Level of Injury: T7
ABC news: Nothing stands in the way of Ricky James
What do you do when you’re 16, training for a career as a professional motocross rider, and you collide with another rider at high speed? When you’re ejected headfirst over your handlebars into an embankment and feel your spine snap? What do you do when you’re lying in the dirt...when you can’t feel your legs...when you know something’s terribly wrong...when you overhear the paramedics call in your prognosis? What do you do when you’re young and healthy and the body you’ve always taken for granted is broken? Do you give up? Do you give in?
If you’re Ricky James, you set goals. And then you set about meeting them.
Immediately after the accident, Ricky’s parents began looking into getting him an RT300. After extensive research, they decided on the RT300 as the best option for the son that would settle for nothing less for his young life than everything. Now Ricky aims to use the RT300 three times a week for an hour, but that goal is sometimes superseded by his other training. As much as he appreciates the physical benefits of the RT300, he’s not shy about saying the RT300 “isn’t exactly fun.” He’d much rather be outside working on his back flip into a foam pit (if you think a back flip is impossible for a paraplegic, you haven’t met Ricky). But it keeps his legs healthy and toned so he can work his upper body to the full capacity of a driven 20-year-old. It balances out his hard-core training, making his fitness program a complete package. After an hour on the RT300, he knows he’s gotten a cardio workout because he’s winded—not a casual endorsement for someone as fit as Ricky. He insists the RT300 has improved his life, prepared him for his other pursuits, made him more capable of achieving his other goals. And Ricky has a lot of goals.
Today, four years after his accident, Ricky is a typical 20 something young man. He hems and haws and “ums.” He’s unimpressed by a Hawaiian vacation: “it’s pretty but boring. That’s why they all surf.” And he’s back on his bike. Specially outfitted, it allows him to use all the factors required to win, even if his legs aren’t part of the equation. Ricky has also started to purse a career as a professional auto racer. Armed with the powerful motto of “perseverance,” Ricky participates in 14 races a year, more than most able-bodied athletes.
Disappointed by his 6th place showing in his first marathon (mere mortals would be happy just to finish), Ricky decided to set himself a seemingly impossible goal: the 140.6 mile Ironman Triathlon in Kona, Hawaii.
For the uninitiated, a triathlon is a race against the clock in consecutive long-distance swimming, cycling, and running. And the Ironman Triathlon is the most prestigious competition of them all. Swimming 2.4 miles in the open ocean, battered by punishing winds and hot weather on a 112 mile hand-cycle ride, most participants consider it a triumph just to finish. But only those who make it over the finish line within the cutoff time can officially hold the title of “Ironman.”
As part of his training, Ricky rode 150 miles a week on his hand-cycle. He swam hundreds of laps a week. He pushed his racing chair for 30 miles. He willed and worked his body into better shape than before he was hurt. And he avoided the couch at all costs.
In his typically understated way, Ricky called the Ironman “pretty brutal.” But he finished it in 12 hours, 44 minutes—making the cutoff time and allowing him to add “Ironman” to his list of accomplishments. Crossing the finish line “felt like a dream,” he says, after training so hard and picturing it so often. “That was my main goal last year and I did it.”
Moving on: this year’s goal is to design, implement, and master the controls on his late-model racecar. When he takes to the asphalt, he’ll be up against mostly able-bodied opponents—a challenge he relishes. “It’s a level playing field out there. It’s like I don’t have a disability, It feels good not to have an excuse.”
There is one goal that’s been put on hold for the moment: a career as a motivational speaker. Right now Ricky wants to move, train, ride, and race—not speak about something that’s supposed to stop him. But should he ever have time for a speaking gig, Ricky has a few words of advice for those recently diagnosed: “Set goals right away. Keep your mind occupied. See it as a challenge. Work toward something rather than getting lost...And right now, working hard is all I know.”