The Unstoppable Joe Stone

In 2011, just a year after he was paralyzed in a paragliding accident, Joe Stone biked the Going-to-the-Sun Road. He hasn’t slowed down since.

By Justin Franz
Joe Stone drinks from his water container while stopping at a pullout on Going-to-the-Sun Road surrounded by fellow bikers Patrick Kinville, Brian Ries, Tyler Sweeney and Kevin Ries, left to right, east of Logan Pass. - Lido Vizzutti/Flathead Beacon

There was a moment 10 years ago when Joe Stone thought it was all over.

It was August 2010 and Stone, then 25 years old, was lying in a hospital room after being paralyzed in a speed-flying accident in Missoula. For someone who lived his life outside — just two years earlier he had moved from Minnesota to Montana so he could be in the mountains — it felt like a death sentence.

“I was laying there thinking I was going to have to live the rest of my life 100% dependent on other people,” he said. “I thought I was going to have to live in a nursing home. I thought I had thrown my whole life away.”

At the time, Stone couldn’t even sit up, much less go out and enjoy the outdoors he so deeply loved. But with a year’s worth of therapy and persistence, Stone was able to get back outside. Almost a year to the day after he was almost killed jumping off the face of Missoula’s Mount Jumbo, Stone hand-cycled Glacier National Park’s Going-to-the-Sun Road. Stone’s incredible feat was featured in the Flathead Beacon a few days later, under the headline “No Quitting Now,” and nine years later the quadriplegic athlete has not stopped making headlines.

Stone will be back in Northwest Montana on March 18 to speak about his incredible journey at Flathead Valley Community College. During that same event, which starts at 7 p.m. in the Arts and Technology Building, Stone will share his award-wining film “It’s Raining, So What: The Story of Joe Stone.”

That story begins on Aug. 13, 2010 when Stone was making his fourth speed-flying (an offshoot of paragliding) run of the day. New to the sport, Stone was practicing to do barrel rolls. While the first few attempts had been successful, something went wrong during the fourth and the lines of his parachute got twisted. He began to plummet to the earth and hit the ground anywhere from 50 to 60 miles per hour. The crash knocked him unconscious, broke four ribs, seven vertebrae, punctured his right lung and liver, and damaged his heart and spinal cord. Stone was put into a medically induced coma for three-and-a-half weeks before being transferred to a hospital back in Minnesota to be close to his family. When he later regained consciousness at the hospital, he was unable to feel anything below his neck and unable to move anything below his chest.

But then Stone hatched a plan. He was determined not to let the accident change his outdoor-driven lifestyle. Not long after he began physical therapy, he set a goal to hand-cycle the Sun Road. His friends were shocked, but a year later he did it.

“Initially it didn’t look like he was going to make it,” said Patrick Kinville, one of Stone’s childhood friends, who biked the road with him. “(Doing) this never crossed my mind.”

After conquering the Sun Road, Stone set his sights on his next goal: becoming the first wheelchair-using quadriplegic to compete in an Ironman triathlon. For the next two years, Stone trained constantly to prepare for the event. Stone wore an adaptive wetsuit for the swimming section, and he used a hand-cycle and racing wheelchair for the running and biking sections. In November 2013, he ventured to Florida for the big event. Just three years after the accident, Stone said standing at the starting line was an emotional moment.

“I had thought I had thrown my whole life away,” he said of the 2010 accident. “But fast-forward three years and there I was standing at the starting line of an Ironman competition. It just blew my mind.”

But after competing in the Ironman, Stone had no interest in repeating that effort. His next goal was the return to the sky.

“Training for the Ironman had become my entire life. If I wasn’t preparing for a workout, I was working out, and if I wasn’t doing those things, I was sleeping,” he said. “But I just couldn’t stop thinking about flying.”

In March 2014, Stone once again started paragliding.

“The hardest part was telling my family I was getting back into a sport that had taken so much from me,” he said. “But at the same time, the sport has also given me so much.”

Since then, Stone has continued to paraglide and has become a public speaker, traveling around telling people about his amazing life. Stone has also started the Joe Stone Foundation, a nonprofit that helps advocate for the disabled and gets people of all abilities into the outdoors. In the past, the foundation has partnered with mountain bike festivals to bring adaptive hand cycles.

Looking back at the last decade, Stone said he realizes how wrong he was to think his life was over after the accident and that what started in 2010 made him who he is today.