Meet the first man with cerebral palsy to conquer Kilimanjaro and the Ironman

Bonner Paddock summited Kilimanjaro, unassisted, in 2008. Photo: Courtesy of OM Foundation
Bonner Paddock summited Kilimanjaro, unassisted, in 2008. Photo: Courtesy of OM Foundation

When Bonner Paddock was a child, doctors handed his mother his death sentence: He would most likely be confined to a wheelchair by age 15 and dead by 20.

What he did instead was unimaginable.

Paddock, now 40, is a two-time world-record holder, the first person with cerebral palsy to summit Mt. Kilimanjaro — the tallest freestanding mountain in the world at 19,341 feet — unassisted. He’s also the first person with CP to finish the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii, widely considered one of the most difficult triathlons in the world.

Both are incredible physical feats for an able-bodied person, let alone a man who spent the majority of his childhood in leg braces and casts.

From the time Paddock was a child, there was something noticeably wrong with the way he moved, dragging his left leg when he walked, unable to keep his balance. Paddock says his mother kept the severity of his condition from him completely as doctors subjected him to lengthy tests, unable to diagnose his condition; some believed he would stop walking, others that he faced an early death.

Finally, at age 11, Paddock was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a permanent, non-progressive disorder typically caused by early brain damage that affects the patient’s muscles and motor skills. It was something Paddock would try to keep a secret through his late 20s, determined not to let his disabilities limit him.

“I didn’t know how to channel all this frustration and anger from getting teased in elementary school,” the Laguna Beach, California, resident remembers. “It built up this bigger and bigger wall that I didn’t know how to get around. It was a big, dark secret that kept building.”

Finally, at age 29, weary of expending so much energy in order to guard the truth about his condition, Paddock decided to tell his boss.

“He was so nonchalant about it. He just said, ‘OK, well, do you need anything?’” Paddock laughs. “We all get these things in our heads, things we’re extremely apprehensive about, and they wind up so tightly in our minds. It was amazing after so long to finally start unwinding that ball of yarn I had created over all those years.”

A few years later, while working with the Anaheim Ducks ice hockey team during the NHL lockout, Paddock joined the board of United Cerebral Palsy of Orange County. While on the board, he befriended Steven Robert, whose 4-year-old son, Jake, was born with CP. The duo began training for the Orange County Marathon to raise funds for UCP’s Life Without Limits center, a place where young CP patients could get the physical therapy they needed.

Bonner Paddock worked with Ironman legend Greg Welch to come up with a training plan that would allow him to finish the world's toughest one-day race. Photo: e-PR.
Bonner Paddock worked with Ironman legend Greg Welch to come up with a training plan that would allow him to finish the world’s toughest one-day race. Photo: Courtesy of e-PR

“Steven would ask me questions about how he could understand his very disabled son, who couldn’t walk or talk,” remembers Paddock of the 2006 race. “He was searching for ways to connect with Jake, who was so unlike his other, more able-bodied sons. I watched [Steven] carry Jakey across the finish line of the marathon. Jakey died later that night.”

Jake’s death “lit a fire” within Paddock, who decided he would do whatever it took to help young children like Jake — even if it meant tackling one of his biggest fears: summiting Kilimanjaro, unassisted, in 2008. He set out to raise $250,000 to provide therapy needed for young children with CP.

“[The climb] encapsulated all of the things I feared most,” he says. “With CP, you don’t have balance, really, and it affects your equilibrium. It was going to be a huge challenge getting to the summit in the darkness.” CP also affects the lower half of the body, weakening the legs. “I knew it wasn’t necessarily going to be a suicide mission, but it was really out of my physical realm.”

In 2009, Paddock created the OM Foundation, a way to raise awareness and build support for early-learning centers, build a center in Orange County, and establish similar centers around the globe, including in Tanzania, Africa.

Jake’s legacy continued when Paddock decided to become the first person with cerebral palsy to complete the Ironman World Championship in Kona, unassisted, in 2012, through which he raised more than $700,000. Ironman legend Greg Welch coached Paddock, helping him plan for the physical challenges he would face during the grueling 140-mile race, dubbed the “toughest one-day event in sports.”

Paddock crossed the finish line 16.5 hours after starting his Ironman, literally leaping over the line to a chorus of cheers.

Bonner Paddock crosses the finish line of the Ironman in Kona 16.5 hours after starting. Photo: Courtesy of OM Foundation
Bonner Paddock crosses the finish line of the Ironman in Kona 16.5 hours after starting. Photo: Courtesy of OM Foundation

“There was a huge difference between Kilimanjaro and Ironman,” Paddock says. “During my climb, I was doing everything from a fear-based place, chasing down the meaning of why I had this disability, still angry with my mom and dad. I hadn’t dealt with things in my life. The two world-record dynamics couldn’t have been more different. Physical wounds heal over time. Mental wounds require more effort, more time.”

Paddock and the OMF have raised more than $1 million for special-needs children since 2006, providing 10,000 hours of therapy. In March, Paddock debuted his memoir, One More Step, and is currently in the throes of organizing the Team Jake Global Challenge, a two-year program that encourages anyone in the world to raise money for Team Jake Worldwide by completing a half marathon in 2015 and a full marathon in 2016 (bikers can register for a metric century or century ride).

“Greg Welch wrote the training guides, and Oakley is going to come out and gift finishers with a pair of the second version of my signature eyewear,” Paddocks says. For more information about registering for the Team Jake Global Challenge, visit teamjakechallenge.org.

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