The Freedom of Paragliding with Quadriplegia
Matt Thomas was a world-class kayaker who got paralyzed in a mountain-bike accident. His friend Joe Jackson moved in for a demanding stint as a caregiver. Outdoor sports were off the table, of course—until Thomas heard about paragliding.
Getting my buddy Matt Thomas into the driver’s seat of his Sprinter van is a 12-step process.
Mostly it involves a finicky hydraulic lift that transports Matt, seated in a wheelchair, a total of two feet, from the street to the edge of the van’s rubber floor. Then somebody has to bear-hug him and swing his inert 180-pound body from the wheelchair into the swiveling driver’s seat. The final step is to tighten the Velcro on a wide neoprene band that cinches his torso to the seat.
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One morning in September 2016, Matt slowly talks me through the transfer. I’m scared and he knows it: I nearly dropped him the last time I tried to help. He shrugs and laughs as I accidentally catch his right foot on the center console, wrenching his knee at an angle that would hurt if he could feel it. I’ve repeated this routine dozens of times, but I keep forgetting the moves, their order, and the subtleties that make the process go faster. Matt’s corrections come softly. “Pull up on the parking brake before putting it down. Nope, not that hard. Yep, there you go,” he says. The ordeal takes 20 minutes.
Matt can’t feel his body below the nipples. Sensation exists only in his index fingers, thumbs, shoulders, neck, head, and tops of his arms. For the past eight years, someone has had to help him get out of bed every morning. But he’s still able to drive his van, thanks to specialized controls that allow him to turn the wheel with his right hand and to accelerate or brake by pushing or pulling on a handle with his left.
Driving is the most freedom he has experienced since his accident, so he patiently waits for me to load him in. We’re heading from Matt’s home in Medford, Oregon, to Draper, Utah, on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, to meet a man named Chris Santacroce, a 45-year-old pilot formerly with the Red Bull Air Force who operates an adaptive-paragliding nonprofit called Project Airtime. Santacroce told us he might be able to help Matt paraglide by himself, and Matt wants to drive all 13.5 hours to get there.
The road trip fills me with dread. Rain and snow hammer our two-wheel-drive van. We wind through the Great Basin into Nevada on State Route 140 as heavy winds push the vehicle over the yellow and white lines of a two-lane road. The Sprinter has an alert feature that emits a pair of high-pitched beeps every time the driver crosses a line. Over the course of the 774-mile trip, there are thousands of beeps.
I try not to stare at the handle that Matt uses to turn the steering wheel and steady the van when it gets blasted off course. It looks like a trailer hitch, but the people who know these vehicles call it a suicide knob. I force out images of the next gust rolling us end over end through sagebrush. I’m worried about how much control Matt has, since he lacks the ability to use his triceps and move his fingers individually. But I don’t say anything. I don’t want him to think that I believe he’s weak or can’t handle the situation.
Matt’s nervous, too, though not about the drive. He’s concerned about driving all the way to Utah only to find out that he can add paragliding to the very long list of things he can no longer do.
As darkness settles in, my nerves relax. We talk—like we always do—about backcountry skiing, kayaking, and mountain biking. Matt speaks, in present tense, about the “fun-to-danger ratio” he assessed back in the old days, when he was thinking about which whitewater drops to run and which to walk around. He’ll probably never kayak again, but for a while I forget that.
When I first met Matt, in 2007, he was already a legend. I was 24 and he was 33. We were both guiding at Adventure Whitewater, a rafting company located 20 miles downriver from Happy Camp, California. He was short, just five foot six, and well-built. His body seemed like it was too small to package all his energy.
On the first trip we guided together, down the Klamath River, Matt ran circles around the rest of the staff, despite the fact that most of us were ten years younger than him. His black hair was already graying at the temples and receding from his forehead, making him look older than he was. His brown eyes were marked with smile lines.
