Paralysis doesn't stop paddler


POSTED: Sunday, August 30, 2009

Mark Matheson finished the Duke's OceanFest paddleboard competition from Hawaii Kai to Waikiki in two hours and 29 minutes—just one minute under the cutoff time.

He was fourth from the last in a contest that featured more than 100 paddleboarders. Two contestants didn't finish.

But winning the nine-mile race was never really the point for Matheson.

“;It's just something I enjoy doing. I can't compete with these guys. I just want to finish,”; Matheson said before he entered the water.

Matheson, 48, is paralyzed below the chest.

He has been paddleboarding since March, first on a board specially made for him by Los Angeles designer Joe Bark, then fine-tuned by Charlie Walker of the North Shore. Matheson said Walker added more straps to the edges on both sides so he could pull himself up into position from the rear of the board, two fins next to his ankles to keep his legs from falling off the board, and more padding to a wedge that would prop up his upper body.

During the race, Matheson said, he fell off the board once but got back on easily.

This was the first time in the eight-year history of the event that a paralyzed contestant had entered. Yesterday's race featured clear skies with slightly choppy ocean conditions and most contestants finished within an hour and a half.

“;They were way ahead of me from the start,”; Matheson said.

In the paddleboard race, contestants of all ages were allowed to do stand-up paddling with oars or lie down on their boards and paddle with their arms as Matheson did. They launched from Maunalua Bay and crossed the finish line in front of the Duke Kahanamoku statue in Waikiki.

Nine other disabled athletes took part in a variety of ocean sports in a separate Challenged Athletes Division during the annual four-day OceanFest. The Challenged Athletes Division is sponsored by AccesSurf, a nonprofit that offers people with disabilities adaptive equipment and instruction for beach and ocean recreation.

A defense contractor with SAIC, Matheson became paralyzed 16 years ago after falling backward off a railing four stories up.

“;I screwed up ... but I thought, 'I gotta get on with my life.' I never really skipped a beat,”; he said.

“;The hardest thing is finding an accessible hotel room in Waikiki,”; which was more stressful than any physical challenge, he said.

“;It was absolutely exhausting using so much mental energy”; trying to make managers at hotels (advertised as wheelchair accessible) understand how arduous it would be for him to use the toilet and shower without killing himself, he added.

Matheson, who is on AccesSurf's board of directors, helps at the group's monthly Day at the Beach program for disabled people of all ages at White Plains Beach at Kalaeloa.

“;I was hurt at an older age in life, but I know what it's like to do normal things,”; he said. “;Some of the kids won't because they don't have a choice. If AccesSurf can give kids or even their parents an extra glimmer of something positive in their lives, how great is that? I'm 48, fat, balding and in a wheelchair. If any of us can provide that hope or inspiration to a kid with a disability, that's what makes it worth it.”;