Smith: Bonner Paddock, 37, of Newport Coast, became the first man with cerebral palsy to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in 2008. Now the former Ducks executive has his sights set on finishing the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii on Oct. 13.
IRVINE – The slight limp is there when he walks, the left toe of his leather shoe scratching the pavement, his right heel dragging. This crooked, unsteady gait is a lifelong reminder of the mild cerebral palsy that Bonner Paddock can’t hide.
He has had 37 years to adapt to the complications of the brain and nervous-system disorder caused at birth when his umbilical cord nearly choked him to death.
His lower legs have always been gimpy, ankles shot and toes cramped and curled. His equilibrium comes and goes like light from a bulb with a short, forcing him to correct his balance continually by sighting his surroundings and knowing up from down, floor from ceiling and base from summit.
He has tripped, stumbled and fallen all his life. He can’t count all the times he skinned his elbows and knees. He broke his arm — twice — as a child, trying to catch himself.
The best part of Paddock’s story is that he always, stubbornly, gets back up — often with greater determination and a bigger chip on his shoulders despite “the hitch in his giddy-up,” he says.
Paddock, who grew up in Mission Viejo and lives in Newport Coast, earned a soccer scholarship to Concordia, using the same quick reflexes he uses to correct his every motion to play goalie.
He ran the OC Marathon in 2007. He climbed Mount Whitney for practice and then Mount Kilimanjaro in 2008, becoming the first person with cerebral palsy to summit the world’s largest free-standing peak at 19,340 feet. Unassisted.
The next impossible — or “crazy,” depending on whom you ask — task on Paddock’s to-do list is the Ironman World Championships, the triathlon billed as the world’s toughest one-day sporting event, on Oct. 13 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
He is entering the race — a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, a marathon-length 26.2-mile run — not to win but to finish and to complete it for everyone who has never been able to take a step.
His greater goal is to raise $1 million for his 3-year-old OM (One Man, One Mission) Foundation, which develops early learning centers to help children with disabilities and funds organizations including United Cerebral Palsy of Orange County and Light in Africa.
“With proper training and my belief in myself,” Paddock says, “I believe I can do it. I’m ready, antsy, like a wild horse just wanting to kick through the stable door.”
He will make us all believers.
DRIVE TO SUCCEED
Paddock, a San Diego State graduate with a degree in business management, has a career. A former senior director of corporate sponsorships for Honda Center and the Ducks, he has been the senior vice president of marketing for Young’s Market Company, a Tustin-based distributor of fine wines and spirits, since 2010.
But that is just work. It pays the bills, affords him a few luxuries. It’s not what has driven him through life or gets him up at first light for the past two years to swim 4,000 yards in the pounding, 65-degree Pacific Ocean or pedal a stationary bike for four hours in his garage to train for the rigorous Ironman.
His motivation runs much deeper, diving back to the early childhood when he was the slow kid who tripped over his own feet at the playground and was mercilessly teased by his classmates and two older brothers because of a clumsiness he couldn’t control.
He was a frustrated child, sometimes so angry after falls that his teachers complained about his tantrums. His brothers, Mike McConnell and Matt Rinn, never cut him slack and let him stay on the sidelines.
Paddock always figured out some way to be valuable to a team. In Little League, he became a switch-hitter; in youth basketball, a savvy 3-point shooter; and in soccer, the goalie because all the other kids wanted to score.
“I’ve got to give Bonner credit,” said McConnell, an All-American swimmer at Arcadia High. “He never gave up no matter what the doctors said.”
Growing up, seven doctors gave Paddock seven different diagnoses, each trying to fix his legs with walking therapies, braces, flat-soled saddleshoes and lower-body casts.
On his 11th birthday, one doctor told his family that he had degenerative syringomyelia, that he’d be in a wheelchair by age 15 and dead by 20. A few months later, UC Irvine neurologist Arnold Starr correctly diagnosed his CP, and “I felt like I got my life back,” Paddock recalled.
Until his 30s, Paddock did everything he could to avoid association with his disability. He hid it when he could. He used his quick, self-effacing humor to get him out of the occasional embarrassing tumble.
But during the 2004-05 NHL lockout, when Ducks owners Henry and Susan Samueli urged staffers to take up philanthropy, Paddock made a call to the Orange County chapter of United Cerebral Palsy and arranged to visit children at a therapy center.
Some sat in wheelchairs, unable to walk. Some mumbled noises, unable to talk. Even in their condition, they smiled, laughed and reached to touch Paddock’s hand.
They touched his heart.
“Why me?” wondered Paddock, realizing the miracle of his limited motion that he had before then considered his curse.
