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Meet the Paraplegic Man Who Inspires Others to Think Outside the Chair

March 13, 2014
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Meet the Paraplegic Man Who Inspires Others to Think Outside the Chair
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Sean O’Neill’s disability doesn’t prevent him from achieving impressive climbing feats.

Most of us can’t begin to imagine scaling walls of ice, let alone doing it without the use of our legs. Yet, that’s exactly what Sean O’Neill, a climber from Maine, did.

On February 26, Sean became the first paraplegic to climb the treacherous 365-foot-tall iced waterfall known as Bridal Veil Falls in Telluride, Colorado. O’Neill didn’t attempt this dangerous feat simply to get a rush. Rather, he did it to inspire other disabled people to reconsider what is possible for them to accomplish.

This is only the latest adventure for the 48-year-old Sean and his 44-year-old brother Timmy, a documentarian who captured the eight-hour ascent on film. In years past, they’ve scaled the 3,000-foot cliff of El Capitan in Yosemite and thousand-foot ice walls in the glaciers of Alaska’s Ruth Gorge. According to Rock and Ice, Sean developed special equipment that allows wheelchair-bound people to climb, using a technique he calls “sit climbing.” Timmy told Jason Blevins of the Denver Post that Sean is “the Leonardo da Vinci of aid climbing.”

It took a coordinated team effort for Sean to accomplish the feat — long considered one of the most difficult ice climbs in America. His crew used a sled to pull him to the climbing site and cleared avalanche debris off the road so he could crawl to the bottom of the waterfall. Friends set the ropes he needed and helped him position his padded seat and customized tools. “For a paraplegic to get out of their chair is really uncommon. In fact, you can not only climb out of that chair, but live outside the chair,” Timmy told Blevins.

Timmy, who co-founded Paradox Sports in Boulder, Colorado along with Army veteran DJ Skelton and others to provide adaptive sports opportunities to the disabled, hopes to premier the film about his brother’s climb — tentatively titled “Struggle” — in May at the Telluride Film Festival.

For Sean, reaching the summit was the perfect cinematic moment: “You are at the top, and it’s like I’m born as a new person,” he said.

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