Thirteen years ago, Ryan Chalmers attended his first SportsNet-sponsored wheelchair race where he met USA Paralympic gold medalist Scot Hollonbeck. SportsNet, an adaptive sports and recreation program of Rochester Rehabilitation, had put together a wheelchair race division, and invited Hollonbeck to give racers tips and techniques.
“Seeing Scot Hollonbeck that day gave me that first push to want to race,” said Ryan, now 22 and a recent graduate of the University of Illinois, which is also Hollonbeck’s alma mater.
Inspired, Ryan, then 8 years old and born with spina bifida, announced his dream of becoming a Paralympian.
“Ryan had always been a sports natural, but he had nothing to grasp onto,” said his father Gregg. “When Ryan saw Scot Hollonbeck race, something in him changed.”
Scot spent time with Ryan, sharing his tips and techniques for wheelchair racing, and encouraged him to compete. He also signed a poster for Ryan that helped Ryan get through surgeries, lost races, and uncertainty.
“He never let go of that moment with Scot,” said Gregg. “There was no doubt in my mind that he was going to work hard to achieve his dream.”
Ryan trained aggressively. Each night his father would take him to the track to practice. Ryan joined the Rochester Rookies, a local track and field team offered by SportsNet. Several times a year he traveled to national and international track events, competing against some of the best wheelchair athletes in the world.
“The Rookies provided the opportunity for Ryan to socialize and interact with kids with disabilities,” said Gregg. “Ryan was not an isolated individual with disabilities, but one of many in the community. Sports helped Ryan build confidence in himself at a young age. “
There were wins, losses, and setbacks. After Ryan underwent several surgeries and was unable to practice, he competed at a Junior Nationals competition.
“The people I used to beat were beating me,” said Ryan. “I think I needed that time in my life where I knew how it felt to be weaker and not be on top.”
Ryan knew what he needed to do – push himself to get back to winning. For the next 4 years, Ryan poured his heart and soul into training.
“Driven,” said Ryan’s former coach Jo Ann Armstrong, a Paralympian and founder of the Rochester Rookies track and field team. “He was aggressive, competitive, social, and approachable, too.”
In addition to the Rochester Rookies, Ryan also joined junior recreational wheelchair basketball team the Rochester Rockets, which gave him a firm foundation in wheelchair basketball skills and techniques. Eventually he joined the more competitive wheelchair basketball team, the Rochester Wheels. Both teams are also part of SportsNet.
SportsNet’s adaptive sports teams have had a positive impact on Ryan’s training, discipline, and motivation, and also helped to shape him into a confident yet humble young man.
“Those programs got me here,” said Ryan. “I eventually would have found sports, but it helped me to have people I could compete against and get to the next level.”
Naturally, Ryan’s parents supported his passion for track and field and basketball, eventually becoming involved. Dad, Gregg, has coached Ryan and the Rochester Rookies for the past 10 years. When Ryan went to college, Gregg stayed with the team.
“I like to see their character and confidence build through sports,” said Gregg.
While excelling at basketball and track, Ryan maintained excellence in academics. When he was a junior at Churchville-Chili High School, Ryan received the National Wheelchair Basketball Association (NWBA) National Academic All-American Award for academics and sports.
Several colleges and universities offered sports scholarships for wheelchair sport programs and approached Ryan. After careful consideration, Ryan chose University of Illinois.
“Only two schools in the U.S. had both track and basketball programs. I wanted to play both sports. So, it really came down to Arizona and Illinois. Some of the best coaches were at University of Illinois – that was more of my deciding factor.”
The Wheelchair Athletic Program is top-notch at University of Illinois, and has produced Olympic and Paralympic athletes including Jean Driscoll, Sharon Hedrick, Shawn Meredith, and Ryan’s hero Scot Hollonbeck.
“The experience of organizing and managing his studies around his aggressive training and travel schedule has really developed Ryan’s level of independence and responsibility,” said Gregg.
Before college, Ryan was considered an elite athlete, but once he began racing in the adult division, he had to train harder and longer to improve his performance and keep up with some of the best athletes in the world. His rigorous training program demands hard work, commitment, and sacrifice.
Ryan, however, refuses to get disappointed. He stays focused, giving each race every ounce of energy he has.
“I set a goal – a time rather than who I’m going to beat. As long as I practice everyday and put 100% effort into it there’s nothing I can really do about what place I come in.”
During the 2010 Chicago Marathon, Ryan cut nearly 8 minutes off his best time (1:36) to qualify for the International Paralympics Committee (IPC) World Championships in New Zealand held in January, 2011.
“You have to hit a specific time in that race and that was my last opportunity.”
Elated, he arrived in New Zealand mentally and physically fit for his next marathon. During the race, however, the roads weren’t closed to motor vehicles. While Ryan was pushing, a car backed out of a driveway, heading straight for Ryan.
To avoid getting hit, Ryan braked suddenly. He flipped backwards and dislocated his shoulder around mile 6 of the marathon. Despite his injury, Ryan continued the race and finished 19th.
“It was the most miserable 20 miles of my life because it was very painful,” said Ryan.
In April, Ryan entered the prestigious Boston Marathon where he pushed side-by-side with his boyhood hero Scot Hollonbeck for most of the race. In his last three Boston Marathons, Ryan had come close to breaking the top 10. Could he achieve his goal, within a few months of injuring his shoulder?
Adrenaline rushed. Ryan held his place down the hill, watchful for competitors, hopeful no one would crash. He climbed uphill and then created a rhythm with his strokes. Near the end, Ryan could feel it. He pushed and pumped harder and faster and charged the finish line with a time of 1:31:48 beating Hollenbeck, now 41, by fifty-six seconds to claim 9th place in the 2011 Boston Marathon.
His tenacity, drive, and passion had paid off. Not only has Ryan achieved top status in the premier marathon for wheelchair racers, but also he was selected as a member of Team USA for the 2012 Paralympics in London.
“SportsNet helped me get into a great college and the Paralympics,” said Ryan. “It drove me. Without this kind of sports program, I don’t know where I’d be.”
Ryan believes that the support from family and his coaches also helped him get to where he is today. Ryan’s message to others is to get involved.
“It’s never too late to try a sport,” said Ryan, “as long as you’re passionate about it, who knows where it will get you.”