling my body the right way.”
Welch told Paddock to “run his own race,” to not worry about the others and their times, just his own. His only goal was to finish before the 17-hour cutoff.
Paddock crossed the finish line in 16 hours, 38 minutes and 35 seconds amid raucous cheers and a booming voice over a loudspeaker: “Bonner Paddock… You are an Ironman.”
One Man, One Mission
“We all create our own barriers, and my CP was in my head,” Paddock says. “Everyone has their version of CP. It’s just up to us to break the barriers we may have that prevent us from overcoming limitations.”
Paddock doesn’t plan on breaking any more records anytime soon, but he hasn’t lost focus. Inspired by Jake and his visit to the Usa River School, he now works to help children with CP worldwide. In April 2009, he founded the OM (One Man, One Mission) Foundation, a non-profit committed to raising money to build early-learning centers for children with disabilities. The foundation has raised more than $1 million to build centers in Tanzania, Orange County, California, and Austin, Texas.
His strategy for building more centers so that all disabled children have the opportunity to overcome their limitations: one more step, then another.