Nothing is impossible when you have the right perspective and mindset. Today, Robert “Fireman Rob” Verhelst interviews Bonner Paddock, the first person diagnosed with cerebral palsy to summit Kilimanjaro unassisted. The man behind OM Foundation and the inspirational book, One More Step, Bonner empowers children with disabilities and their families to live beyond their limits. Today, he shares how he overcame dark motivations and took a 360-degree turn on his perspectives to allow light motivations to enter his sphere. Let’s all be reminded to embrace the darkness but also use the light to move forward.
Listen to the podcast here:
Living Beyond Limits With Bonner Paddock
Our guest is amazing. I had the pleasure of meeting this gentleman in 2012 in Ironman Kona. His name is Bonner Paddock. He is the first person diagnosed with cerebral palsy to summit Kilimanjaro unassisted and the first person ever to finish Ironman Kona. Bonner, it’s amazing to have you on the program.
Thank you for having me on.
Bonner and I have a close bond after Ironman Kona in 2012. He passed me with four miles left.
There weren’t many miles left, but we were all out there wandering around not really with it, so who knows exactly.
I want to go back in time here because your story has so much power. You’re a New York Times bestseller with your book One More Step. You have a foundation, the 1 Man 1 Mission, OM Foundation that empowers children with disabilities and their families to live beyond their limits. Let’s go back in time to when you were a child. In your book, you talk about how, for the longest time, you ignored that you had cerebral palsy. Tell me more about that.
It was an interesting approach. As a child, you don’t understand the full scale until doing a lot of work on myself after as an adult. Looking back and the best way talking to my parents is they went with an approach that, “He’s functioning pretty well. He trips a lot and he’s clumsy with his feet. He can walk and run. He’s not in a wheelchair. He’s doing well in all things considering once diagnosed properly of having CP.” They went with the interesting approach of, “Let’s not talk about it. We’re not going to ignore it if he asks, but we’re not going to say anything because we didn’t want to get it in his head.” What it turned out from a family that lacked severe communication about anything in our family. It was a noncommunicative family that I grew up in.
We start beginning to feel like, “I go to physical therapy. I go to these doctor’s appointments, but we don’t talk about it anywhere outside of that.” You begin to think it’s something bad and that you don’t understand. You think you have something that makes you not normal but in a bad way. It gets in your head and there are no real confidence or communication channels as a child in my family to ask those questions because we never did. You learned that you accept it, don’t talk about it and move forward the best you can but it builds in your mind. That’s the rough background of my understanding and my feelings on how we went about my CP.
It didn’t change until around 2006. In January 2006, you did your first marathon to raise funds and you met an individual there named Jake. Tell us more about Jake.
In January 2006, I joined a local charity here for kids with disabilities and met a board member that had a son named Jake. That board member was the first person that shared. His name is Steve and he’s Jake’s dad. He shared with me about Jakey. He’s a very severe case young boy about four and a half. He can’t walk or talk. He’s in a wheelchair. I had never met him but on the 6th of January 2006, he was setting out to do the marathon. I was setting out to do the half marathon and we ended up jogging together because his marathon pace was perfectly slow for my half marathon pace. The two turtles set out in the back and we spent a lot of miles together. He shared a lot of information and it was when I was starting to talk about having CP. I think at that juncture, I was 30. I was glued to him as much as he was glued to me because his son couldn’t talk and I never talked about my CP. We had this instant mutual bond of questions and things that we didn’t know about both ourselves and Jakey and myself. We end up spending hours together out there on that course. I had only met Jakey at that time, but I had heard a lot about him for the six months being on the board. After the race, I got to meet him again as Steve crossed the finish line for the marathon. We were all there to greet him and everything else as they came in.
That was that first step into you telling more people about your story and accepting that it was okay that you had CP, and then Team Jake was formed. I’ll let you tell this story because I was honored to be part of Team Jake, but the next day Jake died.
Unfortunately, as I connected to Jake for the first time in less than 24 hours, I went from truly meeting somebody that had CP and talking about it for hours with his dad on the racecourse that same day and seeing him again at the finish line when his dad carried him across the finish line. There was this instant connection because I started to begin understanding my CP and how fortunate I am because I could run, walk and all these things. I get the call the next morning that he had died in his sleep at some juncture early morning. It was this bizarre, amazing, and comfortable feeling in 24 hours and then crushing that they had lost their son. I had lost my first link to someone with CP and a family that had accepted me. They said that they were proud of what I was doing and things that I never got as a child like the acknowledgment of even having CP and talking about it. There was that instant quick bond that I had craved for many years but never knew it. It went from this amazing high of a great day the day before to this crushing feeling that I had never felt for them, for me, and for everything that has to do with the sudden loss of this boy. It left me this gnarly void that I didn’t know what to do with for the longest time after that.
