Beautiful Rebels: Paradox Sports Celebrates Guts, Gimps, and Glory

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By Morgan Stanfield
Aron Ralston 'tops out' for the first time after his amputation. Photographs courtesy of Paradox Sports.

Paradox Sports is a nascent adaptive sports organization that rose out of the world of rock climbing, a dangerous, solitary sport performed in some of the most harrowing and beautiful territory on earth. Climbing attracts and breeds singular personalities-rebellious iconoclasts with a hunger for the new. Because climbers describe their discovery of pathways up sheer rock faces as "solving problems," it's fitting that the organization was created when a severely injured veteran joined forces with an eccentric pro climber to get a paralyzed comrade up a rock face under his own power. The solution to the problem spawned an organization with a celebratory spirit, a philosophy of radical self-acceptance, and the beginnings of a community unique in the world of adaptive sports.

Solving the Problem

Before Capt. Dennis "DJ" Skelton was in the 2004 Second Battle of Fallujah, Iraq, he had never known anyone with a severe disability. The former Airborne Ranger battalion commander says, "I kind of stayed away from disabled people-I had no experience with that world." In the battle, Skelton was hit in the chest with a rocket-powered grenade, and woke up several weeks later in Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington DC, minus an eye, much of his mouth, the lower bones in his right leg, and the use of his right arm. Only the example of younger, lower-ranked soldiers who were dealing successfully with even more severe injuries inspired him to keep living.

In the spring of 2005, Skelton returned home and began reclaiming his life. "I reunited with the local climbing community, and they took me out and helped me figure out a way to climb.... I've been rock-climbing since I was in my single digits, and that community and lifestyle...defined most of my adult life. I had to learn to climb all over again without the use of my left arm, and the community really crowded around me and elevated me with their support."

Members of the Paradox crew share their community spirit.

In the winter of 2006, Skelton was walking down the hall in Walter Reed while recovering from a reconstructive surgery. He says that a fellow soldier who had lost both his legs "wheeled up to me in his wheelchair and was like, 'Hey DJ, I heard that you learned how to rock climb again! I'd love to be able to climb again. My wife and I met climbing and fell in love through that sport.'" "Without thinking about it," Skelton says, "I looked at this kid...and said, 'Any time you want to go climbing again, we'll go....' And that night I couldn't sleep because I didn't know what...that meant. There was only one person in my life who I knew I could have this conversation with, and that guy's name is Timmy O'Neill."

O'Neill is a record-breaking professional climber whose sponsor, Patagonia, Reno, Nevada, calls "America's most outrageous climber...who has been at the cutting-edge of the sport for over 15 years [and is] a world-class slackliner, renowned building solo climber, class 5+ kayaker, and dangerously fast mountain biker [who is] best known for his irreverent humor and quick wit." Skelton says that he called O'Neill in the middle of the night and told him who he was and what he wanted to do, stressing that "it takes a special kind of person to motivate this population...." O'Neill didn't hesitate. "'I'm in,'" Skelton recalls O'Neill saying. In February 2006, Skelton and O'Neill took not only that first soldier but 11 others to a Washington DC climbing gym. The participants included a blind captain, a young woman missing both legs, and people who were paralyzed. Skelton says, "The energy from it all was overpowering. After the event, Timmy and I were sitting on our couch, probably two or three o'clock in the morning and...Timmy said, 'DJ, we need to take today and what just happened and liquefy it, put it in a needle, and inject it into disabled Americans everywhere. I don't know what that looks like-I guess we'd have to call ourselves an organization-but we need to do this over and over and over again."

A Beautiful Mix

Beth Livingston waterskis on a Paradox trip to Hebgen Lake, Montana.

True to their intention, the pair soon attracted other volunteers and put on more events, from climbing gatherings to sessions in surfing, mountain biking, back-country skiing, and kayaking-"human-powered outdoor sports," as Paradox dubs them. And the athletes they invited weren't just veterans. The people on the ropes, paddles, and boards came from all walks of life, and had medical conditions ranging from amputations to paraplegia to blindness. They participated in both Paradox-exclusive events and Paradox-sponsored adaptive forays into mainstream outdoor events.

In June 2007, Skelton, O'Neill, and a cadre of volunteers officially formed Paradox Sports, a 501(c)3 nonprofit with a four-pronged mission of inspiration by example, financial support for athletes in human-powered outdoor sports, development and sharing of cutting-edge adaptive outdoor equipment and techniques, and development of "a community...that combines participation in human-powered outdoor sports, a strong volunteer program...and...a strong online community."

The community-building arm of the mission has provided Paradox with its unique flavor. The volunteers it attracts include professional athletes, workers in outdoors-related fields, and able-bodied amateurs, many whom are dedicated, passionate, and eccentric. They make what Devaki Murch, Paradox's full-time volunteer director of marketing, calls "a bunch of really rebellious individuals who live completely against the grain. But it's a beautiful mix-very diverse in age, what they've gone through, and walks of life."

