Feature | Paralympic

Meet Lonnie Bissonnette - the para bobsleigh world champion who cheated death

The Canadian tells Olympic Channel how he survived an horrific BASE jumping accident that left him paralysed, before becoming a wheelchair extreme sports pioneer and two-time world champion.

By Andrew Binner ·

Lonnie Bissonnette is a two-time para bobsleigh world champion and at 55-years-old, is still considered the best in his sport.

But it wasn’t so long ago that he almost lost his life in an horrific BASE jumping accident.

Lonnie lost most of the use of his legs, and was told that his extreme sports days were over.

But the Canadian had other ideas.

He dedicated his life to his rehabilitation, and not only went onto BASE jump again, but decided to take up para bobsleigh too.

In an emotional interview with Olympic Channel, the Ontario native reveals the amazing highs and devastating lows of his inspiring life story, as well as the mantra that helped him find happiness again.

A life-changing accident

BASE is an acronym that stands for four categories of fixed objects from which individuals can jump, before deploying their parachute: building, antenna, span (e.g. bridges), and earth (e.g. cliffs).

Lonnie owned a construction business and was in the top 10 most experienced BASE jumpers in the world.

But in 2004, disaster struck.

He was leading a week-long jumping camp in the USA, and on the final day decided to do something a little different to celebrate his 1100th career jump.

He designed a mass participation jump off a bridge, where the plan was for everyone to simultaneously jump in a ‘V’ shape to break a Canadian record.

As the most experienced jumper, Lonnie was to go last.

Lonnie Bissonnette - Two-time para bob world champion (Photo courtesy: Lonnie Bissonnette)

However, in ensuring that all the other jumpers were prepared, Lonnie failed to execute his own quadruple-rotation jump properly and was rotating too slowly.

If he were on his own, this would not have been an issue for a man of his experience.

But to ensure the safety of the jumpers below him, Lonnie had to deploy his parachute early.

“The pilot chute and the parachute came out, wrapped around my foot, hung me upside down and I impacted the river below. We figured I was doing about 130 kilometres an hour. I broke my neck in several places, broke my back in a few places, shattered my shoulder blade, broke a bunch of ribs, shattered my femur, and collapsed my lungs."

“I should have died that day. But for some reason, I'm too stubborn to die.” - Lonnie Bissonnette to Olympic Channel.

Somehow, Bissonnette remained conscious in the water, and his survival instincts kicked in.

"When I went to try and swim, I couldn't move my arms. All I could move was my head. I don't know why, but the next thing that came through my mind was that dolphins don't have arms and legs and they just porpoise through the water, and so that's what I started doing. It makes me laugh now, but believe it or not, it actually worked!"

Proving the doctors wrong

Lonnie was eventually pulled up onto a boat and transferred to hospital by plane.

After three weeks in a medically-induced coma, his arm movement came back almost within a day, but he was told that his leg movement would not return.

Despite this, Lonnie’s sense of humour and determination to recover was his fall back.

The first image that I remember as they brought me out was the doctors standing around me. I could see that my body was attached to all this apparatus, and asked, ‘How long do you think it'll be before I can jump again?’

She just looked at me and said, ‘Lonnie, I'm really sorry to tell you that you've suffered a spinal cord injury. You'll never jump again.’ And I just looked at her and said, ‘I'm sorry, you don't know who you're talking to. I will jump again.’ And of course, you know, the next day I had an appointment with the psychologist!

Lonnie was so dedicated to rehabilitation in fact, that he often had to be asked to leave the hospital gym at closing time.

After five-and-a-half months, he was eventually ready to leave the facility. That was when the reality of his injury really set in.

“I guess it was denial. I thought that with enough hard work, I would be able to get back and walk and do all the things that I used to. When I left, that's when it started to sink in that this is permanent.”

A nervous return to extreme sports

Walking was out of the question but, incredibly, being released out of a plane wasn't.

When Lonnie’s 15-year-old son approached him and asked to learn how to skydive, in spite of seeing what had happened to his father BASE jumping, a fire was lit.

”There is no way I was going to let him jump without me, so I decided that I’m coming back. My first jump back, I'm jumping with my son,” he said.

“The funny part of it is they had no problem with my son jumping. They had a problem with me and were very concerned.

“So we do the flip out, everything is perfect and he totally loved it."

I wanted to jump alone, but the club made me do it as a tandem. I found out later that they were worried that I was going to jump out of the aeroplane, not open my parachute and commit suicide." - Lonnie Bissonnette to Olympic Channel.

“I am embarrassed to say that, as I never would have done that. I have too much respect for the sport. Secondly, do you think I would do that to my kid and my personal friends?”

Skydiving though, was just a stepping stone towards Lonnie’s real desire.

He wanted to do at least one more BASE jump.

I needed to do it for me, because I felt like I fully knew the risks involved in BASE jumping. It's obviously a high-risk sport, but it’s my passion.

I felt like if I didn't go back and at least do one more jump, then all those years that I had been jumping, I was lying to myself and other people saying that I knew the risks."

“I also wanted to tell the reaper: You didn’t get me.” - Lonnie Bissonnette

Be inspired by the world's most extreme wheelchair athlete

After being left paralysed in a BASE jumping accident, Lonnie Bissonnette d...

A new BASE jumping mission

Lonnie’s new mission quickly evolved into becoming the first person to para-BASE - meaning to jump off all four variations of fixed object as a parapeligic individual.

For his first jump off an antenna, he had to pull himself up using a cable system over the course of three hours.

Using what little movement he had in his legs, and a little help from his brother, he set his feet on the ledge and jumped.

