Jeff Denholm of Capitola is more than just a survivor. His ability to push beyond his limitations and excel as a surfer, paddle boarder, skier and entrepreneur is an inspiration to others. And he does it all with one arm.
Denholm was born in Boston in 1967 and raised on the southern coast of Maine. His passion for sports developed at an early age.
“I was the oldest of three children and very active,” said Denholm. “We had a house on the lake, and I learned to swim and water ski by the time I was 5. I also loved to snow ski and sailed down mountains by age 3.”
The family moved to Rhode Island when Denholm was a freshman in high school where his father worked as a chemical engineer.
In 1986, Denholm returned to Boston to attend Northeastern University. During this time, he earned his Able-bodied Seaman's license. Two years later, Denholm left college and moved to Seattle to attend a commercial dive school. After that he did seasonal contract work on commercial boats in the Bering Sea, off Alaska.
It was on a stormy night in the summer of 1993 that Denholm lost his right arm.
“I was tired and slipped into a hole that housed a fish processing machine. It sucked me in and mangled my dominate arm,” Denholm said. “It took 21 hours to get me off the boat and to the hospital. Doctors were able to save my life, but not my arm.”
This life-changing injury redirected the course of Denholm's life. After several surgeries, he decided to get back on track and start his own rehab program. He returned home to Maine and drew encouragement and strength from his parents.
“I was not only on a mission to push as hard as I could and rebuild my body,” said Denholm, “but I also wanted to give back to the world. I decided to design artificial arm attachments for different sports — both for myself and to help others. I felt it was my calling.”
When Bethany Hamilton, the eventual subject of the blockbuster movie “Soul Surfer,” lost her arm from a shark attack, Denholm was invited to Kauai, Hawaii to stay with her family.
“Unfortunately, none of my devices worked,” he added.
Denholm spent the first winter after his injury skiing and training in Colorado. He also developed a healthy lifestyle which included yoga, massage, an organic diet and cross training. Leading a balanced life, along with maintaining a positive attitude and determination, allowed Denholm to return to all his favorite sports. He then found a job as a commercial diver with an underwater research company.
“I was ecstatic about this because it allowed me to maintain my career path and travel the world,” Denholm said. “I even helped dig up shipwrecks and appeared in 'The Quest for Captain Kidd,” on the Discovery Channel.”
In addition to being a professional athlete, Denholm is also an environmentalist and entrepreneur. In 2002, he worked as project manager and brand developer for the Flatbread Company – an organic restaurant chain – and opened up a branch in Maui. During this time, Denholm became an athletic ambassador for the outdoor apparel company Patagonia.
He moved to Santa Cruz in 2008 to be closer to the Patagonia’s Ventura headquarters. He also intended to open up a Flatbread Company branch in this area. Instead, his passion for the environment led him to develop ATIRA Systems – a non-toxic fire retardant geared toward fire departments.
“This company not only saves lives and is environmentally safe, but it's the culmination of my experience and desire to protect our natural resources,” Denholm said. “I don't care about making money surfing. I just want to excel at what I do and inspire others.”
Today at age 45, Denholm is probably in better shape than most guys in their 20s. He is truly an inspiration worldwide and continues to serve as a motivational mentor to people who've survived traumatic injuries. Denholm is also active in the community and contributes to various organizations.
- Sandi Olson of Scotts Valley is a writer, speaker and teacher. She writes about interesting people in Scotts Valley and the San Lorenzo Valley. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.