At the beginning of the trip, he heckled me into leaping off Ukonom Falls, a 70-foot cliff with a landing the size of a kiddie pool. I had wanted to jump it for a decade but never found the courage. Later, after a full day of work, we went kayaking in a severe thunderstorm. The weather rattled me so much that I got out halfway down the run and huddled with two friends under an oak tree while Matt paddled to the truck. He drove back to us with his shirt off, arm slung out the window, laughing. “Do you suppose those helmets are lightning-proof?” he said.
Over the next two years, he did some of the toughest whitewater runs in the country while juggling a full-time civil-engineering job. Often he teamed up with Ben Stookesberry, one of the best expedition kayakers in the world. “Matt was the ultimate weekend warrior,” Stookesberry says. “He was a formidable, expert-level kayaker.”
Matt joined Stookesberry and two others on a four-day first descent of the south fork of the San Joaquin River, a Class V+ section of water in the Sierra Nevada considered one of kayaking’s last great prizes. On day two, Matt got pinned between house-size boulders. While scratching at the wet granite, he was sucked feetfirst into a 30-foot-long crack between the rocks. Matt’s body jammed in the sieve—every boater’s worst nightmare. He remained stuck long enough to contemplate death. Then the water pressure built up enough to shoot him out the other side. But before long, the sketchy situation became a joke. For the rest of the trip, he referred to the sieve as the “love tunnel.”
While Matt was logging first descents, I was following his blog posts from behind a desk at a paddling magazine in Seattle. Kayaking was the most important thing in my life; I regularly lost sleep over failing to make the leap from pretty good to the elite level Matt had achieved. In May of 2009, while Matt and I had breakfast at a restaurant in Ashland, Oregon, he discussed the runs he would take me down and the specific skills he’d help me develop to take the next step. I couldn’t stop thanking him. “I’ve been looking for someone to mentor,” he said.
Two months later, on July 9, Matt met his buddy Anthony Smith and Smith’s uncle near the Chuck’s Chips trailhead in Talent, Oregon, for a bike ride. Matt pounded coffee from an insulated cup that showed more stickers than metal while he fired off all the good things that had transpired in the past few days. Matt’s on-again, off-again romantic relationship was looking up. A big deal was going to go through at work. The three men clipped in and started riding.
In about ten minutes they came to a four-foot double, a jump and a landing placed so closely together that they looked like humps on a camel. There was a bank of dirt just beyond the landing. Matt knew that this was the type of jump you really don’t want to fuck up; he’d chosen to steer around it ever since trail builders had modified it some months earlier into a steep, imposing obstacle. Eight years later, he still doesn’t know why he chose to go for it on that hot summer morning. Or why he hit the jump with so much speed.
Matt overshot the landing by more than five feet and hurtled over the handlebars, thumping headfirst into the bank. When Anthony rode up, Matt’s body was crumpled in the fetal position. He wasn’t moving. Thirty seconds went by before Matt sucked in a desperate breath and groaned, “I can’t feel my legs.”
It took nine minutes in a helicopter to get to Providence Medical Center in Medford. A nun asked Matt if there were any family or friends she should call. A doctor showed him a CT scan of his neck, with one vertebra completely out of place, and told him he needed surgery immediately. If untreated, some spinal fractures can compromise the respiratory and cardiovascular systems.
“What about my legs?” he asked.
“If we don’t do surgery now, they will be the least of your worries,” the doctor said. Matt consented to the operation. Before going under anesthesia, he decided he didn’t want to survive the procedure if he couldn’t use his legs. Then everything went black.
A year and a half after Matt’s accident, over a cup of coffee at our favorite spot in Ashland, he told me he needed someone broke and directionless to help him move to San Diego. Was I available?
Since leaving the hospital, he’d spent his time in Medford with his parents, in what he called “pure survival mode.” The surgery had realigned Matt’s spine, but he was left with C5 complete quadriplegia, meaning he needed help with almost every aspect of life. With effort he could do small things like feed himself and read on his Kindle. Paper books were too heavy to hold.
