When I sat down with Bonner Paddock over Mexican food last week, he was all smiles. The guy deserves to be. In October, he became the first person with cerebral palsy to complete the Ironman World Championship triathlon in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
That’s a tough statement to quantify—mostly because becoming an Ironman is hard enough on its own. Finishing the race with cerebral palsy kicks the accomplishment into a whole new stratosphere. I’ve tried thinking up a tidy analogy to explain the 37-year-old’s achievement, but can’t find any. Maybe if Willis Reed’s Injury Game had lasted about eight times longer.
“After Ironman, any chip that I had on my shoulder—coming out of a childhood where I was teased a lot—is gone. Now I want to turn my focus to raising awareness and changing perceptions about disabilities around the world.”
To be clear: Bonner’s CP affects “the majority of the muscles in the lower half of his body” according to his longtime physician, Afshin Aminian, M.D. Needless to say, those muscles are pretty damn crucial for someone trying to finish a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and 26.2-mile run in less than 17 hours.
As Bonner and I spoke, I found myself trying to imagine the physical pain he endured mid-race. Months earlier, Ironman legend Greg Welch told me: “The pain will be like nothing Bonner’s ever experienced.” Knowing that Welch once broke his elbow and collarbone during an Ironman event and still finished third, I took him at his word.
When I asked Bonner whether the pain prophecy had come true, he told me about jamming blocks of ice down his compression shorts during the bike ride to cool his overheated hip flexors. When the ice melted, rivulets of water ran down his legs and into his cycling boots, causing his feet to blister. And he still had the marathon to look forward to. As he talked, Bonner pulled out his cell phone and shared photos taken minutes after crossing the finish line.
Seeing those blisters left me in awe of the tremendous force of will that Bonner put on display in Kona. A blister like that is a badge of courage—earned through nearly seventeen hours of constant exertion (he finished the race with about 20 minutes to spare).
That’s called fortitude. And it’s exactly what Nick Offerman’s character on Parks and Recreation, Ron Swanson, is afraid this generation has lost.
I don’t think we’ve lost it so much as we haven’t cultivated it. In a sense, that level of determination operates like a muscle in its own right. As such, it requires training. Bonner built up to the Ironman by climbing Mount Kilimanjaro (the first person with CP to do that, too). A documentary about that ascent, Beyond Limits, convinced Welch to coach Bonner through his Ironman bid.
“There’s one point in the Kilimanjaro climb where you could see that he was really struggling,” Welch said. “But he still dragged himself to the top…so I knew he wouldn’t quit in Kona.”
So where does that level of tenacity bubble up from? What kept Bonner going when his blisters burst?
His answer was simple: “First, I think of Jake.”
Jake Robert was the four year-old son of one of Bonner’s friends. The boy also had CP and died just after Bonner’s first half-marathon.
“His death changed everything. When I feel like quitting, that’s where my mind goes. From there, I begin to think of other kids—the kids with disabilities who’ve put their trust in me.”
Bonner poses with Light in Africa’s Mama Lynn and Juliana, days before her surgery.
Through his 501c-3, The OM Foundation, Bonner has raised money to start centers for children with disabilities in the US and Tanzania. Recently, the foundation sponsored a visit to California for a Tanzanian girl, Juliana Williams, to get surgery, prosthetics and physical therapy that she couldn’t get back home. The Kilimanjaro climb brought in $262,000. More than $600,000 has already come in because of Ironman.
As we finished dinner, Bonner spoke with humility about his accomplishments. Athletically, he has nothing left to prove (and his doctors are concerned about the toll that Ironman took on his body). But Bonner is still on a mission—driven by a desire to change how people with disabilities are perceived around the world.
“After Ironman, any chip that I had on my shoulder—coming out of a childhood where I was teased a lot—is gone,” he said. “Now I want to turn my focus to raising awareness and changing perceptions about disabilities around the world. But I want to approach it with the same level of commitment that it took to run Ironman. More even.”
I left the restaurant inspired. In many ways, Bonner epitomizes the best in this generation of men. He’s proven himself physically (while smashing through any perceived limits) while seeking to serve others. He sees the big picture and carves out his own unique place in it.
At the same time, he adheres to at least one of those age-old, original elements of manliness: the strength, when the going gets tough, to just keep going.
No matter how badly his feet scream for him to stop.
Keep up with Bonner at 1man1mission.org.
Like the OM Foundation on Facebook. (It raises a dollar for every Like.)