Typically, after Lonnie successfully completed that goal, he decided to up the stakes again while solving another problem at the same time.

“I literally hated the wheelchair,” he said.

“It represented everything that I couldn't do anymore. So I came up with this idea that if I can take the wheelchair with me on a BASE jump, I won't hate it as much anymore.”

He designed a first-of-its-kind strap system, which secured him into his wheelchair.

Then he fitted the chair with its own recovery parachute, so that it could be brought safely to ground should he need to eject from it in the air.

After proving his invention’s safety and functionality, the extreme sports fanatic decided to repeat all four BASE jumps, and even a skydive, on the wheelchair.

Finding para bobsleigh

In 1985, three-time Paralympic gold medallist Rick Hansen wheelchaired 40,000km around the circumference of Earth in a timeframe of two years, two months, and two days.

His goal was to raise money and awareness for spinal cord injuries and charities.

In 2010, to mark the 25th anniversary of Rick’s world tour, Lonnie was selected to take part in a relay across the width of Canada.

He travelled 1400km from Winnipeg to Calgary, and it was there that he met a Canadaian Olympic bobsledder who suggested that he try her sport.

After attending driving school in Calgary as the only parapalegic, he was hooked straight away.

I was the only pilot in that school that didn't crash. So the coaches came up to me and said, hey, you got some natural skill here and should think about competing.”

Para bob athletes compete individually, using a specially-designed monobob.

The sled is launched by a mechanical system, meaning that unlike able-bodied bobsleigh, all competitors have equal starts and the emphasis is purely on driving ability.

Para bobsleigh's mechanical push system ensures all athletes have equal starts. (Photo courtesy: Lonnie Bissonnette)

“An unfair advantage”

Lonnie was an immediate hit in the competitions, feeling totally at ease in the sled due to his extreme sports background.

“I felt like I had an unfair advantage against these guys because this is so much like skydiving,” he said.

Skydiving is a very high adrenaline sport, but you need to take that adrenaline and use it to focus and not let it control you. It’s the same with para bobsled. You're going down at high speed, but you need to focus and you can't let that adrenaline control you.

“The third thing was that all races were roughly one minute long, and a skydive is roughly about one minute. So it's basically like I've been training for this for years.”

In 2016, Lonnie won his first World Championships in Utah’s Park City.

Two world silver medals followed, before the 55-year-old sealed another world title in 2019, racing against much younger rivals, some of whom were younger than his kids.

Lonnie won the 2016 World Championships at Park City, Utah, before adding his second world title in 2019 at Lake Placid. (Photo courtesy: Lonnie Bissonnette)

A touching offer from a loving son

Lonnie’s success hasn’t come without sacrifice.

Para bobsleigh was not included for the Beijing 2022 Paralympic Winter Games programme, meaning athletes had to continue self-funding their participation in the sport.

Having spent all his savings on competing, it looked at one point as if Lonnie was going to have to call time on his career.

But that's when his son stepped in to keep his father’s dream alive.

I told my son that the sport was going to go somewhere and I can't go, which sucks. And he just looked at me and said, you're going,” Lonnie recounted with a tear in his eye.

“He went to the bank and remortgaged his house. And funded me for the next several years, which is super hard sometimes to talk about, because I should be taking care of my son and helping him out and, you know, it's the other way around. He's been my biggest push, my biggest cheerleader.”

Para bobsleigh’s unique gender equality

The equal starting mechanism is not the only unique feature of para bobsleigh.

In Lonnie’s sport, the lack of a human push-start means that men and women compete together in the World Cup season as equals.

“I've had my ass kicked by women and I high five them because I think it's great. It's awesome!”

Despite just missing out on selection for the Beijing 2022 Paralympic programme, Lonnie is hopeful that the event will be picked up for the Milano Cortina 2026 Games.

“We have a World Cup season, a World Championships, and 12 nations from three regions competing. But they voted not to add us this time,” he said.

“Becoming an official Paralympic sport would be huge for us, because it means there will be funding to cover expenses for each athlete.

“Imagine having an equal field of equal men and women literally racing against each other... it would be amazing for the Paralympics visually."

We actually had more competitors than the able-bodied women had last year, and we're doing this with absolutely zero support. So the argument of our sports not being big enough doesn't carry any weight anymore.” - Lonnie Bissonnette to Olympic Channel.

Future plans

Lonnie may be 55, but he has no plans to retire any time soon.

While Paralympic inclusion would mean an enormous amount to para bobsleigh and its athletes, he doesn’t compete for accolades, but for the love of the sport.

"When the Paralympic Committee denied us entrance (for Beijing 2022), a few guys decided to quit.

“I was like, ‘No way! I'm not just rolling away from the sport like those young punks. They're going to have to knock me off before I leave.

“I really hope that I can make it to the first Paralympics. I know the sun is setting on my career, but I don't need to be still number one. As long as I can remain competitive, then I'm happy. And if I can't remain competitive, then I would really love to get into a coaching role for the Paralympics, because right now we don't have any real disabled coaches.”

The secret to happiness in life

As a BASE jumper, one could be forgiven for assuming that Lonnie gets his thrill from adrenaline surges.

But after an accident that paralysed him, he was still able to derive the same enjoyment out of life through finding new sports to partake in.

In this way, the true secret to his optimism, and the ability to find enjoyment in life despite losing the use of his legs, is really not adrenaline at all.

It all comes down to passion,” he revealed. 

“I said this long before I was injured. I've always told my sons that we all need to find a passion in life. It just so happens that for me, the passion is extreme sports. But it could also be gardening, it doesn't matter. Find that passion and then pursue that passion as much as you possibly can, because to me, that's the key to happiness in life.”