By Ryan Hilligoss, May 22, 2013
“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage,” Anais Nin once wrote. If that is true, then Ryan Chalmers is a man with a never-ending world of possibilities before him. For Ryan is man of fiery courage, a man on a mission as he pushes across America, carrying a message of hope, courage, determination and the invincibility of the human spirit. Ryan is a world-class athlete who does more on wheels everyday than most people do with two feet. He is spreading his message from his racing chair one turn of the wheel, one mile, and one state at a time. His message comes across loud and clear in both actions and words, “Disability or not, if you are passionate about something and you set a goal for yourself, you can achieve anything.”
Ryan’s current journey started on April 6th in Los Angeles and will end June 15th after rolling through Central Park in New York City, but only after pushing himself 3,400 miles across America, through hundreds of towns and cities and 14 states and the District of Columbia, with a mission to raise awareness for the potential of all persons with disabilities and giving back to Stay-Focused, a non-profit organization that helps teens with physical disabilities. The organization has been a big part of his life and one that he deeply supports and believes in.
Ryan is travelling across the country with a support team, including Stay-Focused founder Roger Muller who says, ”We have a support team of 6 people, and now we have two more who are filming this and want to make a documentary of it. We’ve had cameras stuck in our faces every day and it feels like we are filming a reality series. Ryan has done really well. This is a huge challenge and no one has ever done it before. The amazing thing is he pushed 35 miles today, and then afterwards we drove back in the support vehicle at 50 miles an hour and it took about 30 minutes, but he pushed the whole thing in his chair with no gears. He is just pushing and pushing down the road .”
On the day I talked to Ryan a few weeks ago, he had pushed 67 miles through Navajo territory in northern Arizona and was headed towards Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. The elements that really bother him are elevation, some as much as 22% incline, wind, rain and heat. He much prefers pushing in a cool environment because the heat messes with his head. According to Muller, ” He’s never questioned his ability to do it from a physical standpoint, but he said it’s a mental game, the ability dig deep when he has to. We were in death valley and it took him 7 hours to push 13 miles. And when he got the seven mile point, he thought he had 3 miles left and when he found out he had 6 miles he hit a mental wall. He stopped, got out of his chair, went into the RV and had a drink and a snack and refocused. And then I walked the remaining miles with him. But he’s a tough, amazing guy.”
Ryan was born in upstate New York with spina bifida and has never had complete use of his legs. Beginning at a young age, Ryan played sports, focusing on basketball and track. He learned to scuba dive with Stay-Focused in the Cayman Islands and became a certified PADI scuba instructor. Eventually, he found his way to the Land of Lincoln to attend the University of Illinois in Champaign due to the school’s educational reputation and, more importantly, the university’s wheelchair track and basketball programs, only one of two schools in the country with those programs. Ryan earned a degree in sports management in 2011, while simultaneously preparing himself for theParalympics. In the summer of 2012, Ryan was one of ten Stay-Focused alumni to travel to London and represent the United States as members of Team USA in the Paralympic Games where he competed in the 400 meter, 800 meter, 4×4 relay and marathon races.
The idea of a journey across the country to raise awareness was a natural extension of his training for the Paralympics and everything he had been doing up until that point in his life. According to Ryan, training for this journey was relatively close to training for the Olympics, “There is a lot of mental work with 75% of the battle being mental and 25% physical. I felt recovered from the Olympics and felt prepared for the Push Across America. I worked in the roller room and did some lifting to increase my pushing capacity, and did some 30 milers outside. Due to the racing chair design, there is a lot of pressure and pain on my legs. Now that I have 500 miles or more under my belt, my shoulders are sore but I am happy with what we have done so far.”
During the past week, Ryan passed the halfway point as he pushed across Kansas and Missouri and is currently crossing Illinois with a stop on his home turf of Champaign on Wednesday where he will be reunited with some of his training partners and faculty at the University of Illinois. According to Ryan, the reaction of the public throughout his trek has greatly helped him dig deep and stay focused on the task at hand, “ We are getting great responses on Facebook and twitter which provide great morale. Our purpose is to raise awareness for people with disabilities and it looks like we are accomplishing that based on the responses we are getting which is phenomenal. On the road, we are seeing people clapping and people honking. We were worried about backing up traffic behind us but people have been waving and smiling as they pass. It definitely helps you to get through the hard times in a day.”
When asked what keeps him motivated during the rough times, Ryan reflected for a moment and stated, “Thinking about the reason I started the journey in the first place, I’m really doing it for the organization and to raise awareness. It’s great to know that those things are being accomplished. When I’m going really slow or there’s a huge head wind or rain or something like that, you just stop and think of why you started this journey in the first place. And then your mind stops wandering and you are OK for the day.”
In the end, the message that Ryan is imparting to those willing and able to listen is this, “Never give up, stay focused. Find what you are passionate about, set a goal for yourself and just go and get it. That’s what is so great about the Push Across America campaign all long the way. Yes it is difficult. There are long days, 12 hour days, but I’m passionate about what I am doing. I get to put my passion for wheel chair racing and the organization together and do something great.”
Thomas Paine long ago said that we have it in our powers to begin the world over again. And while I may only partially agree, I believe that sometimes, very special people have the power in their hands to spread a message and touch the hearts and minds of others. Ryan Chalmers is one of those as he spreads his message one spin of his wheels, one day, one month, one state and one journey at a time. He’s not going to retreat, he’s not going to surrender, and he’s going to keep pushing until it’s understood ‘from California to the New York islands.’ Keep on pushing Ryan Chalmers, America is listening.
Further information is available on the below links for both Push Across America and Stay-Focused. As you read above, he enjoys all the support the team can get including cheering along the way, so you can monitor his progress on the map in their website and plan to come down to see him in person if he comes close to your town. You can also follow Ryan on his journey through Facebook and twitter.