Firefighter is an inspiration
February 28th, 2007
The Milpitas Post


Milpitas Firefighter Sean Simonson didn’t face flames or rescues in 2006, but as he fought a spinal cord injury that left him immobile after a bicycle accident, he inspired many of Milpitas’ first responders.

For his determination and positive attitude, Simonson has been named Firefighter of the Year for 2007.

Simonson’s cycling accident last April came seven years after he began as a firefighter in Milpitas. He was riding on a trail in Santa Cruz when he rode over a pothole that looked as if it had been filled. The sediment was still wet and his tire sank into the hole, sending him over the handlebars. He landed on his chin, with his head back, which injured his spinal cord. The extent of the injury is still unknown, and Simonson is giving paralysis a run for its money.

Simonson proudly waved his arms around in July; before they were tucked up at his sides. He rode a mile in his wheelchair that month.

A few months ago he started driving a van with hand controls, which not only showed he had developed more Motor skills, but he also increased his independence.

Now he visits a clinic in San Diego called Project Walk, which uses intense Physical Therapy, as often as he can. The fire and police departments help him raise money. He then goes down weeks at a time for the therapy, which is not covered by insurance.

Nearly a year since the accident, support from the fire and police departments is still unwavering.

“Anything I’ve even asked for hasn’t even been a question. They’ve been right there, literally at my beckon call,” he said. “They’ve made it very easy for me to focus on nothing but rehab, which is a huge driving force for me to get better.”


Fire Chief Clare Frank said the continued support is a result of his appreciation and determination.

“I think it’s a testament to Sean. Statistically, support usually drops off, but I think it’s a testament to the fact that he’s not taking it for granted. He’s working harder than anyone else,” she said.

Battalion Chief Rob Mihovich said Simonson’s attitude and personality make it easy for the departments to continue to help in any way they can.

“He’s a great guy and he has a positive outlook himself and on his prognosis,” Mihovich said. “Everyone knows someone they think a lot of, and with that type of person, you continue to give your support.”

The Firefighter of the Year in Milpitas is chosen by a committee of firefighters who have received the award in the past. Nominations can be made anonymously by anyone in the department.

Mihovich believes Simonson is absolutely deserving of the award.

“He’s very good at what he does, has a very positive attitude, he’s a good role model, has shown a can do attitude, is easy to get along with and fun to work with and is very professional,” Mihovich said.

Frank said Simonson’s attitude since his injury has inspired others within the department.

“They’ve seen him display a tremendous amount of courage in the last year in fighting a life-changing event and not letting it change who he is,” she said. “He’s taking the physical courage needed to go into a burning building and turning it into more of a mental spirit. I know he’s awed a lot of people with a lot of the progress he’s made given the extent of his injury.”

It’s easy for Frank and Mihovich to see why Simonson was selected, but, while very honored, Simonson himself was baffled.

“It’s weird because I don’t really get it, but everybody from work and a lot of people I don’t even know send me e-mails, I get about 30 or 40 a week, telling me I’m an inspiration to them,” he said. “All I’m trying to do is walk.”

He said his coworkers have told him he has motivated them to appreciate life more and to not take things for granted.

“I’m honored. I didn’t think I’d be capable of achieving this in my career here in Milpitas,” Simonson said. “I’m very thankful for the opportunity to be the Firefighter of the Year.”

by Sarah Holcomb
The Milpitas Post


Quadriplegic Milpitas firefighter who was told he would be confined to a bed celebrates recovery with 620-mile cycling event

October 8th, 2009

Milpitas Post

It may not be an opportunity Milpitas firefighter Sean Simonson was able to reach on a straight or smooth path but the chance to realize a dream has finally come full circle.

Simonson is one of 100 people departing San Francisco Oct. 17 to begin a 620-mile bicycle ride that will end in San Diego on Oct. 23. Each participant of the Qualcomm Million Dollar Challenge will head on the road with a shared goal in mind: reaching $1 million cumulatively, or $10,000 each, for the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

For Simonson, the city's emergency services coordinator, he said "this ride has a great deal of significance to me."

In 2006, Simonson and his brother Dave had made plans to, similarly, ride bicycles down the coast from San Francisco to San Diego. Although Simonson was an avid bicyclist and motorcycle rider for most of his life, he did not consider himself a high-mileage rider and thus began extensive training to prepare for the ride. But in April 2006, he was riding his mountain bike when he crashed and injured his spinal cord, causing him to become a quadriplegic.

