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Shell Beach kiteboarder Kinsley ThomasWong's will to fly

dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com

With an exercise specialist standing behind him, Kinsley ThomasWong squeezes his eyes shut, takes deep breaths and grimaces as his brain silently orders his right arm to move.

But the arm won’t budge, so the specialist, Larry Goldzman, gently guides it forward and backward.

“Pull back,” Goldzman says, his hand gently clasped around ThomasWong’s right wrist. Then, slowly, he continues: “Now push ... now pull back ... now push, push, push.”

Even though Goldzman is helping, he reminds ThomasWong that he has to do the work. That way his brain can re-learn how to send signals to his limbs.

“The mind is so powerful,” Goldzman says, as ThomasWong’s wife, Jamie, and 7-month-old son, Taizen, watch in the dining room.

While other patients would have given up long ago, Goldzman added, ThomasWong has never waned in his commitment to recover.

“Attitude is everything,” he said. “And that’s the bottom line with this injury.”

Since he was injured in a serious kiteboarding accident in July, ThomasWong, of Shell Beach, has regained only slight movement in his left arm, shoulders and upper back. But considering he was paralyzed from the neck down, that’s major progress.

Still, that’s not enough for this extreme athlete, who is determined to return to the water.

“I will get back to normal,” ThomasWong said from his wheelchair. “I know I’m going to get back.”

While he’s known for his prowess in extreme sports, ThomasWong — considered the father of Central Coast kiteboarding — said he did not come from an athletic family.

“I’m the black sheep,” he joked.

After growing up in San Jose, ThomasWong, 43, moved to the Central Coast in 1985 and soon began studying business and marketing at Cal Poly. While he had played competitive sports before, it wasn’t until college — when friend Steve Davies introduced him to surfing — that he got into water sports.

Eventually, he would pick up numerous sports, including paragliding, scuba diving, kayaking and mountain biking.

“I do all the sports until I get to the highest level,” said ThomasWong, who owns Xtreme Big Air, which offers lessons and gear for a variety of extreme sports. “Then I move on to another sport.”

ThomasWong got into kiteboarding in 1996, when only a handful of Americans were doing it. After the inventor of the sport invited him to the Dominican Republic, he became one of the first certified kiteboarding instructors in America.

In kiteboarding, a person is strapped to a board and harnessed to a huge kite, which is propelled across water by wind.

ThomasWong, featured in various kiteboard magazine features, became well-known among kiteboarders for his feats, including big jumps.

“He just did it all,” said kiteboarder and friend Joe Brittingham. “I learned by watching him.”

Yet, even the most adept kiteboarder knows there are risks. When The Tribune interviewed ThomasWong in 2005, he acknowledged the sport could be dangerous.

And on a windy day in San Simeon in July, it nearly killed him.

“I don’t remember the accident,” ThomasWong said. “But I know that day I went out and kited, had a good time. And I was about to pack up, and then some friends showed up, so I went out again. Kind of late in the day. And usually late in the day, the wind kind of picks up speed unpredictably.”

In kiteboarding, a “kitemare” occurs when a sudden wind gust lofts the kiteboarder into the air, often slamming him back down.

ThomasWong was slammed onto rocks, knocking him unconscious.

“It sent shivers down my spine when I first heard about it,” Brittingham said.

Not long after friends spotted him, Jamie ThomasWong received a call, saying her husband had been hurt.

“At the time, I was 81⁄2 months pregnant,” she said. “One of my first questions was, ‘Is he alive?’ Yes. And then, ‘Is he awake?’ Yes. ‘OK — good. Just tell me where we’re going.’ ”

Her husband was flown initially to Twins Cities Community Hospital in Templeton and later transferred to the intensive-care unit of Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in critical condition.

“He went head-first into some rocks,” Jamie said. “In the accident, the spinal cord was bruised from the impact of it, and that’s what caused paralysis.”

With Kinsley attached to a ventilator and a baby due anytime, the ThomasWongs’ lives changed dramatically. And with Kinsley recovering, Jamie would have to do much of the other work: dealing with insurance, handling the business, taking care of the baby and learning how to care for her husband. (They have one caregiver who helps during the day, but otherwise Jamie is the primary caregiver.)

“She’s a superwoman,” Kinsley said.

