An Amputee Turned SUP Pro and a Paddle Designer Work Together to Achieve Greatness in the Water
Written By: Susan Krupa
Photographed By: Maxx Buchanan Paddleboard Amputee
Everyone has a plan or idea of what they want their life to look like. You continue down this path, stumbling over small obstacles and challenges that come your way to try and achieve your “perfect life.” Then something happens that takes you completely off your desired path and into new, uncharted territory. Fear and uncertainty are all around, leaving you with the choice to either be consumed by it or to rise above. This is a story of one man who was ripped from his planned life and unwillingly put on a completely different course. This is the story of the tenacity of the human spirit and the generosity of another man who came alongside to help with the unexpected journey.
Just over five years ago near Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Jonas Letieri was happily living his life and surfing as much as he could. Being in the water and surfing was like magic to Jonas; it was what he loved and where he found great joy. He brought this joy to his local church. One day, the church needed a new sign to be hung—three stories up. Volunteering for the task, Jonas climbed up and started to install the metal sign with both hands. And then his life changed forever. He accidentally touched a power line resulting in an electric current charging through his body and throwing him off the building. He woke up in the hospital to find he was on the road to recovery but with one change—he had lost both his hands and part of his arms.
Jonas made a full recovery from his injuries and began to figure out what his life was going to look like now without full arms and with no hands. Everything had to be relearned, be it eating, getting dressed or driving. In the midst of figuring all of this out, he also put on his list learning how to surf again. For Jonas, it wasn’t a question of if he could surf, it was a question of how he was going to surf. So he told his father of his plan, took his board to the ocean, hit the water, and paddled out. His dad thought he was crazy but supportive. How was he possibly going to surf? And it wasn’t easy. For over a year, Jonas tried to find a way to make it work. He could catch a wave, but popping up to a standing position was proving to be difficult. After innumerable unsuccessful attempts, one day he did it—caught a wave, stood up, and rode it. And at that moment when he was riding the wave, he got his life back. But the challenges still remained, so he kept searched for solutions. Cue stand up paddle boarding.
It made sense due to the fact that Jonas wasn’t having problems catching waves, he was having problems standing up. With a SUP, it is a non-issue. However, the new struggle was how to paddle without the use of his hands. Once again, his father was unsure about it all, but he wasn’t going to stop Jonas. With his help, they were able to make some modifications to a stand-up paddle at home using a PVC pipe they found in the backyard. Using his invention, he was able to draw the blade back and propel himself forward. The top of the paddle could be used as a handle to give the other arm leverage. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked. Without missing a beat, Jonas started to enter and compete in SUP events. As it turns out, he is a true talent in the sport. The years of surfing combined with being a trained athlete allowed him to keep up with the pack and be competitive. This got the attention of lots of people, but one person, in particular, saw Jonas race one day and was in the position to help make his paddling even better.
It happened during a SUP race in Idaho, where difficult whitewater conditions caused all the paddlers in one heat to fall off their boards after the first large drop. All the paddlers ended up in the water, except Jonas. He came paddling down the river around the buoy seemingly unscathed by the conditions. When the crowd saw this, they stood up and started chanting his name and cheering him on to victory. One of the spectators in the crowd that day was Jim Terrell. Remembering it still brings tears to his eyes. “If you were there that day, you saw something great,” Jim recounts. A native of Ohio and a four-time Olympic canoeist, he has extensive experience competing around the world and knows a lot about paddling. Now as the owner of Quickblade Paddles, he lives in California and designs paddles. After seeing Jonas, he thought, if Jonas could do as well as he did with a homemade paddle, how much better could he be with a custom paddle? So Jim set to work, making designs and prototypes until he came across a paddle design that he thought could work for Jonas. He kept the concept of the rings around the shaft of the blade that Jonas had on his homemade version, but added a curved surface as a handle that allowed Jonas to have greater control of the paddle and transfer more of his energy into the water. He brought Jonas up from Brazil to California to give it a try. With some tweaks along the way, Jonas walked away with a brand new paddle that was exactly what he needed to up his game.
When Jim looks back at how he came to know Jonas, he is overwhelmed by the perseverance of this stellar athlete. In Jonas he sees a human being who wants nothing more than to be on the water. His loss could not put a dent in his plans, and when people watch him race, they are inspired by his love of the sport and the joy he brings. But while others may be focusing on his disability, Jonas is just focused on the race. That’s not to say that it’s always easy, but the same sheer determination that got him back on the water after the accident carries him through each event and any difficult conditions. Although Jim may have helped Jonas by designing a paddle, Jim feels like he has received the true gift. He believes he is fortunate to have been a part of Jonas’ journey. Jonas’ life may now look very different than what he dreamed of years ago, but there is a crowd of people on this new path cheering him on. Jonas agrees, “It’s crazy, but the accident was the best thing that happened in my life. I thought everything was gone, but it’s not at all. I have so much more now.”
Making Waves: Jonas’ favorite paddling spot in SoCal is San Clemente or Dana Point, and his favorite paddling spot in the world would be Hawaii.
Picking Favorites: Jonas prefers a super narrow Mistral board.
Peak Shape: Jonas’ training regimen includes paddling four to five days a week, running, swimming and Jiu Jitsu.
The Finish Line: Jonas’ race schedule
-Molokai 2 Oahu: July 30
-SUP 11 City Tour (220km in five days in the Netherlands): Sept. 13
-Kelly’s Whitewater Park
Amputee Turned SUP Pro Jonas Letieri’s Journey Back to the Water