Billy Tonis was just beginning to dabble in recreational wakeboarding back in 1998 when a horrific motorcycle accident appeared to end his pursuit of any kind of sport entirely.
Once a standout baseball player and golfer at California High, Ohlone College and San Francisco State, Tonis suffered a brachial plexus injury in which five nerves were severed and rendered his dominant right arm completely paralyzed.
Baseball was indeed over. So was the kind of golf Tonis once knew as a competitive scratch player. Always naturally proficient at whatever sport he tried, athletics and life became decidedly unnatural, where tying his shoes and signing his name suddenly became intimidating endeavors.
"I was pretty much down on my luck from my accident and not really knowing what to do,'' he said. "I was searching for something. I needed something."
It was fate, perhaps, that a former baseball coach at San Francisco State, Buck Taylor, challenged Tonis to go out on the Delta with him and try wakeboarding again using just his functional left arm. He was dubious but agreed to give it a shot.
"I was like, 'No way, no way,' " he recalled. "But I got there and I popped up on the board no problem and said, 'Oh wow, this is something I not only can still do but maybe I can excel at.' I decided to pursue it, and it kept me going. As it turned out, I got way better at it after my accident than I ever was before.''
A decade later, Tonis has evolved into a wakeboard marvel, capable of performing virtually every aerial trick or maneuver imaginable, even though he holds the rope with just his left hand while he tucks his right arm inside his lifejacket. He's so good, some people assume he's just showing off, not even realizing he has a disability.
But in late June, Tonis achieved a new personal pinnacle — he captured the wakeboarding gold medal at the Extremity Games in New Braunfels, Texas, his first victory in four tries at the annual competition for disabled athletes in a variety of sports.
Tonis even surprised himself — his four-minute run was fabulous and flawless.
"I was on a roll,'' he said. "The boat driver looked up and said, 'Hey, your four minutes are up.' I not only didn't fall, I got all my tricks in and I maxed out. I couldn't have asked for a better run.''
Wakeboarding is a bit like snowboarding on water, only the boarder attacks the wake of the speedboat pulling him. The more weight in the boat, the bigger the wake and the higher the person can soar into the air and perform a variety of airborne stunts. Tonis' repertoire runs the gamut, from upside down to back rolls to a half-cab roll in which he hits the wake from an inverted position and flips his board 180 degrees into a regular position. He often flies so high he lands 20 feet outside the wake.
"It took a little bit of punishment to get to that level,'' he said. "It wasn't something I just went out and automatically started doing. It required a lot of time out on the water with my buddies pushing me. I've broken my ankle, perforated my eardrum and cracked ribs wakeboarding. But when I discovered I could still do this sport and really go for it, it helped me so much as far as rekindling my competitive spirit and my love of life in general. It was worth paying the price physically.''
Tonis, 34, competes in the advanced division of the Northern California INT League, which stages four events throughout the summer, often on the Delta. That's where he trains at least three days a week, a half-hour's drive from his Livermore home.
Tonis even has his own event he co-hosts with wakeboarding pals and business partners Evan Brown, Jarrod Ehlers and Allen Bischofberger called the CIE Spring Ride, and he maintains loyal sponsors who have backed his cause for events such as the Extremity Games, CWB Wakeboards and NorCal MasterCraft boats. In short, he has carved a nice niche in the wakeboarding world the past few years.
But he considers the Extremity Games a special annual treat, because he gets a chance to meet so many individuals like himself who have worked to overcome their disabilities and revel in some of the more daring pleasures of life.
"Every year I meet new people who tell stories that blow your mind,'' he said. "You're humbled by it, and then you get to see these people compete with so much heart and determination, people with no legs or one arm or what have you. It gives you a little chill ... I get chills right now just thinking about it. It's just amazing to watch."
Out at his favorite wakeboarding spot, the Delta's Victoria Slough, Tonis has been an amazing watch himself for a while now, and he has no plans of slowing down even though he's a gold-medal winner.
"I've got to defend the title now," he said. "I can't be the guy who pushes, pushes, pushes to get to the top and then stops. Besides, I'm having way too much fun."
Contact Carl Steward at firstname.lastname@example.org.