Ronnie Dickson: Climbing with Persistence, Heart

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By Morgan Stanfield

As you watch Ronnie Dickson spider his way along the underside of a rock overhang, it's easy to think he's a bit of a superhero. As he calmly picks his way across the pocked sandstone face, he seems to violate the laws of physics, thumbing his nose at gravity. It's not until he muscles up a vertical slab that you see the effort he's putting out. Most climbers try to always keep three balance points—hands or feet, usually—on the wall, supporting their weight as they extend a fourth point toward the next hold. Dickson doesn't have a fourth point. With his left leg missing above the knee, every time he reaches for a new hold with his right leg, he suspends his entire weight from his fingertips. If he wears a climbing prosthesis, it helps, but when he reaches for a new hold with a hand, he still has to race gravity, lunging ape-like across the stone, jamming his chalky fingers into cracks, concentrating for his life. Sometimes, he falls. When that happens, he returns to the face, climbs back up, and oftentimes plummets again. He climbs, then falls, again and again, until he solves the problem or he's flat on his back on the crash pad, utterly spent for the day.

Dickson navigates a boulder at Little Rock City (LRC) aka Stone Fort, in Soddy Daisy, Tennessee. Photographs courtesy of Ronnie Dickson.

That's when you realize what Dickson's real superpower is: persistence.

With a boyish, bespectacled face and softhearted personality that belie his ripped physique, the 23-year-old Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) spokesman and prosthetics resident has already climbed metaphorically to a major juncture in the ladder of his life, the first real meeting of his athletic life and his future career as an O&P professional.

Rooms Full of Light

Dickson seems to have been born for perseverance. His parents, Graciela and Ron Dickson, struggled with chancy, difficult infertility procedures for years before their son was born through in vitro fertilization. Then, when Dickson was two, his parents noticed that one of his legs was shorter than the other, and at five their son was diagnosed with Trevor's disease. The congenital bone-development disorder strikes just one child per million, usually damaging the growth plates of one knee and ankle. By the time he was nine, the active, rollicking child's left leg was six centimeters shorter than his right, and he entered Shriners Hospitals to undergo the Illizarov leg-lengthening procedure.

"They essentially broke my tibia and the fibula in half and inserted pins into the proximal portion of the tibia and fibula and the distal portion right by the ankle," Dickson recalls. "Every day they would turn the screws some minuscule amount to get my leg to the desired length." He spent more than six months of his third-grade year in the hospital.

"It sounds like it could potentially be a nightmare," Dickson admits, "but Shriners was such a good place—I have nothing but good memories....There are lots of other kids, some in your same situation, others battling so many different things, so you are never alone, and the rooms were just full of light."

The procedure succeeded, but only temporarily. Dickson returned to school with equal-length legs and, thanks to a soccer-playing friend, fell in love with the game that would quickly become his passion. By the time he was in junior high he was a goalie on competitive teams, able to make up for any lingering slowness by reading the field far ahead of the play. However, his left leg began holding him back again.

"By the time I got into high school at 14, the leg was significantly shorter again," he remembers. "I started accommodating by walking on my tippy toes, and the growth plates in my left knee and ankle started growing bone tumors and fused." Dickson remained a powerful soccer player, fiercely dedicated to his team, but as the tumors grew, so did his pain. "I'd get home from practice at the end of the day and my leg would hurt so much that I wouldn't be able to walk until the next morning," he says.

About to age out of the Shriners system, he consulted with surgeons, one of whom showed him an x-ray of his leg. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that I had big bone masses intertwined with all the blood vessels and ligaments in my knee and ankle, and I knew there was just nothing normal left to work with in terms of a surgery," he says. Dickson estimates that it would have taken another Illizarov procedure and five to ten more surgeries "to make a bad situation mediocre." He had an inkling that prosthetic technology could help him regain his quality of life, and he says, "I figured that like with anything else, with the right attitude I could go on with my life and it would be good again." He decided to have his leg amputated.

Graciela recalls, "As a Catholic, I took him to a few healing services, but he always prayed for somebody else," she says. "He'd say, 'Mom, look around you—I'm okay, but a lot of people need help.'"

Within months, Dickson was wearing his first prosthesis and had moved to Tampa to attend the University of South Florida. Though his life was full with school, friends, and his recovery, something was still missing.

"Soccer had been my passion," he remembers, "but amputee soccer is played on crutches, and even though I completely respect it as a sport, it wasn't the soccer that I wanted to play, so I decided to leave behind my competitive career."

Planting the Seed

A year and a half after his amputation, Dickson was happy, but still had no replacement for soccer. Then, he says, "two really life-changing events happened right around that time."

