All Heart at the Payette River Games: The Jonas Letieri Story
Don’t let what you cannot do interfere with what you can do.
John Wooden, Collegiate Hall of Fame Basketball Coach – UCLA
There were many story lines and subplots at the 2015 Payette River Games from the speculation on who would claim their share of the $50,000 prize purse to the colorful attire sported by female competitors such as Izzy Gomez and Annabel Anderson. Residents of rural Cascade, Idaho had probably never witnessed such a vibrant display of neon and faux animal prints motifs, but make no mistake, it was the smiling, humble courage of a man from Brazil that out shined them all.
Thirty year old Jonas Letieri traveled to Cascade from his home town of Cabo Frio, approximately 97 miles (156 km) east of the well-known Brazilian coastal city of Rio de Janeiro. A natural competitor, Jonas tragically lost both of his hands four years ago in an electrical accident while volunteering at his local church. After his hands were amputated below the elbow, Jonas was no longer able to surf. Longing to get back on the water, Jonas took up stand up paddling and in the past three years he has immersed himself in the Brazilian paddling community.
Jonas Letieri conquering the course. Photo, Anthony Vela
“SUP is such a dynamic sport,” Jonas told me, “you can practice it all the time – day or night.” With the aid of a pair of custom rings designed to enable him to hold a paddle with his arms, Jonas has developed his skills to become a competitive racer and inspiration to followers around the globe. His indomitable spirit led him to win his heat in the SUP Cross repêchage round at the Payette River Games two weeks ago in what was undoubtedly the most exciting and inspiring moment of the three-day competition. As the five competitors took off down the river, Jonas was the only paddler to make his way through the main feature – a steep drop into a churning cauldron of foamy white water – without falling off of his board. Although he was passed by a competitor in the mid-section of the course, Jonas maintained his focus and pulled ahead to reclaim the lead in a final sprint to the finish line to win the heat and earn the right as the sole paddler to advance to the next round.
The Payette River Games was Jonas’ first visit to the United States and his first time paddling on a river. Back home in Brazil, he favors long distance paddling on the ocean, particularly routes from one city to another and he cited the SIC Maui Bullet 14’ as his favorite board. Like many paddlers, Jonas told me he enjoys spending time on the ocean and relaxing at the beach – honorable pursuits for any stand up paddler.
In true competitive fashion, Jonas Letieri has not allowed the accident which claimed his hands to impede his passion for spending time on the water. Like many successful individuals, Jonas has made the most of his opportunities by refusing to give in and continually focusing what may be possible. The river humbled everyone that weekend in Idaho, but the unwavering enthusiasm and spirit displayed by Jonas Letieri captivated all in attendance and will continue to run long after the final horn has sounded.
A lesser person could have quite easily given in after enduring the loss of their hands, but Jonas’ true character has shined through as he turned the life changing challenge into an opportunity. Based on his display of grit and compassion at the Payette River Games, there is little doubt Jonas will continue to overcome obstacles and open doors to many additional opportunities and discoveries in the years to come.
Jonas Letieri and the Games
Jonas and his family gather with Mark and Kristina Pickard. Photo, Matt Chebatoris
For the past year, the Payette River Games organizers, Mark and Kristina Pickard, have sponsored an athlete who best represents the values and character traits which embody the ethos of Kelly’s Whitewater Park where the Games are staged. Many of this year’s attendees were unaware of the Pickard’s initiative, but as Mark began his special announcement on the competition’s final day, there was no surprise with the selection of Jonas Letieri as Kelly’s Whitewater Park’s 2015 sponsored athlete.
There were many crowd favorites at the Payette River Games this year – some will likely return in 2016, while others may move on with their careers and leave the river behind. While it is difficult to predict what the future may bring, I hope I am in the former category, if not as a competitor, as one of the thousands of spectators lining the bank of the Payette River as we sit together on the rocky steps watching new stories unfold in the rapids below.