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‘I’m a Team USA athlete! Don’t amputate it!’ The inspiring story of ‘Goose’ Helton

San Diego Growlers
Since 2006, Jonathan "Goose" Helton has consistently played for the best club and professional teams.

SAN DIEGO – Team USA and San Diego Growlers ultimate frisbee player Jonathan ‘Goose’ Helton is as fit as any former national team athlete. He stands tall, with large shoulders and veins popping from his arms. But when he walks, it’s clear why he’s now glued to the sideline.

The 40-year-old’s right leg is uncharacteristically slender and seemingly held together by a complex brace with two large back rods and a carbon fiber heel. His strength, quickness, and athleticism couldn’t prepare him for a car suddenly pulling out of a driveway alongside a two-lane highway.

Traveling at 55 miles per hour, Goose tried to evade the car before it crushed his right leg between the body of his motorcycle and the bumper. Almost three months in the hospital, 38 surgeries, and several infections later, Goose returned to the field as an assistant coach for the Growlers on May 3, almost a year-and-a-half since the accident.

It was Thursday, Jan. 12, 2022. Kaela Helton was at work when she got a call from her husband Goose. She knew Goose left work early on beautiful, calm afternoons like that one to ride his motorcycle into the mountains.

“He has a speaker in his helmet,” she said. “He called me from the ground seconds after the accident… I answered. He just said, ‘I was in an accident. It’s bad. Come find me.”

On Valley Center road–a two lane highway with residence and driveway entrances along the sides–a car on Goose’s right tried to turn across both lanes to the left. Goose acted quickly, but his lower right leg was still crushed upon striking the car’s bumper.

The first of many self-proclaimed “little miracles” Goose experienced- a state trooper and paramedic were among those stuck in traffic just after the accident and tended to him. Goose was a mile-and-a-half from a fire station that was able to immediately send help to the scene.

Via location sharing, Kaela was able to follow Goose’s ambulance to the hospital and arrived at the same time. 

“I got to see him for a couple minutes before they took him back,” Kaela said. “They had his leg covered, but it was really bad.”

He had two slashed arteries, and a compound fracture to his tibia and fibula from a crush injury. Two surgeries later, the staff at Palomar Medical Center had reconstructed Goose’s lower leg as best they could. It was time for a pivotal decision, and Goose and Kaela took a stance that they would reiterate to doctors throughout his recovery.

“I kept telling them, ‘I’m a Team USA athlete,’” Goose said. “‘Don’t amputate it.’”

Goose started playing ultimate frisbee casually with a friend on Sunday afternoons after church in his teens. While at Wheaton College in 2003, the two learned that some people take the sport much more seriously.

“We got introduced to a group that we called ‘the cult,’ because we saw them running drills.”

Goose said. “We’re like, ‘Who runs drills for frisbee?’”

Since 2006, Goose has consistently played for the best club and professional teams. Professionally, he played for American Ultimate Disc League (now renamed the Ultimate Frisbee Association) teams in Indianapolis, Chicago, Raleigh, Washington D.C., and San Diego.

His already lengthy career was extended when Goose started taking fitness more seriously. He even co-founded GamePoint Performance, an ultimate frisbee specific training program that helped him personally improve on the field.

Michael Tran, his former teammate on the Growler, said, “The combination of being an elite athlete and possessing a high frisbee IQ/field awareness allowed him to enjoy a long, illustrious career.”

In 2016, at age 32, Goose made his first national team and traveled to London to play for a world title. On the trip, he met Kaela.

“It sparked there,” she said. “I met him in July and I ended up moving across the country in September because we started dating.”

The two especially bonded over ultimate and regularly trained together. Goose has also helped coach Kaela’s professional team, San Diego Super Bloom, and Kaela is currently a co-head coach of the Growlers. While ultimate may not be mainstream, its athletes have a conditioning regimen like any other sport. For example, Kaela’s routine:

“I train five days a week, minimum, and usually have practice or games on the other days,” she said. “I rarely take a day off; lifting, running, field workouts, conditioning, throwing.”

As Goose increased his training regiment, his career extended into his late 30s. He played in the inaugural AUDL season in 2012 and ranks top-10 all-time in assists, games played, and plus/minus. His head coach on the US national beach ultimate team, Bryan Jones, noticed this training pay off when coaching against him in the AUDL.

“He was just naturally athletic early on, always fit, could always get open, and always [run] forever,” Jones said. “A lot of the things he [did] made him stronger, [helped] a lot for injury prevention, and that certainly keeps him going later into his career.”

In his late 30s, Goose still made the 2020 US National Team roster. He helped the Growlers to back-to-back 11-3 seasons in 2021 and 2022 on the team’s top offensive unit.

“A lot of your day is wrapped up in doing the stuff of the sport, physical preparation, mental preparation, scouting. All of a sudden, you realize that might never be the case anymore.”

During his 12-week hospital stay, Goose never binged shows or watched movies. He was shocked and wanted to healthily process his “new reality.” He leaned heavily on his faith.

“Praying, asking why it happened,” Goose said. “But also praying for particular outcomes, praying for patience, praying for wisdom.”

His pastor at Neighbors Church, Dan Braga, visited him a day after the accident:

“It was very clear that he was damaged and that this was going to be a very serious situation,” Braga said. “[But,] he was not devastated. Of course he was scared and overwhelmed, but very controlled and sober.”