The previous summer he won a scholarship and spent two months at Project Walk, a physical-therapy center in San Diego County. Matt loved exercising hard and not being treated like he was made of glass. The hope and positivity from the other clients were infectious, and he wanted to return. “If there was a chance to gain anything back, that was the place,” he said.
Matt needed a caregiver to move down with him, a house that fit his needs, and finances to stay there as long as it would take for him to learn to walk again.
What was in it for me? At 28, I had decided to go back to raft guiding after giving up on being a journalist. I was penniless and starting to accept the fact that I would never become a Class V+ kayaker when I heard from Matt. I was living in my truck, paddling every day, and drinking every night. I agreed to help. I assumed it would be like the times we’d spent with one another in the summers since his accident—getting coffee, eating together, going on long drives. I hoped that being his caregiver would give me a sense of purpose, and I liked the way people looked at me when they saw me helping him with everyday tasks. I would be the good guy, the selfless attendant. I didn’t understand the depth of responsibility and intimacy I was signing up for.
In late December of 2010, Matt’s parents and I packed up a U-Haul, and we all moved him down to San Diego. I committed to working for Matt seven days a week for roughly four months.
Nothing highlights Matt’s injury like the transfer. Since Matt has minimal use of his arms and almost no trunk strength, he can’t get in and out of his wheelchair by himself. This fact structures his life. “I really want to be transferred, but I really don’t want to be transferred,” he told me. “If I could stand up for just ten seconds, I could have a cheaper vehicle, I would have the freedom of going to the bathroom by myself, I could go to bed when I wanted to. If I could transfer myself, world domination would be the next step.”
Transferring Matt gave me the sense of purpose I was looking for. I was his hands and feet. Within weeks of starting work for him, one of my oldest and dearest rafting buddies overdosed on pills and my girlfriend told me she wanted to see other people. Assisting Matt with the minutiae of his life—grabbing a napkin, taking off a sweatshirt—became a distraction from my own grief and anger. Performing these simple tasks for someone else, hyper-focusing on Matt’s needs, forced me out of my own body and head.
But it could be maddening. Before moving in with Matt, I had chosen to live simply, so that no one could control my time. In San Diego, Matt’s needs dictated everything. Each morning, I would unfold and lay out various T-shirts, until Matt decided which he wanted to wear. I got impatient if he didn’t choose after the first couple of shirts. This was always followed by profound self-loathing. Matt doesn’t get a break from his life, I’d remind myself. What kind of piece of shit are you to begrudge him this small measure of agency?
Matt was largely gracious as I worked with him—to this day he can’t or won’t name a single thing I did that bothered him. But I could tell that my constant presence was taxing. When we had bad days, we couldn’t get away from each other even if we wanted to.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Matt trained for three hours at Project Walk. On days off, we hung out at the beach. Every night I’d help get him into bed. He needed to be rolled over every three hours so he wouldn’t develop bedsores. His mother, Jeanie, and I took turns with the task.
Every other day, Matt had to take a shower and defecate. Because he can’t do these things on its own, it’s a three-hour ordeal. Any awkwardness I felt about the intimacy of helping Matt do them disappeared during the first week. They became nearly as routine as doing them myself. Except for the time I dropped him.
Like any other morning, that one began with a series of stretches designed to keep Matt’s legs from atrophying. Then I rolled him onto his side and administered a rectal laxative called Enemeez. Once that was done, I had about two minutes to get him into a seated position, squeeze his knees between mine, hug him below his armpits, swing him 90 degrees onto an aluminum chair outfitted with a foam toilet seat and wheels, and roll him into position over the toilet.
But on that January day I was hungover, still fuming about the “other men” my ex-girlfriend wanted to see. I wasn’t focused, and I let Matt slip through my legs. He fell slowly. My face was pressed up against his right cheek while I tried to keep a grip on his sides as he slid to the floor. “I’ve got you,” I kept saying as we collapsed onto the rug.