The first was hearing about the Extremity Games. "Out of all the events that they offered...the rock climbing immediately caught my attention," he says. Though he had never climbed, he went to the local climbing gym and decided he would train for the Games.

"Climbing is such an individual sport—it's completely different for everybody," he explains. "I didn't need both legs to do it 'right.' It is open to interpretation, and I was able to develop my own style from there."

Around the same time, his girlfriend was preparing for her first marathon, and at the pre-race expo, Dickson caught sight of a banner for CAF. The man at the booth told Dickson he should try one of their running or triathlon events.

"And that's how the seed got planted," he says. With the help of CAF and his girlfriend, Dickson taught himself to run.

Dickson unfurled his superhero cape and began training in both running and climbing.

"It wasn't so much about winning, just about working hard toward a goal," he says. "That was something I had been really, really missing."

At the Games, Dickson not only took second place in the bouldering competition, he met the first fellow amputees he had ever known. "Seeing everybody out there doing what they loved to do and not letting anything stop them was incredible," he says. "That Extremity Games was when I realized that the only limits that we have are the ones that we put on ourselves."

Lightbulb Moment

Dickson grabs the men's top rope second-place finish at the 2009 Extremity Games (eX4).

Quickly, Dickson's athletic life and academic life began to meet. "I had one of those lightbulb moments," the former English major says. "I realized that I really enjoy working with people, and although I wasn't very proficient with my hands, I knew with a little bit of practice I could pick it up. The problem-solving of prosthetics and working with patients was so interesting that it just seemed like the natural thing to do."

He entered the prosthetics and orthotics program at St. Petersburg College, Florida, learning to provide prosthetic care while living the fullest possible life as a prosthetics patient. At the same time, he began working much more closely with CAF. They provided training, support, and funding for him to learn to cycle, complete a 5k and a triathlon, and acquire both a bike and a rock-climbing prosthesis. Perhaps most importantly, they "helped provide a vessel in which to give back," Dickson says. He now volunteers regularly at CAF events, mentoring new amputee climbers and runners and, most recently, serving as a counselor and rock-climbing teacher at the Amputee Coalition of America's (ACA) Paddy Rossbach Youth Camp.

"That was probably one of the coolest things I've ever done," he says. "We were able to introduce...between 45 and 55 kids to rock climbing, and every time someone got to the top there was a big smile on their face.... And as much as I felt I had to give to [the campers], they were able to give even more back to me. Some of the things that some of them had overcome and their attitudes toward life were completely inspiring."

Electronic Inspiration

Dickson competes in the St. Anthony's Triathlon, St. Petersburg, Florida, as part of team CAF.

At the same time he was preparing for the youth camp, Dickson was working on taking his message to a larger audience, working with production company Louder Than 11 to develop a video short about his climbing life.

"I started thinking about all the inspiration I had gotten from having met amputees at the Extremity Games and through the Challenged Athletes Foundation and how not everybody gets that," Dickson explains. "And in the climbing community, people look online for videos of climbs that they're interested in to get an idea of how to climb them, so media about climbing is pretty heavily sought after."

Financed by his climbing sponsor, Evolve Performance Climbing Footwear, Buena Park, California, Dickson traveled with a film crew to a climbing range in Chattanooga, Tennessee, to gather footage. After months of production, they produced a video titled The Ronnie Dickson Project: Amputee Climbing, which is available for viewing or downloading at louderthan11.com. KISS Technologies, Baltimore, Maryland, underwrote the pressing of the first 1,000 DVDs, which Dickson will distribute free of charge.

"My highest hope for the video is that somebody will see it and be inspired by it—that people will say, 'Well, if this kid can rock climb, then I can.' Or, 'Rock climbing isn't my passion, but now I know I can pursue my passion to the best of my ability because of what I just saw.'"

Bringing It All Together

Dickson has another major project on his plate—at the time of this writing, he had just completed the first week of his prosthetics residency at Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates, Orlando, Florida, under Residency Director Stan Patterson, CP.

"Starting my first day of residency...was one of the proudest days of my life," he wrote in an e-mail. The facility, which exclusively provides lower-limb prostheses, many of them free to patients in need, "was a perfect fit" for him, he says. Dickson tears up a little as he talks about Patterson and the clinic: "I am not a big believer in destiny—it seems absurd that we all have a pre-set course in our lives that leads us to fill certain positions and do certain things; regardless, I could not help but feel that this is exactly what I was made to do."

Dickson now stands at the first apex of his life's journey. In September, he attended the annual National Assembly of the American Orthotic & Prosthetic Association (AOPA), in Orlando, both as a member of the Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates team and to distribute his climbing video free to all takers, patiently using his superpower to bring together his many worlds.

Morgan Stanfield can be reached at