The Heltons received tons of support from the ultimate community and their church. Many brought meals to the hospital during Goose’s stay, where Kaela visited daily from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Growlers co-head coach Kevin Stuart remembers his first time visiting Goose after the accident: “It looked fake, like in a horror movie when you see someone lose a limb.”

Goose, despite the challenges and pain, constantly reaffirmed he wanted to keep his leg, knowing that he could eventually pivot to amputation if there were no other options.

“If you were to even see my leg a year ago, today, you’d be like, ‘you’re not gonna keep that leg,’” Goose said. “It looked terrible. In many ways, this is like a slow moving miracle.”

His pastor Braga agrees: “I really wasn’t certain that he was going to be able to keep this leg, especially early on when things were really rough,” he said. “It’s amazing what modern medicine has done. That itself is a miracle.”

During his initial stay in January of 2023, surgeons performed a procedure that removed a vein from Goose’s left leg to use in his right. Goose later had his right rectus abdominis put into his leg to help reestablish blood flow in anticipation of a bone graft.

“I have a three-pack,” he joked.

However, after that surgery, Goose was hit with a series of bad infections that postponed his bone graft from March or April until late December. He documented many of these struggles on Instagram, where he has been transparent throughout his recovery process. After finding out he contracted a staph infection in September, he posted an Instagram story that read:

“6 weeks IV antibiotics probably. Then an additional surgery to culture. Then graft. Or stop beating my head against the wall and amputate.”

Goose never did. Throughout 2024, Goose has beaten the odds and made significant progress through physical therapy and strength training.

“You would expect to see some level of self-pity in a situation like this, and I haven’t seen that once,” Kaela said. “That is so impressive to me. He has been dealt this challenging, unfair situation that has taken away the sport that really was like the love of his life, and he is adapting.”

She continued: “That’s really inspiring, especially when I know how hard he works. Nonstop at home to get one degree of extension back… To do all of that while still staying positive… that’s just so impressive to me.”

The same work ethic that led to Goose’s back-to-back AUDL Most Valuable Player wins in 2012 and 2013 has helped Goose go from re-learning to walk without a cast to recently deadlifting and box jumping with a brace.

“I don’t understand the perspective some people have where they don’t take care of the thing, [or] don’t do the rehab,” Goose said. “Because, no one else is going to do it. If you want to be able to walk again, then do the things that are gonna help you walk again.”

This year, Goose also began using an ExoSym, a device originally designed to help those in the special forces return to duty after sustaining a traumatic lower-leg injury. Per the Hanger Clinic’s website, the ExoSym is a “hybrid prosthetic-orthotic device that is custom-made to your individual needs and goals and uses optimal alignment, positioning, off‐loading, and control to help restore mobility.”

“At this time, the greatest probability is that I will require this device to run, jump, and do higher velocity activities,” Goose said, downplaying his chances to return to competitive sports.

But, Goose clarified that his expectations are far lower than his aspirations.

In the meantime he has pivoted to coaching. With Kaela, he founded CUT Camp, an overnight ultimate frisbee camp where he first started coaching youth. He also helped coach Kaela and Super Bloom previously. Initially, Goose was apprehensive about returning to ultimate frisbee.

“Last year, I definitely resigned myself from ultimate quite a bit,” Goose said. “I was fairly disinterested in watching it, in part, because I was grieving my career.”

“But I still find the sport very interesting,” he continued. “I also have a lot of strong relationships with people internationally, nationally, and locally. Some of my favorite friendships have been from the sport, whether they’ve been teammates that I’ve had very few opportunities to play with like on Team USA, or teammates that I’ve had practice with and grinded against for years. The guys locally, I care a lot about.”

After joining Kaela to help with tryouts and attending their first practice, the Growlers’ leadership approached him.

“They were like, ‘What title do you want?’” Goose said. “It was emblematic that I was being integrated back into the sport and into the local teams.”

Tran–now one of the Growlers’ captains–downplayed the announcement, because Goose was always more than a player for the team:

“Goose has essentially been a player-coach since he arrived in San Diego, so there honestly hasn’t been much of a change in our dynamic,” Tran said.

Since then, Goose has been involved as much as he can. He often meets with players outside of their practices to help with specific skills.

Kaela regularly sees “the amount of excitement that he gets when he’s been working with someone or at a practice, [and] players start to get it. It’s really inspiring.”

On Friday, May 12, Goose coached his first game in front of Growlers fans since the injury. His return to professional ultimate is one of many notable chapters in his recovery.

But, Jones is not surprised to see his former player have such success.

“I had no doubt, if someone could make it out of it, it would have been him,” Goose said. “He was gonna be able to come out of this process stronger. He’s a very strong person, and it’s really cool to watch him succeed and overcome adversity.”

Both his former coaches, teammate, and wife reiterated: “If someone could make it out of this, it would be Goose.”

While the Growlers narrowly lost their home opener to the best team in their division–the Salt Lake Shred–Goose’s return to professional ultimate was bigger than the game.

“It was really rewarding,” Goose said. “I felt I made meaningful contributions in scouting adjustments and [kept] the energy high, it’s something I always enjoyed as a player… It is cathartic to be back on the sideline and an integral part of the team.”