So he ran the 2006 OC Half Marathon cold to raise money for UCP-OC. Near the finish, he met Steven Robert, a father who picked his 6-year-old son, Jake, out of a wheelchair and carried him across the line.
“Jake had CP, and his father ran because Jake couldn’t,” Paddock said. “That night of the marathon, Jake died.”
With “Jakey Bear” written across the bottoms of his sneakers, Paddock ran the full 2007 OC Marathon and raised $30,000 for UCP-OC.
With a beaded necklace bearing Circle of Life pendant symbolizing all the children who’ve inspired him, Paddock climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and contributed all $260,000 in donations to his OM Foundation charities.
His harrowing and emotional journey was beautifully chronicled in the documentary, “Beyond Limits,” narrated by late actor Michael Clarke Duncan.
Struggling and spent, Paddock found strength in remembering the children who had sent him good-luck letters and drawn him Crayola pictures. For them, he staggered and reached Uhuru Peak.
“It took my body two years to recover from Kili,” Paddock said. “The joke after Kili was ‘What are you going to do next?’ I knew I had one more big thing I wanted to do.”
It was around January 2011 when Paddock began researching the Ironman triathlon and contacted Greg Welch, Oakley’s sports marketing director and the 1994 Ironman World Champion.
“Will you train me?” Paddock asked in an email. “There’s no way I’m doing this without you. I need all your expertise.”
After meeting Paddock and watching “Beyond Limits”, the Australian Welch said, “Absolutely, mate!”
This wasn’t an easy decision for Welch, who understands that the Ironman is not just about the staggering distances.
“It’s about the elements — 90-degree heat, 90 percent humidity and tradewinds from 15 to 45 knots, hills and climbs in the terrain — all on a body with CP,” Welch said. “I know Bonner is mentally strong but this is still going to be very, very tough. This is going to be about survival.”
Welch contacted his sponsors to get Paddock equipment, including TYR “Freak of Nature” swimsuits and Cannondale Synapse road cycles. He designed a progressive, 20-month, five-day-a-week training plan to build Paddock’s confidence and endurance.
Paddock got permission from his employer to train weekday mornings. He met with Young’s Market board chairman Vern Underwood, who was so impressed with Paddock’s commitment that his company donated $250,000 and offered to match every employee’s contribution to OMF (1man1mission.org).
Paddock dedicated himself to daily training: four-hour sessions on a stationary bike in his garage and in silence; 60- and 90-minute swims at heavy and slower paces in the UC Irvine pool and the ocean near Crystal Cove; long hours of uphill walks and downhill jogs; 4-, 6- and 8-hour cycling rides along the Santa Ana River Trail; and weightlifting.
Welch, worried about Paddock’s balance on two wheels had Paddock training on a stationary bike for six months. He had Paddock meet with a swim coach to improve his stroke because CP made his legs like a deadweight rudder in the water.
Swim, bike and run filled Paddock’s calendar to prepare him for the 2.4-mile swim segment that begins and ends at Kailua Pier, the 112-mile bike race loop on the Queen Ka’ahumanu highway along the Kona Coast through scorching lava fields to Kohala Coast and the Hawi village; and the marathon course that travels the bike route through Kailua-Kona and finishes along Ali’i Drive.
Paddock, who will wear Bib No. 1421, is entered in the general competition, not the physically challenged division. For extra stability, he will ride a 10-pound bicycle, which is a little heavier than a triathlon bike, and run in thicker soled, more supportive Asics Gel PS Trainer 17s.
“Bring it on,” Paddock said, not wanting assistance during the transitions or special allowances for his condition.
“I wouldn’t have trained him unless I knew he could do it,” Welch said. “He has prepared himself, doing almost all of it on his own.
McConnell, Paddock’s brother, set the pace during many swimming sessions and accompanied him when Paddock completed the Ironman 70.3 Hawaii Half Ironman with overall time of 7 hours, 52 minutes to qualify for the world championships.
“It’s crazy but it’s Bonner,” said McConnell, who attended a send-off rally for Paddock on Wednesday at the UCP-OC headquarters at Irvine.
Paddock’s most loyal fans were there holding up a banner they painted with the message, “Go Bonner! You can do it!!” surrounded by dozens of their handprints.
Red-haired Ashley Arambula, 9, of Laguna Hills, who has cerebral palsy, looked up to Paddock from her wheelchair and asked, “Can I be your partner?”
“You already are,” Paddock, kneeling down, told her.
Ashley clapped. Her Ironman event, she told her mother, Monica, “is to walk one day.”
His eyes glistening with the beginning of tears, Paddock limped to the podium and promised the crowd, “I will do this.”
By MARCIA C. SMITH
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Contact the writer: [email protected]