Mark Matheson was stoked. He was back on a surfboard for the first time since his accident and the anticipation of that first ride swelled … like the wave behind him.
Just as he had so many times over the years, Matheson began paddling to stay in front of the rising bump. He pushed to stand up on the board when he realized, ‘Wait a second. I can’t.’ ”
Matheson had forgotten he was paralyzed from his mid-chest down. He had broken his back (L 5-6) when falling four stories off a hotel balcony on Kauai in 1993, but “going to stand up on the board was purely reflex,” said Matheson, who grew up surfing off the beaches of San Diego’s North County. “I did it the next time, too.
“I definitely have had to adjust my surfing style.”
Matheson got back in the water through AccesSurf, an organization that gives those with disabilities — physical and mental — the opportunity to enjoy water sports. The 50-year-old Kailua resident joined the board of AccesSurf, as well as Easter Seals Hawaii, and hopes to give back to both groups.
Matheson will compete in the Molokai 2 Oahu Paddleboard Championship on July 31, with the goal of raising $25,000 to benefit those with disabilities. This will be his second attempt to complete the 32-mile race; last year, his escort boat broke down some 10 miles from the finish, forcing Matheson to withdraw from the event. (Rules mandate all competitors have an escort boat for the entire crossing.)
“I had paddled for something like 6 hours and 1 minute when I had to get out of the water,” he said. “I got to jump back in for the last mile and a symbolic finish.”
This year, there should be no repeat of equipment problems. Not only has Matheson upped his training regimen, he has additional support through the Maui Jim sunglasses company, which will provide two escort boats, and a custom board from shaper Joe Bark.
“This has really been a team effort, and it has evolved over the past few years,” Matheson said. “Five years ago, I was in the inaugural challenged athletes division at the Duke’s Oceanfest. I was watching the (open division) guys finish the Hawaii Kai run and thought maybe I could do that distance.
“Then it was, ‘Oh, I can do Molokai,’ not knowing what it was all about.
“Every time I’ve had people who want to help me. My boards from Joe Bark have gone from 55 to 40 to 28 pounds. It started out bigger and more stable to now where it’s almost a stock paddleboard. The difference is the wings on the tail to help me load up.”
“Mark has worked so hard for this,” Bark said. “And the crew he trains with has helped us design the correct board. Mike Cote Sr. has worked very hard in the design of the board and on Mark’s workouts to bring it all together for Molokai.
“The crew at the Bark Shop is wishing Mark the best of luck in the race.”
Veteran watermen Cote and Keone Downing help with Matheson’s training schedule, usually off Wailupe Peninsula. Tuesdays are technique runs, Thursdays are light sprints and Saturdays are endurance runs of 5 to 6 hours.
“At first, I felt like the little brother, tagging along,” Matheson said. “I’m slower, et cetera, et cetera. But they’ve been fantastic and I’m feeling less of an inconvenience.
“The paddling community has made me feel comfortable. When I first started doing this, I’m sure some folks were skeptical. But a bunch of folks were, ‘We can do this. Not a problem.’
“Mike and Keone have adjusted to my situation. I can’t feel the board lift like they can. They tell me other things, like watch the nose going down, the spray, helping me learn the subtleties. It’s pretty rewarding to have them.”
The feeling is mutual. Cote said he almost cried the day that Matheson caught a series of waves and had a great ride.
“There are several things that are impressive about him,” Cote said. “First, he has such tenacity and perseverance. Most people are doing standup paddleboard because it’s easier than being on a paddleboard. It’s a hassle and a chore for Mark.
“Second, he goes hard; he trains so hard. He’s so adamant about doing this well. The biggest thing is catching waves. He’s at an unbelievable disadvantage. But he’s coming along pretty good.”
Matheson, who has continued as a program manager for Science Applications International Corporation, said he isn’t comfortable about the personal visibility that has come with his paddleboard attempts.
“But if I can get the word out about AccesSurf and Easter Seals Hawaii, I’ll suck it up,” he said. “I’m paddling for myself, but I want to use it for something bigger.
“The line I’m using is, ‘I’m 50, fat, balding and in a wheelchair and doing this.’ If it inspires someone, that’s great. My neighbor came over after seeing coverage of the race last year and said he was going to start walking a little more.”
Matheson had always been active, surfing, scuba diving, skydiving and running, including several marathons. His accident didn’t change that; it only changed the way he did it.
He took up skiing again, meeting his wife, Stacie, on a ski trip. They’ve been married for almost six years.
The day after his accident, when he was in bed at Wilcox Memorial, Matheson said he was determined to keep living his life.
“It wasn’t any sort of dramatic revelation,” he said. “I didn’t have anyone to be mad at; I screwed up.
“You can either stop living or you go on.”
Matheson had planned to warm up for the Molokai race with Monday’s Hui O He’e Nalu Independence Day Race from Sunset Beach to Waimea Bay (4 miles), and the Cline Mann from Hawaii Kai to Kaimana Beach (short course, 9 miles) on July 10. But his mother died on June 26 and he said he’ll likely do a training run of 5-6 miles instead on July 10.
“My mom would want me to continue to focus on the race,” Matheson said. “My sister will come out for the race since she brought my mom out last year for the finish. It will certainly be a bittersweet finish.”