"Oddly, my first thought after the crash was that I wasn't going to be able to do the ride with my brother," Simonson recalled.

He didn't let the life-changing injury keep him down for long.

After being told by a doctor at Stanford Medical Center that he would be confined to a bed for the rest of his life, Simonson made a promise with himself that one day he would do that ride with his brother.

Three months after his accident, after a 70-day period of intense physical therapy, Simonson began taking a standard rolling chair and maneuvering around the Stanford Hospital in it. He rolled past the window of the same doctor and waved. The doctor soon emerged from his office and asked whom Simonson was. After telling him, Simonson recalls the doctor said: "I find it hard to believe that I would have said that to someone like you."

Shortly after that experience Simonson said he was soon shifting up a gear again. He connected with the Challenged Athletes Foundation who has since helped him fund a three-wheeled hand-cycle, a racing wheelchair and worldwide athletic events.

Since suffering his injury, Simonson has collected a number of accolades, among them winning the Triathlon World Championship, Half Ironman Triathlon and Golden Gate Triathlon.

Now, just three years later, Simonson is gearing up for the Qualcomm Challenge, a chance he believes will enable him to "raise money for other challenged athletes so they can get out and experience athletics, racing and life." He will be riding alongside his brother who he has nicknamed "Super Dave" with his oldest friend Melia. 

To prepare for the race, which averages cycling nearly 89 miles across and over California terrain each day, Simonson started preparations three months ago. He wakes up to begin pedaling at 4:30 a.m. four days a week in order to complete 12 to 18 miles before heading to work for a 10-hour day. After he gets home, he generally swims about 1.2 miles or gets back onto his bike for another 10 miles. On the weekends, Simonson endures long training, which consists of a 35-mile ride.

When it comes to the Qualcomm Challenge, he can't promise that he will be able to complete the entire 620-mile route but he intends to give it his all.

Simonson said there are a number of challenges participating in the competition as a quadriplegic. He doesn't sweat, have heart rate or respiratory control and has limited movement and function of his arms.

Because he doesn't have heart rate control and it stays constant the whole time, his arms tire quickly. He likens the experience to grabbing a 25-pound weight and doing 5,000 curls quickly.

But he looks forward to the upcoming event, crediting all the challenges in his life as to what continues fueling his positive perspective.

"It was actually a really uplifting experience to end up in a wheelchair," he said. "I signed up for a job, whether I liked it or not, when I got injured. The job was the outreach. ... People in wheelchairs are people too. It is my goal to have a positive affect on as many people's lives."

Contact Shannon Barry at or 408-262-2454


Proving them all wrong:
Quadriplegic is biking from San Francisco to San Diego to raise money for disabled athletes. He’ll be making a pit stop in town today.

By Britney Barnes

Huntington Beach Independent

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The distance from San Francisco to San Diego is more than 620 miles. It takes 73 minutes to fly and about eight hours to drive there, and Sean Simonson is going to bike there in one week.

“Either I’ll have arms like a gorilla or they’ll have fallen off somewhere in Marina Del Ray,” Simonson said.

Simonson is a quadriplegic with some function in his arms, and he began pedaling himself with his arms to San Diego on Saturday. Simonson was joined by his brother, David Simonson, and childhood friend Melia Kakita for the weeklong journey.

The three, collectively known as Team Simonson, are riding in the Qualcomm Million Dollar Challenge to raise money for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps disabled athletes participate in sports. The foundation provides athletes across the nation with equipment, training and support. The team has raised more than $16,000.

The foundation helped Simonson get back into sports after his injury, Kakita said.

“It’s been such a positive beacon,” she said. “If it didn’t exist, Sean’s recovery wouldn’t have been the same.”

Although the trio are taking on an extreme physical challenge, Sean Simonson said he is more worried about his face being sore from laughing.

“It’s going to be like the improv is going to be following me on the coast,” he said.

The three graduated from Edison High School together and are going to make a pit stop in their hometown to meet with friends and family. They will be stopping at noon today at Savannah at the Beach.

From there, they hope people will join them on their journey. Huntington Beach resident Michele VanRy is going to ride with them to Newport Beach to support Simonson and the foundation. VanRy said she recently started riding because of Simonson, and he even inspired her to do a 5K.

“Sean is amazing. His story is inspirational and he is proof that [the Challenged Athletes Foundation] helps people,” VanRy said in an e-mail.

Although Simonson is nonchalant about the undertaking, the trip is significant for him. He was training for a similar bike ride in Santa Cruz in 2006 when he injured his neck. He said he hit a pothole and went over the handlebars, with his forehead landing on the ground and his body going over it.

