Born and raised in southern New England, Jonathan S. Blais had always been an elite athlete and multi-sport competitor. Given a death sentence in the form of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) in May of 2005, at the age of 33, Jon accepted his diagnosis and decided to do incredible things with it. He began waging a War on ALS® from the beginning. This was his way of dealing with it; this is how he lived out his days… fighting for research and raising awareness.
A decade prior to his diagnosis, Jon decided to move from his home in Seekonk, Massachusetts to San Diego to finish school and eventually get his Master’s degree in teaching. Focusing his energy on helping kids who were emotionally challenged and learning-disabled, Jon became a teacher at the Aseltine School. This is also where he became better known as “The Blazeman.” Jon did amazing work with the Aseltine kids. Through summer recreation programs and outdoor activities, his students learned to overcome obstacles and become stronger through hard work and determination. When Jon was told he had ALS, and subsequently only 2-5 years to live, he left the life he’d built, and the many he’d touched behind, and headed back east. In a poignant moment, once caught on film, Jon’s dad Bob, was quoted as telling his son, “You’re coming home to live, not die.”
Competing in triathlons for 20 years, Jon always wanted to compete in an Ironman – especially in Hawaii. On October 15, 2005, only 5 months after being diagnosed, Jon became the only individual with ALS to complete an Ironman, finishing in 16:28:56. He crossed the finish line by log-rolling over it, and since then, the “log roll” has been graciously performed by countless athletes as a symbol of hope, and more importantly, as a means of raising awareness for ALS.
In one short year, the devastation of ALS had taken over Jon’s existence, but he refused to let it break his will. He went back to Kona in October of 2006, not as a competitor, but as a voice for ALS and as a cheerleader; because someone did the competing for him. Brian Breen, a Chicago native who won a lottery spot, learned of Jon’s battle and decided to race in his honor at the 2006 Ironman. A more emotional scene one could not imagine as Breen, the “Crazy Irishman”, log-rolled over that line and ran to Jon’s side. They victoriously embraced each another as one more battle in the War was won. Luckily, NBC was there to “get it on film” and share it with the world. Thanks, Wooman.
Jon’s impact on the sport of triathlon is one that many will never forget. In February 2007, Jon was awarded the Competitor of the Year award at the Endurance Sport Awards ceremony. Two months later, the NBC broadcast of the 2006 Ford Ironman World Championship won a Sports Emmy Award for Outstanding Edited Sports Special, of which Peter Henning dedicated to Jon. Less than one month after Jon’s passing, the World Triathlon Corporation announced a new initiative where all domestic Ironman, Ironman 70.3, and IronGirl events will reserve race number 179, Jon’s Kona number, for a special athlete, a first in the world of triathlons. Since then, many warriors have requested number 179 at various sporting events throughout the country.
In two short years, Jon became a powerful voice for ALS, using the sport he loved to help promote awareness and fundraising to find a cure for this horrific disease. Jon passed away on May 27, 2007 and while he is missed dearly by those close to him, his spirit and the lessons he has taught us all live on.
Jon always believed in ending your story with a quote. Others have already said it best, so it’s better to remember those and go out strong. So here goes… “The meaning of life is to live life”…Thanks, Blazeman.
For Jon Blais, it all started in January of 2005 when he realized he was having problems at a party holding on to his beer. In February he crashed hard on his mountain bike and ended up with 15 staples in his head. “I never would have had such a stupid accident if I hadn’t started to lose control of my hands,” he said.
He went online and stayed up all night trying to figure out what was wrong with him. He realized that he had ALS, Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was officially diagnosed on May 2, 2005 at the age of 33.
When he was diagnosed with ALS, he was told that there was no treatment and no cure and that he had two to five years to live. As he treaded water in Kailua Bay for the 2005 Ironman, he had no idea if he could even finish the race because his body had deteriorated so rapidly.
He completed the swim in 1:50 rather than the 1:05 he would have swam before ALS. On race day he was forced to swim with only one arm. On the bike he couldn’t get out of the saddle and his calves and quads were seizing up throughout the ride. He made the bike cutoff time and headed out on the marathon to complete the race and become the first and only person with ALS to even attempt the toughest day in sport.
When the Voice of the Ironman, Mike Reilly, asked Blazeman before the race what his plans were for the finish line – maybe a Greg Welch style leap or a push-up, or ten – he responded by saying that he didn’t know if he’d be able to finish, but that Reilly might need to log roll his sorry ass across the line.
The Blazeman Roll has become a common site at the Ironman finish line by Ironman finishers everywhere and it’s a tribute to its creator.
Jon Blais passed away at the age of 35 on May 27, 2007, but the awareness he created that day and the charity he created to help find a cure for ALS will live on forever. “You can choose to be pissed off or pissed on,” he told me in an interview after the race. Blazeman, as always, chose the former.
Reflections from Kenny (Wooman) Woo – Jon’s videographer in Kona, 2005
2008 Giant Steps Award – A Hero Amongst Us(NCAS)