With seconds to go before a shit explosion, I had to deadlift him back onto the chair. I was successful, but after wheeling him over the toilet, I went to my room and cried in the dark. I wasn’t strong enough to be Matt’s hands and feet. I was a bad caregiver, a bad friend. After 15 minutes, I composed myself and went to check on him.
“I’m so sorry,” I said.
“It’s really OK,” he replied.
As April came to a close, the Shasta River basin snowpack was nearly 200 percent higher than average, which meant it was going to be a banner spring for kayaking back in southern Oregon. I used the money from Matt to pay off my credit card debt and buy a new drysuit. On May 1, I strapped Matt’s old Jackson Rocker kayak to the roof of my truck and headed north. He and his family still needed my help; they hadn’t found a long term replacement, and they asked me to stay longer. I turned them down. I knew there was not going to be an end to Matt’s needs. I wasn’t an angel or a professional caregiver. I had the chance to walk away, and I did.
“Pull down my shirt?” Matt asks. I do and he studies himself carefully in the reflection of the van’s sliding door. Then we head into Chris Santacroce’s Super Fly Paragliding headquarters, a small office fronting a cavernous warehouse.
I haven’t worked for Matt in years, but I still try to be as nonchalant as possible when opening a door for him. I know he prefers to ask for assistance rather than have it forced on him, but sometimes I can’t help myself. I fight the urge to push him through the entryway as we shuffle into the nondescript brick building that sits on the outskirts of Salt Lake City’s endless sprawl.
For Matt, there’s a big difference between doing a sport and having a sport done for him. The year before the crash, he devoted hundreds of hours to finding new surf spots on the Northern California coast. After the accident, he took an adaptive surf lesson in San Diego but wasn’t able to keep himself in a prone position on the board for more than a few seconds. “I know what it’s like to surf,” he says. “And that wasn’t it.”
The prevailing motivation in Matt’s life has been perseverance. For the past eight years, he has published a blog called Matt Never Gives Up, and his Instagram handle is—what else?—@mattnevergivesup. What specifically he’s not giving up has shifted considerably, though.
Since the time we lived together, Matt’s idea of recovery has expanded beyond regaining what he lost physically. In February of 2014, he married Melissa Schenck. She makes transfers look effortless and fills their lives with laughter. That November, they moved back to southern Oregon, where Matt bought his van and saved money to start a family. In 2015, he earned his master’s in civil engineering and got a job that he loves. Walking has taken a back seat, and Matt has lost all interest in revisiting the sports that defined his life before his accident. “They are never going to be what they were,” he says. Still, paragliding has always been on his mind.
After he was injured, Matt spent 35 days in the hospital. He passed hours staring at his big toe, trying to will it to move. Anytime he wasn’t doing physical therapy, he was online, obsessively researching experimental cures for quadriplegia. During that search, he came across paragliding.
Generally, paragliders launch their parachutes by foot, suspended by a simple harness. But with the help of specialized equipment, the sport is a near perfect match for Matt’s limited mobility. He would need help inflating the glider with wind and taking off, but once airborne the glider needs only slight corrections, achieved through the use of a pair of toggles that Matt can firmly grasp. Tandem flying would be easy; going solo was the big question mark.
“I can see you have plenty of grip,” Santacroce says as Matt swings in a three-wheeled paragliding chair suspended from a flight simulator in the warehouse. “Kayakers usually take to this sport quickly. The way good boaters hold a paddle mimics the subtle touch necessary to be good at controlling a glider.”
Santacroce looks like Maverick from Top Gun and talks like a bro version of Ram Dass. He’s a fixture of the thriving paragliding community in Draper. The home he shares with his wife, two children, and an obese cat named Mumu is located next to the busiest launch in the state.