After the injury, the doctor told him he was never going to get out of bed and would need 24-hour care, but his family was quick to put the doctor in his place. One family member, Simonson recalled, told the doctor, “You don’t know who this man is.”

After 70 days of rehabilitation, Simonson said, he would do laps in his wheelchair at the hospital, and every time he went by the doctor, he would wave. Finally, the doctor came out and, not recognizing him, asked Simonson who he was.

“I told him, ‘This is why you can’t tell someone they can’t do something,’” Simonson said. “Every time they tell me I can’t do something, I go out and do it. It’s absolutely so much fun proving these people wrong.”


Quadriplegic rides from San Francisco to La Jolla
Huntington Beach native -- riding the 620-mile route for the Challenged Athletes Foundation -- dropped by his hometown today.



Thursday, October 22, 2009


HUNTINGTON BEACH–A 35-year-old Surf City native is more than halfway through a 620-mile bike ride from San Francisco to San Diego County – using only his arms. 

Sean Simonson, of Palo Alto, is among the first quadriplegics to tackle the week-long ride to raise money for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, arrived in his hometown today to cheers from supporters.

More than a dozen friends and family stretched across the beach boardwalk near the pier to welcome Simonson home by dousing him with silly string, waving signs and sounding off miniature blow horns. 

"He's just amazing," said his grandmother Alice McClean of Whittier. "He's just really outdoing himself here." 
Simonson, a firefighter and emergency coordinator, is taking on the journey with his brother, David Simonson, and childhood friend Melia Kakita. The three are averaging 89 miles a day. 

Simonson arrived sweaty and tired, his palms blackened from pushing the handles for hours. Although fatigued, he was all smiles with his friends, cracking jokes and shaking hands. 

"Well, my arms are still on so that's a good sign," he said after pushing his bike into the shade under the pier. "But more than my arms, my cheeks hurt from laughing at my brother and Melia." 

The three will rode to Newport Beach Thursday and are expected to arrive in La Jolla today. Simonson will take Saturday off and participate in a relay triathlon on Sunday to wrap up the Qualcomm Million Dollar Challenge. 
The Central and Southern California coastline is a route Simonson had planned to ride with his brother in 2006 but that goal had to be put on hold. 
While training after a fresh rain, Simonson rode his bike over a deep pothole masked by a puddle of water and tumbled over his handle bars. He was paralyzed from the chest down. 

Simonson is considered a quadriplegic because he has no movement or sensation in his torso and limited functionality in his left arm, family members said. 

"The first thing I remember after waking up in the hospital is my brother whispering to me, 'We're going to get you one of those really cool wheelchairs," he said. "And I said, 'all right'." 

Simonson said doubt and anger never crept into his thoughts. He had always been an athlete and he would continue to be an athlete. 

"From the minute I woke up in that hospital, I was ready to go," he said. "I ran out of challenges (in my life), so this came at the best possible opportunity and I treat it exactly that way." 

Simonson said he never thought about the things he couldn't do but rather focused on how he could accomplish the things he wanted to. 

"I'm not really supposed to be able to ride a bike for 620 miles, I'm not supposed to be able to drive a van and I'm not supposed to work fulltime," he said. "I just bought myself a van and I work 50 to 60 hours a week." 
Shortly after his accident, the Edison High School alumnus started training to get himself back into the race circuit. He works out a minimum of three hours a day, five days a week. 

Since 2007, he has competed in more than a dozen triathlons and marathons around the country, many of those with his childhood friend Kakita. In most events he placed 1st or 2nd and he has also been recognized as a Paralympics' hopeful for 2012. 

This year, he put the route he had placed on hold in 2006 back on his list of goals. This time, he would be hitting the road for a reason above the physical challenge of a demanding coastline. 

"(My reason) is twofold," he said. "I want to raise money and support the Challenged Athletes Foundation and I want to talk to at least on person a day and make them aware of the challenge." 

Today in Huntington Beach, Simonson influenced more than one person thanks to the colorful display put on by his family, friends, and former Edison High football coaches. 

"He has strong arms," said his sister-in-law Anne Simonson. "But, more than that, he has a strong will and a strong heart." 

Simonson so far has raised more than $16,000 for the nonprofit CAF, $5,000 of that came from the RC Baker Foundation. The event expects to raise $1 million that will go toward supporting physically challenged athletes by providing equipment such as racing wheelchairs and prosthetics. 

Contact the writer: 949-553-2932 or