By Kim Constantinesco
Jonas Letieri is a rising star in stand-up paddleboarding (SUP). In one of his first competitions, 2014’s Battle of the Paddle in Brazil — South America’s largest SUP race — he took second place.
His speed on top of the water captured eyes, but his story about how he got there swept hearts.
The 30-year-old from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil lost both hands and his forearms in an electrical accident a couple of years before his race debut.
Before that? He was accustomed to a surf board, and had never been on a stand-up paddleboard.
Shifting to Surf
Like many boys, Letieri grew up believing that he would be a professional athlete. He learned how to surf at 13 and competed in regional competitions until he was 18. Then, work responsibilities caught up and limited the time he could dedicate to the sport.
While volunteering at a church in 2011, a 26-year-old Letieri was installing a sign on the roof when over 13,000 volts of electricity sailed through his body. He was lucky he didn’t fall off the roof. The accident cost him his arms at the elbows and his passion for surfing.
“It was the worst time of my entire life. When I looked at my missing arms for the first time, I thought that I would never get out on the ocean again,” Letieri said.
Along with relearning how to complete what were once simple day-to-day tasks, like brushing his teeth, Letieri had to retrain his body if he wanted to try to return to the water.
“I had it in my heart that I needed to get back to the ocean, so I trained for one year to be able to get back and surf again,” Letieri said.
Surfing didn’t work out for him, however. Because he couldn’t push up off the board from a lying down position, he wasn’t able to boost himself up to ride the waves.
That realization was a like another 13,000-volts had been sent through his system.
“Not being able to surf was the worst feeling of my life,” Letieri said.
Off to the Races
Feeling deflated, Letieri looked to his father, Roberto, for guidance.
Roberto suggested SUP, something Letieri had previously only seen in magazines. They found him a board with a modified paddle, which included rings placed on both sides of the shaft.
At the suggestion of a friend, Letieri competed for the first time just to see what it was like. He found that he was faster on the water than many able-bodied people who had been paddling for years.
“Finding SUP was a rebirth for me after my accident,” Letieri said. “That’s when I knew I wanted to turn pro.”
Then, of course, came Battle of the Paddle, where he caught everyone off guard. With a second place finish there, and a new found confidence, he entered the 2015 Payette River Games in Idaho, which is a three-day competition that attracts some of the best athletes in the world. Letieri finished among the top of the field, and was offered a sponsorship by a local outfit called Kelly’s Whitewater Park, which enabled him to compete all over the world.
After that, Jim Terrell from Quickblade Paddles had a custom designed paddle crafted for Letieri to help him perform better.
Letieri’s stardom rose even more when he took second place at the Brazilian Triple Crown, a 34-kilometer race where he was the only handicapped athlete.
Up next? He wants to enter 2016’s Molokai to Oahu and run the SUP World Tour.
“Becoming a pro athlete was always my dream. It’s funny that it didn’t happen until after I lost my arms and I was forced to switch sports,” Letieri said. “It shows that you should never give up on your dreams, or give up what you want your life to be.”
And that is something to stand up for.