You have such an amazing thing that you’ve accomplished. One of the most amazing things that I see from this awful tragedy and from you having to deal with CP and finding your way through that is you created the OM Foundation. You can go to 1Man1Mission.org to find out more about this. Tell the readers a lot more about this because it’s such a valuable program. You’ve extended that program’s life by the things that you’re doing. Tell them more about the OM Foundation.
It was formed on the Mt. Kilimanjaro when I was like, “If you can get me off of this mountain alive, I made a deal with the universe that I’ll do something better with my life, I promise.” Truly, it was half-jokingly that, but it was the guy that came over from Southern California bubble to East Africa and was like, “This is what these people have to deal with on a daily basis, versus what I’m dealing with on a daily basis.” I instantly said, “I can help these people and I’m going to focus on their disabled community because it didn’t seem like there was very much for the kids under sixteen years old.” I was inspired to want to build a center for them in Tanzania where Kilimanjaro is. I formed the foundation and we empower and help teach countries how to take care of their disabled kids through local charities. We empower them to help themselves. We are teaching them to fish versus giving them fish. We build these physical and occupational and speech therapy centers in conjunction with already existing local charities that are doing amazing work with disabled kids.
We utilize our huge infrastructure of doctors, nurses, therapists and everything we have here to continue to empower and embolden these developing countries in an area that is getting zero or very little funding, if at all, in the disabled children’s space. It’s been amazing and we’re already in five countries. We are building a huge project here in the United States that will support all of our centers globally. Also, for other centers that aren’t even part of my foundation per se, we are giving them free access to all of our resources, training and any types of diagnosis or testing that they bring them free access.
I had the privilege of being part of Team Jake and that was a fantastic honor. It was at Ironman Lake Tahoe. They no longer have it because it was a dumb idea, to begin with. I have to say that the power of Team Jake got me through that day. To give people a perspective, Bonner had done Ironman Kona. For those who don’t understand CP, tell us what it did to your body doing that race because it was almost seventeen hours.
People have heard of cerebral palsy or CP a lot but don’t know exactly what it is. Usually, it’s a healthy baby and it happens primarily sometimes either in the tummy, in the womb, during the birthing or early on in the baby’s life. The lack of oxygen to the brain or some blunt trauma to the brain causes certain areas of the brain to die or not function properly. Therefore, the messages to those areas of the body aren’t getting there properly. The default in the brain is it goes to the off switch, which means that you’re extremely tight because the brain says, “If I can’t get a message to that area, it’s better to make it tight than to be a wet noodle,” where you see a stroke or something like that where that body part may hang or not able to do much.
This is the same for CP usually, but you can be totally like a wet noodle. I’ve seen that, which is new to me, but most commonly you see kids or people that are very tight. Their arms curled up, or their legs are very stiff, or they’re in a wheelchair and they’re not able to talk or walk or anything like that. This tightness in the muscles is a very broad way to say it in certain areas of the body. The most common is called the spastic diplegic where your legs and lower back, as for myself, they spasm when they are in some type of duress. Exercise is usually the most common type of duress for our muscles. When your muscles don’t know how to stimulate properly and they’re very tight, to begin with, you have a lack of fluids in your muscles. It’s very easy for the muscles to tear or rip, cramp or spasm.
Spastic diplegia muscles start spasming when you start exercising. Imagine exercising for seventeen hours straight when your muscles are locked up or very stiff, and then they start spasming on top of that. To do an Ironman or something for a long period of time like me on the mountain for eight days, I don’t know if that stuff has ever been done under someone’s own power. That’s how the CP affects me at my legs and my lower back. My eye-hand coordination is good. I have normal strength in my hands and arms, but my legs and everything is weak because the tightness is hard to develop muscles. I’m not very flexible.
Running, biking and those types of things, I’m very stiff or rigid. Putting me on a mountain where it’s narrow, cold, windy or whatever else, I don’t have an equilibrium type of feeling. People say, “What does it feel like?” Imagine you haven’t worked at a gym for six months and when you go workout in the gym hard and you come back and we’ve all felt that stiffness the next couple of days or three days. Add that and then not having an equilibrium, you get what I feel like every day. That’s the best way to draw it into someone that doesn’t have it.
