Matt Tilford always thirsted for adventure, and he wasn’t about to let a T12 spinal cord injury quell that need. Twelve years later he is busy travelling the world and testing his limits, while also working as a sales rep for Apple West Home Medical Supply.
It’s a Crazy, Beautiful and Wonderful Life
As a high school senior in Modesto, California, Tilford was an adaptive equipment installation technician. He never could have guessed he’d find himself on the other side of the relationship one day, but he did learn a lot about the lives of people with disabilities.
“I saw two types of people with disabilities — go-getters who were going to get shit done and people who were just kind of stagnant. That pushed me to succeed in life because I wanted to do something crazy, beautiful and wonderful,” says Tilford, and he has been doing that ever since.
Before his injury, Tilford was an incredibly active person. One of the first things he took to again after his injury was wakeboarding. “I went to the boat dealer that my family purchased a boat from to try to figure out how I can adapt things. One of the sales reps there was like, ‘Hey, I have another customer in a chair who’s a pretty badass wakeboarder, and I’d love to connect you.’ I called that guy, he told me what to get, and as soon as it came, he was like, ‘All right, come over right now. Let’s set you up,’” says Tilford.
In the early years post injury, Tilford passed on that sense of possibility to others — running adaptive sports programs at Society for disABILITIES, the nonprofit that first got him back into sport. “Families got to see me running programs for their kids, and it helped them see that their kids could have a future,” he says.
But while giving other families hope, a divorce tore his own family apart. His wife had two kids from another relationship, and losing his connection with the kids forced him to re-evaluate what he truly wanted in life and how he would define himself going forward.
“I kind of lost it. Not being part of the kids’ lives anymore was really, really tough,” he says. “Strangely, I could go on without her, but I helped raise these kids. Once we divorced, I resigned from the nonprofit and travelled for a bit — just going off the grid for a while,” he says.
For the better part of the year, he communed with nature — just him, his truck and a tent deep in the wilderness, refreshing
his soul and travelling the open frontier — reorienting his crazy, beautiful path.
“When I was with the kids, I thought I needed them, but I learned it’s OK to be alone and figure things out. I figured out I have passions in life and interests that I wanted to focus on again,” says Tilford. One of those passions was being in nature, something he didn’t have time to do when he was coaching sports teams and indulging after-school activities.
In the years since, hiking and adaptive mountain biking have taken over from wakeboarding and other extreme sports. “I love society, but I prefer dirt and rocks over people. I love exploring the world,” he says. “We’re only here for a short amount of time. After sustaining a traumatic injury, you know and understand that even more.”
“I’m an adrenaline junkie. I like adventure, I like getting my heart rate up, and nowadays it’s more about trying to figure out how to get down a hill. Now it’s the thrill of, ‘Watch me do it!’”
What Are the Odds?
A Connecting Flight
The first time Matt Tilford went skydiving led to an unexpected full-circle moment that allowed him to pay back such an amazing experience.
The skydiving place I went to has the most deaths, but they also have the most jumps. When I looked at it statistically, I thought, of course there’s going to be more deaths here because they do the most jumps out of anywhere in the world. I had that in my head: I could die.
The place had experience with other people with disabilities who have jumped, but the guy I jumped with didn’t. When he said, ‘All right, we’ll figure this out together,’ I thought, ‘Oh, that’s not scary at all.’
Then we jumped. You’re not supposed to do barrel rolls with new people, but my guy wanted to show me a really great time, so he did, and we did some flips and stuff. Then we kind of just evened out. Being that high and seeing the world was really amazing. The whole time your organs are not understanding where they’re supposed to be. It was a really cool experience. I’ve been in planes, but to be just free in the sky like that — it was freedom.
When we landed, I told the guy there was a possibility I might shit myself and he said, ‘Oh, I’ve been through worse.’ He was a paratrooper and a badass. Strangely enough, two years after my jump, he found me on Facebook and was like, ‘Hey man, I’m paralyzed. I need some help,’ That’s how I ended up mentoring the guy I did my first jump with.”
All Terrain Access:
When hiking in tough terrain, my girlfriend and I hook a rope to my chair, and she wraps it around herself to get me up or down.
The Way I Wakeboard:
I use a regular wakeboard with a cage built by Liquid Access that has an aluminum frame with a seat sling.
Why I Join United Spinal:
I want to be able to use my experience and my trial and error around picking a wheelchair or getting out of the hospital to help someone else not have to go through that process.