Climber Aims to Inspire AC Campers

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Volume 20, Issue 3 May/June 2010 | Download PDF

by Scott McNutt

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Ronnie Dickson bouldering at the Stone Fort in Chattanooga, Tennessee Photo courtesy of George Yaeckel

Rock climber Ronnie Dickson wants kids with disabilities to challenge their own ideas of what they can do – so he’s bringing a climbing clinic to the 2010 Amputee Coalition of America’s Paddy Rossbach Youth Camp to help campers see what they can do.

“We are all capable of much more than we could ever dream of,” says the 23-year-old prosthetics and orthotics graduate of St. Petersburg College, Florida. “It just takes the vision and the belief that it is possible. Through meeting other amputee climbers at the Extremity Games, I realized the only limits we have are those we impose on ourselves. Rock climbing is a very accessible sport for people with disabilities, and whether or not it’s something the campers end up pursuing, it will be one more thing they’ve accomplished.”

As a child, Dickson was active in sports. He participated in swimming, basketball and his favorite, soccer, through high school. When he was 5, he was diagnosed with Trevor’s Disease, a bone disorder that causes growth plates in the limbs to expand unevenly. In Dickson’s case, it caused the plates in his left leg to grow slower than the plates in his right. When he was 10, he underwent a bone-lengthening procedure on his left leg, but a few years later, growth had slowed again and tumors – large, noncancerous masses of bone – began growing in his knee and ankle. His left foot froze in a tiptoe position and his knee’s range of motion was severely restricted. By the time he was 18, Dickson had had enough.

“Rock climbing is a very accessible sport for people with disabilities, and whether or not it’s something the campers end up pursuing, it will be one more thing they’ve accomplished.”

“It got to the point where, after soccer practice, I wouldn’t be able to walk until the next morning,” he says. “It would just be painful. It came down to, have 30 surgeries to correct it and it still be not great or have surgery to get rid of it and move on with my life. That was the decision I made, and I couldn’t have made a better decision.”

Dickson got a prosthesis and went off to college at the University of South Florida like other high-school graduates. He went to class, he hung out with his friends, he worked out. But he didn’t have a sport he was dedicated to.

“When I was growing up, soccer was the thing that I looked forward to,” he explains. “Every week, it was that passion in my life – it really got me excited. As an amputee, I didn’t have anything like that until I found climbing.” And he found it by looking through a magazine, possibly inMotion, at his prosthetist’s office, where he saw an ad for the Extremity Games.

“I thought, ‘This seems pretty cool,’” he says. “It just happened to be happening in Orlando. I looked through the list of events – there was kayaking, BMX biking, motocross and everything – and out of all of them, I saw the rock climbing and that immediately sparked my interest. So that night I went home and looked up rock climbing in Tampa, and it turned out we had an indoor rock climbing facility and that was how it all started.”

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Ronnie Dickson bouldering in the new River Gorge, West Virginia Photo courtesy of Devaki Murch

Dickson took second in the bouldering competition in his first Extremity Games, and he’s been climbing ever since. He does both of the most popular forms of climbing, bouldering and sport climbing. In sport climbing, the participant is on a rope with a belay partner, typically climbing a 40- to 100-foot near-vertical rock face. Bouldering participants do not have belay partners (but do generally go in groups), there is no harness, the climbs are usually no higher than 20 feet, and padding is placed at the bottom to create a soft “landing area” to fall onto. Of the two, Dickson prefers bouldering.

“Bouldering is a really powerful gymnastic form of climbing,” he says. “On a 20-foot section of rock, you can do movements that are a lot more difficult than if you’re climbing up a 100-foot pitch of rock. Sport climbing is more technical and has a little more finesse to it. I participate in both, but I’ve really taken fancy to bouldering.”

With a film crew from Louder Than 11, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based rock-climbing promotion organization, Dickson is making an inspirational video of his climbing that he hopes to distribute to amputees. He estimates it is 80 percent complete, and after shooting some additional footage, they hope to release it some time this summer. He notes that, although face-to face contact is “absolutely the best,” it’s not always possible, and the growth of social media allows for other forms of interaction.

“No experience changed my life for the better more than actually meeting another amputee,” Dickson says. “And once you see amputees do rock climbing, or an amputee running or wakeboarding or whatever, you’re like, ‘If this person can do that, now I can go out and do it.’ You can’t always put everyone in touch with an amputee, but you can say, ‘Hey, check out this DVD. I think you’ll see some benefits from some of the content.’”

The crew has been filming Dickson in climbs around the Southeast. Outdoor bouldering is his focus currently, he says.

“I still do Extremity Games competitions, but I’ve been trying to push my own personal limits in my outdoor climbing,” he says. “I have been trying to pursue and find outdoor climbs that are challenging and do some of the hardest rock climbs an amputee has done out of doors, and the crew films me as I do this. We do a lot of interviews along with the climbing footage. I just want to put it out there as an inspirational piece to say, ‘You just got to go for it; you can do whatever you put your mind to.’”

Dickson plans to help the ACA youth campers put their minds to climbing this summer.

“It’s a huge thing, no matter what,” he says. “Your first time reaching the top, there’s no feeling like it, whether that will be your first and only time or whether it’s something you’ll continue to do time and again. All it takes is getting exposed to it the first time. Once you’ve seen it, that inspires you and gives you the courage to go out there and do what you want to do. I just want to give these kids a little something different. The more things we can expose them to, the more options they have in life.”

The ACA will share more information on Ronnie’s video when it becomes available.