LIMITLESS chronicles the story of Jezza Williams, from life as a rogue adventurer to a life-changing accident that left him a tetraplegic; and most importantly, how he tackled it head-on. If you haven’t seen the film yet carve 10 minutes out of your day to click the link below before diving into this interview.
LIMITLESS: The Tetraplegic ParagliderPLAY VIDEO
Jezza’s story packs an almighty wallop. The kind that rips its way through your gut, tickles your soul, fires your spirit and taps your brain for some time after. I’ve never met anyone like him before. Positivity bursts from every fibre of his being. He’s been to some dark, wild places yet it seems the journey is just beginning.
Creating this doco has been a collective effort from a number of incredible people, but at its beating heart is a man who’s zeal for life is almost as infectious as his Kiwi giggle. Getting to know Jezza has had a profound impact on my life; his story is confronting, but inspiring beyond words. I can’t help but question my own capabilities in how to approach life’s challenges. Perspective. Humility. Kindness. I’ve filled my napsack with a number of important reminders and I hope people watching this can too.
Henry: I’m keen to find out how you got into the outdoor industry, and how this life of adventure came about for you.
Jezza: The start of Jezza’s adventure world. I grew up about 16km from a cool little town called Fieve. There were mountains, rivers, and an amazing climbing area just down the road within beautiful valleys. I was really lucky from a young age to be able to venture out and enjoy my playground. Kayaking, climbing, skiing. What do you do on a Wednesday? Go skiing or go to school? You be the judge of that one. I was definitely not an indoor person, and couldn’t really handle an hour of listening to somebody blabber on and put shit on the blackboard.
Is there anything that you’re seeking when you go on these adventures?
When you’re doing an activity, you’re not thinking of anything else. If you’re skiing, you’re at one with the snow. If you’re kayaking, you’re one with the river. If you’re flying, you’re at one with the elements of the sky. And of course you push, you push so hard. Yeah, my adrenaline probably at a young age used to scare me shitless a lot of times, but you’re just empowered by it, you know? That’s what it’s all about really. Pushing yourself, and pushing your limits. There is no other feeling like that in the world.
So adventure became your career after school, what opportunities then came along?
I’m really lucky because I’ve never really tried to get to where I wanted to go. Life is an adventure, you know? Undertaking a task without knowing the outcome is, that’s the definition. That’s how I run my world. When I left school I was invited to do a ski patrol diploma, the first-ever one in New Zealand. Government-sponsored ski team? Yeah boy.
My first proper job was driving an Austin Aveling 1964 grader on the ski field road at night, getting paid 100 bucks a weekend. Free skiing, and living on the mountains, that’s all I needed. Then an opportunity popped up to guide a river in the Northern Territory.
The company over there were looking for a bunch of river guides that would be willing, so a few mates and I grabbed our rafts and bowled on over. The beautiful locals just blew my mind; I remember sitting down and talking to this awesome Aboriginal dude. Seeing the difference in society up there was really eye-opening.
I took buses down to the Kimberley in shorts and bare feet with a kayak on my shoulder. Wild country, snakes, spiders, crocodiles – everything that we don’t have in New Zealand.
Wow. And where to next?
Off to the Swiss Alps. I was rafting, kayaking, hydro-speeding, climbing, mountain biking – just everything. I was even running a sailing boat in the evening doing night sailing. I then had a fantastic opportunity to go down to Honduras. That’s when my world just got another ‘boom’. It made this naive little Kiwi a little bit more aware of what the world can really be like. I’ve always said, you never know how wealthy you are until you’ve been poor. You never know how healthy you are until you’ve been really sick.
My river adventures took me all over Central and North America, Europe, Africa… I even went down the Darién in Panama in a dugout canoe and lived with Emberá Indians for a while. Your life changes a lot as you grow as an adventurer and an explorer, and I just got lost. Lost in the world for five years.