Santacroce used to be one of the best paragliders in the world, flying for 13 years with the Red Bull Air Force, a group of elite glider pilots, BASE jumpers, and wingsuiters who perform stunts at events around the world. Then, in June of 2008, during a flight, he caught the tip of his glider while landing and slammed into the ground. He injured his L2 vertebra, which confined him to a wheelchair for a while. After making a full recovery, he started Project Airtime.
If paragliding is a perfect sport for Matt’s level of mobility, Santa, as he’s known, seems to be the ideal teacher. His method involves fostering calm, deliberate decision-making. He delivers little in the way of absolutes, which is appropriate in a sport where conditions can change dramatically midflight. During our time in Draper, he never gives us a concrete answer to anything, replacing yes and no with “we are going to be in the moment” or “we are going to show up and be positive.”
Eventually, we begin to understand the purpose of his ambiguity. He isn’t going to tell us what’s about to happen, but we are expected to be ready for it. Once a student is in the air, there’s nothing Santa can do to help. He can only make suggestions over a radio. Students have to be prepared to take control.
Very early on our seventh day in town, Santa sits upright in his bed at home, wondering if Matt should fly by himself. Matt had taken the controls for a portion of all five of the tandem flights he’d shared with Santa, landing the glider twice on his own. He has proven that he has that intangible quality paragliding instructors refer to as “airmanship.” The previous day, Santa told Matt he was ready to solo. Now he isn’t so sure.
In bed, Santa asks himself if everything is right in the world. He decides it is and goes back to sleep. When the sun comes up, he’s affirmed by his children’s positivity, the number of green lights he hits while taking them to school, and a perfect window of 10-to-15-mile-per-hour winds. Matt, he decides, can do it.
That day, as Matt and I drive to the takeoff point—a hill of dirt and grass about the size of two football fields—I fill the silence with small talk. “Man, why do these Utah drivers drive so fast?” I ask. Matt just sits there. “The whole state is in a hurry,” I continue. “I think we’re going to be early today. What do you think the wind is doing? Have you gotten a text from Santa this morning?” Nothing.
When we arrive, Matt greets Santa and says he’s ready to fly on his own.
“Do I have time to set up GoPros?” I ask.
“When it is time to go, it is time to go,” Santa says, not really answering my question.
We transfer Matt to the glider’s flight chair, secure a buckle at his chest, and Velcro his feet to the front of the chair.
Paragliding is graceful once you’re in the air, but getting the massive nylon canopy inflated and under control with your feet on the ground can be hectic. Paragliders stand with their backs to the takeoff zone and let the wind fill the chambers of the canopy before pulling it from the ground, turning around, and launching. Santa stands at the back of the chair doing the pulling, spinning, and pushing while Matt handles the controls. On their first attempt at inflation, the bottoms of Santa’s shoes drag along the gravelly takeoff for 15 feet before Matt drops the glider to the ground. Another attempt takes them in a 40-foot zigzag.
Finally, at 8:58 a.m., with eight steps and a solid push from Santa, Matt is airborne. Santa gives five simple commands over the radio, and Matt glides and lands as well as any beginner on the mountain. He tells us he didn’t really think about the chair or his body for the two minutes he was in the air. “I didn’t have to ask anyone for anything,” he says. “No ‘move me here, hand me that.’ None of that. It was just me.”
He solos two more times that day. The last flight is at dusk. There’s barely any wind, and the sky is empty. Santa watches Matt initiate a turn before he suggests it, so he backs off from giving orders over the radio. For the first time in a week, I relax.
As the sun drops below the Oquirrh Mountains, Santa drives his truck down to pick up Matt at the landing zone. Santa gets out and, with the help of two other paragliders, wheels the flight chair facefirst into the truck bed. Matt watches the alpenglow illuminate Lone Peak’s face while he shares the high with the other two paragliders in the bed. The bumpy ride back to his van feels familiar to Matt, almost exactly like kayaking shuttles used to feel.
“When was the last time you rode in the bed of a truck?” Santa asks as we back the chair out of the tailgate at the end of the drive.
“It’s been a while,” says Matt.