Tribal Affiliation

One thing that unites the diversity of Paradox members and participants is an unconditional acceptance of body differences that is reflected in the group's lingo. The official moniker of their first two ice-climbing events was "Gimps on Ice." A sampling from their official glossary includes the following:

  • Gimp: A person with a disability. Used fraternally within the disability crowd but can seem disrespectful when used by normals outside of the disabled community.
  • Normal: A person without a disability. [As in] She's coming climbing with us today? Isn't she a normal?
  • Stump: What's left attached to your body after an amputation. Normals call this a residual limb. Gimps don't.
  • Disability paradox: The discontinuity between the common assumption that disabled persons are crippled and need help, and the reality that we're out there kicking ass.

This last entry is perhaps the most telling in the Paradox lexicon and reveals the logic behind the organization's name.

Malcolm Daly is Paradox's volunteer executive director. He is the founder of the climbing-equipment manufacturer Great Trango Holdings, Louisville, Colorado, and lost his right leg in an ice-climbing accident in 1999. He says with a chuckle, "What I find is that everybody who was at [Gimps on Ice 2009] was pretty proud to be a gimp. It's a name of tribal affiliation and commonality.... And if anybody calls us a gimp in a derogatory way, we'll just ask them to go climbing with us, and we'll see who the gimp is."

When asked by The O&P EDGE  if they agreed with Daly, Paradox athletes and volunteers gave eloquent replies. Skelton said, "When I get up in the morning, I do have to put my socks and my shoes on one at a time like everyone else, but I also have to put my eyeball and mouth in. Malcolm Daly has to put on a leg, and Aron Ralston has to put on his arm. And that's life. There's something beautiful in that...and to shy away from it is a tragedy because you miss out on life."

Aron Ralston paddles on a Paradox Sports whitewater trip.

Kate Sawford, DVM, who flew to Gimps on Ice 2009 from Calgary, Alberta, Canada, said, "When I heard it, undeniably I would never have used that term prior to this, and I don't think I would use 'gimp' now to describe myself-it has negative connotations." She then paused for a long moment, and said, "But maybe it shouldn't."

Murch predicts that the group may soon change its policy on officially using such controversial language "'s extremely important to us not to turn off people who might want to be involved but think we're too radical or hard-core, or are truly offended by it. For some people, we really need to be sensitive."

Integrating Communities

Paradox's dedication to inclusion is powerful and employs unique approaches to helping "gimps" and the "normals" who may feel awkward around them to integrate, both in traditionally able-bodied sporting events and local athletic communities.

"When we go into an event, we don't just make it a nice, paid-for vacation," Murch says. "At the Petzl Rockies 2007 trip in Kentucky, we paid for [ten participants'] accommodations and meals, but they had to work in parking, registration, and serving food. People were coming into the event and thinking, 'Wow that guy who just registered me didn't have an arm,' but they'd also started the relationship in a way that wasn't awkward because there was a purpose to their interaction. Then when everybody was climbing, they were like, 'Holy cow, there's that registration guy climbing up the wall with one arm,' and because they'd already talked to him, they'd broken down barriers and developing that relationship...became much easier."

Malcolm Daly uses the climbing foot he designed for TRS.

Murch says this kind of full integration is particularly important for newly injured vets. "When you're 23 years old and you're starting to get back in shape after losing your leg, the last thing you want to do is hang out with a bunch of other guys who lost their legs.... You want to have fun, you want to meet girls, and you want to party.... And there's no reason they have to be segregated."

The integrated community of volunteers and athletes also contributes to the group's aim of developing and refining adaptive sports technology. Daly, in cooperation with TRS, Boulder, Colorado, has developed a commercially manufactured rock-climbing foot, and the group has developed and shared innumerable refinements of the adaptive equipment and techniques needed to support athletes with various disabilities through various sports.

Rebels to the End

Paradox intends to remain unconventional. Murch says one policy coming down the pike is the "pay-it-forward method of giving." Under this policy, athletes who receive grants of equipment or event expenses would be asked to later mentor at least one incoming Paradox athlete in their preferred sport. This, Murch says, "keeps the first individual active as well as assisting others and creating camaraderie." Women-only programs and programs for children are also on the horizon. However, Paradox doesn't want to get too big, says Secretary Reid Olmstead. They like keeping their activities highly flexible and personal. "Some of our events are so homegrown," he says, "and even at the established always seems that people are spontaneously wheeling up or walking up, so we just bring extra waiver forms. There always seem to be unexpected volunteers, and people bring spouses and friends, and there are kids all around."

That spirit of openness is central to the Paradox ideal. Skelton summed it up by saying, "Traumatic things happen.... The quicker we rally our communities, persevere, and get through them, the more fulfillment we're going to have in our lives.... And that's not just rhetoric. [At Paradox], we live it. Everybody has the potential to be just as excited and energetic about life as we are. Find us if you will, and join us in our exploits and adventures."

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