You’ve been playing this pinball around the world, chasing adventure. Then you come back to Switzerland to work in the canyons again in 2010, which is where the accident happened?
The ultimate day. It was just a normal morning. Me and Steve had a group of seven clients and we were rocking down the canyon. I threw the ropes down from the top abseil, around 10-15 meters high, to Steve who was at the bottom with the clients. There’s a lovely little jump that I do all the time, every day, to go into the bottom pool.
That morning, I don’t know. It was one of those days. I was maybe a little bit more complacent than usual, and I went for my normal, beautiful superman swan dive but it just didn’t really happen the way I imagined. Instead of diving out over the rock, I slipped a little bit, and as I was coming around, I hit the rock that was sticking out with the back of my helmet. I was doing something that if you made a mistake, it was a big mistake, and I made a big mistake.
Boom, into the waterfall. I’m still aware, and I’m face down. My hands are crossing over my face, but I can’t feel my hands. I can’t feel anything. There is another waterfall about 10 metres ahead of the pool. Steve obviously saw what happened, and jumped down to stop me going over the next waterfall. When he rolled me over, he said it was really obvious that my head was not attached to my body. Then apparently I looked up into Steve’s face and said, ‘I fucked up. I have changed my life. My life has changed.’ So, I was aware of it right then and there, that I had wasted myself.
The rescue must have been hectic. What happened then?
The rescue crew came over the top in the chopper with a 250m long line to get right down into the canyon (I’ve since found out it’s the gnarliest they’d ever done). They pumped me full of drugs, and I can’t remember much more. At Bern hospital my body started shutting down, and that’s when things started to get serious. I had my lungs collapse seven times and I was then transferred to a specialist paraplegic center and put in a coma for four weeks.
And then you regained consciousness eventually, and it’s the start of a long process of recovery.
All my muscles disappeared. My body changed completely. I was breathing out of a tube, eating out of a tube, peeing out of a tube…I was probably just shitting wherever. They told my family I might not be able to breathe by myself. I could probably never use my arms. They always say the worst. They never say, ‘Oh no, in three years, mate, you’ll be going rafting, and be out paragliding, and jumping out of planes.’ No, they don’t say that stuff.
It was a long process of learning to breathe again, learning to eat again, having somebody to feed you, brush your teeth; a long process of achieving tiny goals, and not worrying about the big picture. Just getting as positive, strong and healthy as I could. I’m a stubborn motherfucker. I pushed it, and pushed it, and pushed it. 11 months in rehab, then back to Kiwi land.
You have positivity coursing through your veins and I think that’s incredible. I’m curious to know whether there were moments, particularly in those early days, where you were questioning your ability to get better?
I think a lot of people were waiting for me to fall into the hole. Yeah, it was hard. You look at yourself in the mirror and you’re like, ‘Oh my God, where did my guns go?!’ But that’s all just material shit, dude. What I’ve been through has made me way stronger than I was beforehand.
Of course there’s times when you get frustrated, but obviously if you don’t get frustrated, something was extremely wrong. The hardest part was probably coming back to New Zealand and all your mates are out there, still ripping it.
So, what mobility do you have now?
I’m what you call a C5 tetraplegic. Everybody is different. I believe I’m quite lucky. Being a stubborn person, I don’t use any power assist. I’d rather struggle in a manual chair, to keep my health and strength, and to not be surrounded by power all the time. I don’t look at any can’ts. I’ve never looked at can’ts. I’ve always looked at yes, I can do this. If I can’t do it, then I’m going to do it anyway, and make mistakes while I am doing it. The whole process of becoming who I am now has been a lot of hard work, and a lot of stubbornness.
In terms of the support you do have, it’s offered by amazing carers like Andrea and Karen. So, can you tell me a bit about where they come into your life, and how they help?
Driving, food prep, getting out of bed, peeing, running my company…just helping me live, man. I couldn’t do it without the help of others. I’m amazingly lucky to have a support system around me or else I couldn’t do what I do.