We’re taking all that into account and then the challenges that you put in front of yourself of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro and doing Ironman in Kona where it’s the elite of the elite. How do you put your mindset into something that you’re able to accomplish? That challenge that you have every single day like you’re talking about with the equilibrium and existing every day with that. Now, you’re putting yourself in a different challenge. How do you change that mindset to be able to go and do that?
I never got acknowledged growing up, so I didn’t know what that meant but when I started doing these physical endeavors after Jakey passed away, people were saying, “You’re amazing. You’re an inspiration.” That’s what I always coveted growing up. It was what they called dark motivation or fear-based motivation. You start motivating yourself to do an external thing because you are craving some type of fulfillment internally from something you didn’t get as a child. Looking back and doing a lot of work, Kilimanjaro being the first world record, I did that in fear. There was a lot of anger towards my parents for not telling and talking about it. There were a lot of other underlying issues that I had. I’m not comfortable with my CP because we never talked about it. There was a lot of this fear or dark motivation on Kilimanjaro.
When I came back from that, I still felt empty. I had to do at the beginning a lot of soul searching and saying, “I can’t continue to have that type of mindset to fulfill happiness because I wasn’t happy.” Going into Ironman, I started to do a lot of work to begin to get comfortable with, as everybody has maybe something that they aren’t comfortable within their life, whether it’s some type of physical something or it’s something else in their lives. I had to take on my CP head-on and begin to start using what we call love-based motivation or light motivation.
When you have the light motivation, you do who you are and you understand the bigger picture of how things that happened to you growing up that caused some trauma or wounds. You move into a light motivation, which you’re able to achieve so much more than when you’re in dark motivation. I would have never done Ironman or finished it if I was still in dark motivation. I did two different things not knowing it, thinking they were just world records and trying to go along in my journey, but it was fascinating because I had to shift my entire perspective to loving myself, learning how to be comfortable with my CP, that my legs are skinny, that they shake, that I get tired easily, that I’m not going to beat a lot of people. That’s not what’s important about this journey in life.
Those are the things that it’s like, “We have to be happy with what we have, be comfortable with it, and understand what a gift it is.” Starting my foundation is what allowed me to meet a lot more of these Jakeys and say, “I have amazing gifts that I was given and there was a reason why.” It’s up to me to say, “What am I going to utilize this gift for?” versus keep focusing on the things that I didn’t have or that I was angry at my parents for things growing up. I had to let a lot of that go and work through that. The mindset continued to change. Yet, I started achieving even more great physical feats and then after that, even greater success and happiness in my life in general.
It took off like wildfire and turned it into something that was so much more a reflection of myself through each thing going. I was proud of being more comfortable in who I was and not afraid to talk about it and those types of things. The mindset is paramount but I would always say look at, are you doing things through dark motivation? Are you inspired because you want to prove somebody wrong or you remember something that angered you or you fear something? Are you doing it because you want to continue to push yourself in a great way to grow, to try something new, to expand your horizons, be curious about it and be okay with not completing whatever that is because it’s about the journey, not the finish line? That’s the Team Jake tagline, that is the finish line is the beginning of the journey. It’s one of those beautiful things that it’s true.
I got done with Ironman and I was such a happier person than I was when I got done with Kilimanjaro where I was empty and lost because I was seeking validation externally versus saying, “It’s okay to say you didn’t get that growing up.” Yet you can now utilize that and inspire other people to say, “You can do so much within you, even more, when you are doing it with love than you are doing it with fear.” We’re seeing that right now with everything that’s going on in the world. That fear completely brings things to a screeching halt. If you can breathe, understand, be confident in yourself and have that love, it is something that can still be as smooth as possible through very challenging times.
It talks to the power or the courage in essence to be yourself. It’s that uniqueness that everybody has and can bring to this world. They don’t have to summit Kilimanjaro or they don’t have to do Ironman Kona. It’s finding the difference between doing things for that dark meaning or doing things for that light. A lot of people struggle with figuring out what it is that they’re doing. You were on Kilimanjaro when you hit the wall a few times, and you can watch that video of Bonner hitting the wall a few times on YouTube. It’s a great video. How did you get through those dark times? It seemed like it was harder than the ones that you had in Kona.