Having moved to the Central Coast from the Central Valley with her family in 1993, Jamie Thomas began a financial career with Morgan Stanley in 1999 and co-founded FIT Financial with her mother 10 years later. But eventually she decided to expand her lifestyle.

“I very easily go into workaholic mode,” said Jamie, who is now also helping Kinsley run Xtreme Big Air, an online business that employs two instructors. “I love what I do. But I kind of decided I needed a hobby.”

She wound up taking paragliding lessons from Kinsley. Soon the two struck up a relationship that centered around extreme sports. Jamie, who grew up playing soccer and running, began mountain biking, surfing on stand-up paddleboards and paragliding regularly.

After the two married in 2006, they took on each other’s names, forming the collective ThomasWong surname. They traveled to places like France, Portugal, Vietnam and Brazil to promote Xtreme Big Air and to participate in extreme sports abroad.

It took the couple two years to have a baby. And when they found out they were having a boy, they decided to name him Taizen, after Kinsley’s Chinese father, Tai, and Zen, the centuries-old school of Buddhism.

As Kinsley rehabilitated at the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose, the staff arranged for Jamie to have their baby nearby. During the 40 hours of labor, Kinsley was wired to his wife’s room via a webcam. When the delivery began, staff wheeled him in to witness the arrival.

“Wonderful being there,” the dad recalled with a smile.

But just as Jamie had to learn to care for her baby, she would have to learn to care for her husband. And from the start, she didn’t want to hear about probabilities.

“For spinal cord injuries, they don’t know why some people recover and some people don’t,” she said. “So they can tell you what a normal person will do. And they can give you averages. But I’m not really interested in knowing what the average recovery is, because he’s not normal.”

Brittingham, whose father is a physician, said recovery won’t be easy.

“From a medical standpoint (recovery) wouldn’t be as encouraging as his spirit,” he said. So far, the spirit has been strong.

“He’s just passionate about life,” Brittingham said. “I’ve never seen him in a bitter place.”

Kinsley has made significant gains to help that attitude. He recently had a tracheostomy tube removed from his throat. And he has regained some movement in his left arm and trunk.

“He’s got the heart of a lion,” said Goldzman, who called his progress so far “unbelievable.” “He’s going to teach me how to be a kite surfer and a paraglider.”

But it won’t happen overnight. Currently, Kinsley works with six different specialists. And the medical bills that aren’t covered by insurance — which will exceed $100,000 — are daunting. “There’s a whole lot not covered by insurance, and that’s what really adds up,” Jamie said. “Our percentage of the wheelchair was easily 30 grand.”

A series of fundraisers this month will help defray some of the costs to the couple, who are living with Jamie’s parents because their Pismo Beach home is more wheelchair accessible.

The ThomasWongs want to keep Kinsley’s muscles strong. Meanwhile, his connection to kiteboarding revolves around his friends’ tales of water sessions. Still, Kinsley remains positive, not dwelling on his lack of movement.

“As you can see, it doesn’t bother me,” he said, smiling while his arms and legs remain motionless. “It’s very important to have a balance in life. Exercise, fun and friendships and family.”

The ThomasWongs are confident that Kinsley will one day walk — and kiteboard — again. But they’re not putting life on hold until then.

“The good news for me is he’s alive,” Jamie said. “I’m good. I’ve got my husband. Everything he regains is wonderful, but I have everything I need.”

HOW YOU CAN HELP KINSLEY THOMASWONG

Three fundraisers are being held to help pay for Kinsley ThomasWong’s medical expenses:

Live music, 5-8 p.m. Friday, Dinosaur Caves Park, Shell Beach. Featuring food, wine, beer, auctions and the music of CT and Tommy Lee, $30.

The Pismo Beach Kite and SUP Expo, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. April 22-24, Grand Avenue exit, Pismo Beach. This free demo event — launched by Kinsley ThomasWong nine years ago — will feature the latest gear and accessories, plus demonstrations. This year’s event will include a raffle, with proceeds going toward ThomasWong’s bills.

Wine Raffle, time to be determined, April 24, Pismo Beach Kite and SUP Expo. Those wishing to donate wine for the event can drop bottles off at Vintage 1255, 1255 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo, before April 22. Raffle tickets at the event are $20 each, or three for $50.

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