Yeah, I always keep people around me that are positive, and awesome, and magical. I don’t really like the carer side of things. I normally have people that are practical, and super fun, and cool, and they are an extension of my arms. So, they normally wouldn’t have too much experience prior to coming and working for me, and I would teach them all of the transfers and techniques, everything to make it easy.
What would you say has been the most positive thing to come out of this experience?
The most positive thing that’s come out of going through what I’ve been through is going through what I’ve been through – because it changes a human to be at rock-bottom. Spiritually, mentally, physically. You have a lot of time to reflect on what your life is about, who you are, who the people around you are, and what you can achieve.
I am aware of other people’s struggles in life a lot more, because I’ve had them myself. Understanding that people have a lot of power inside them.
That’s incredible. What have you learned about yourself over the last nine years and you can now use these lessons moving forward?
I think in my world, prior to my injury, I was quite selfish. I probably didn’t have as much understanding as I thought I had for other people. Having an accident like this, you see other people, you get help from other people. You absorb what other people have to give to you, and so it humbles you massively. To be able to give stuff back is a really amazing thing. To be able to give opportunities, to be able to change somebody’s life. These things are what drive me now.
How did paragliding, your new passion in life, come about?
When I had my injury I wanted to try all these other sports. I wanted to get back into rafting, I wanted to go skydiving but one of the biggest things for all these sports is that I have to rely on somebody else. So when I went tandem paragliding with a buddy of mine I looked at how everything worked, and I was like, ‘I can do this.’
It’s been a long process though, about four years – but now I’ve got a license and I can fly by myself. It’s the only sport that they can just push me off the hill and I’m all by myself. Three dimensional. Do what I want, just cruise. Having that freedom, for somebody with my abilities just blows my world.
You call Waipara home, just north of Christchurch. What makes the Canterbury region so special for you?
It’s the playground of my youth, and holds every piece of what I am today. The mountains, the rivers and the bustle of the beautiful city life. It also happens to host my favourite paragliding take off spot (Te Onepoto/Taylors Mistake), which blows my mind every time. The place will forever be my playground.
Your mission in recent years has been developing your business – or should I say movement – Making Trax. What is it and why did you start it?
When I injured myself and knew I was going to be in a chair, I looked into the outdoor industry to see what was available for people like me who wanted to live a life of adventure. I was pretty shocked by what I saw. It’s less, why I started Making Trax and more that Making Trax started me.
I started Making Trax in 2012, and it’s all about inclusive tourism. It’s a global movement to ensure the social participation of persons with disabilities, in travel, adventure, and cultural contribution. I work closely with operators around the world to enable them to offer their experiences to everyone.
We work closely with individuals too. A young lady called Abigail from America who had tetraplegic cerebral palsy. We had her skydiving, canyon swinging, paragliding all sorts of amazing activities. It just blew her mind. You could see the joy, the liveliness in her eyes.
Can you define what disability means to you?
I am not disabled. I have a disability, but I’m not disabled. You’ve seen the stuff that I do. I do more stuff than a lot of people that are fully able-bodied do!
Words are words. I’m not bound to a wheelchair. This wheelchair is a bonus. It helps me do what I want to do. I go into my buggy, I go into my cart, I go to my rafting seat…I’m not bound to anything, man, and I’m definitely not suffering. Do I look like I’m suffering? Am I suffering from my disability? Definitely not.
I had one other question. A big one. How do you define strength?
Strength is understanding. It’s understanding people around you. It’s understanding you. It’s understanding your environment, and it’s accepting what things are. Strength comes from experience, it comes from being humble, and it comes from just being the person you are. Owning it. Absorbing power and positivity, and really focusing on what the goodness is in life. I think that’s my personal idea of strength.
Accepting pain is strength. Accepting what things are, things you don’t necessarily want them to be, that is strength. Accepting people for who they are, that is strength.