They were harder because I had moved those out of the way by the time Kona came around. Kilimanjaro brought out those monstrosity hurdles that I kept smashing into, which you’d see in the documentary. Once I understood what those were, which was anger towards my parents and many other things, I was not comfortable with my body and not comfortable talking about CP. Once I was able to start beginning to move those huge boulders out of the way, all of a sudden, the things that I was achieving or the things that I was going after were seemingly in a much different perspective and mindset. Kilimanjaro was a lot of like, “I’m not letting this stop me because I’m going to prove them wrong. I’m going to show them.” That only gets you so far and then you’re exhausted and that house of cards eventually collapses and it did after Kilimanjaro.
I had to rebuild this and say, “Instead of a house of cards, how can I build this stronger?” It’s fallen over many times since then and I continue to add on or remodel or whatever the words are. That’s with the right mindset in my opinion, which is the positive, the love, the light motivation and not working in the dark. It’s giving yourself patience and allowing yourself to say what is the Kilimanjaro in your life. Have you got to that point yet where you’ve gotten rid of a lot of your dark motivation? Ask yourself, “What is going to be my new challenge in light motivation?” I challenge because we all have shown it, you and myself, when we have light motivation and love, we can achieve even more. What I think is when you own and set the world record of all the Half Ironmans and everything else. It was like you kept going in a direction that said, “I’m going to do it through these ways.” You’re adjusting things in my opinion as less and less dark motivation and seem more and more light motivation.
You and I weren’t chasing anything anymore. We weren’t chasing that darkness anymore and running from that darkness. We became more comfortable as we got closer as we became more comfortable with who we are. We have that courage to say, “This is who we are. Here are the things that there are challenges and we’re working on them, but we’re being honest with ourselves of what they are so that we can focus on them and begin to love even those parts.” If we can love those parts of ourselves or at least begin to like them, that’s how we honestly become more at peace and happier. When you do that, you’re able in a much simpler manner to achieve things that are so far beyond any of our physical feats. They become these global things like you’re doing with your foundation and what I’m trying to do with my foundation. We are making impacts on things that are bigger than us through love, support, and inspiring people to see the beauty in themselves. We have begun to see it in ourselves through great trials and tribulations.
I love the way that you put it as you have to embrace the darkness as well, but also use the light to move yourself forward. That’s such a tough thing definitely in these times when people look and they see adversity all around them. They see darkness all around them. What is going to happen next? Your message is going to be one that people can take away. If they want to come in and read your book, they can go to 1Man1Mission.org and buy the book. You do so much for many other people. We appreciate that. I have three questions. I don’t give you these questions in advance. The first question is, what is one thing you haven’t done that is outside of your comfort zone?
I would say that it’s MMA because there are those MMA gyms. I just started kickboxing, but the next step is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. I’d like to do it but with my lack of flexibility. I loved the concept of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and understanding the body’s flow and motion. My body doesn’t flow and we get in positions that I technically can’t get in. I haven’t done that, but after starting kickboxing, it’s something that I would like to try but I haven’t tried it and nervous about it.
What’s your favorite quote and why?
The one that I signed all my books is, “Believe in yourself.” You can drop “believe” and just be yourself or be you. I think it’s trying to be comfortable with who you are and asking yourself that hard question all the time, is what I’m doing because of myself or am I doing it because of my ego or some other motivation? I love it and it’s simple. Another one is Ram Dass’, “Your mind is your karma.” It’s another great one too.
If you could pick to have coffee with three people that could be living or dead at a firehouse table, nothing is off the table, you can talk about anything, who would it be and why?
Bob Marley, Nelson Mandela, and Buddha.
Do any of those drink coffee?
Bob Marley for sure does. I’m pretty sure Nelson Mandela does. I think Buddha drank tea, but I could be wrong.
Here’s the rapid round. I’m going to give you two options. You’ve got to choose one of them, paper or plastic?
Soup or salad.
McDonald’s or Taco Bell.
Camping or hotel.
Fly or drive.
Sleep in later or wake up early.
Wake up early.
Run or walk.
Partly sunny or partly cloudy.
Fire or water.
Use a Porta Potti or continue or drive or run to the next physical bathroom.
Run to the next physical bathroom.
Coke or Pepsi.
Go big or go home.
I’ve done a lot of go bigs. I think I’m going to go home these days.
Our guest has been Bonner Paddock. It’s been amazing to have you on this show. Your positive influence and your impact on this world has always been felt. I greatly appreciate your friendship and I think everybody can take your message.
Thanks. I am honored to be on your show. It’s great talking with you.
Until next time. Thanks for reading.
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