As much as the 3,300-mile–plus road trip that started in L.A. some 70 days ago may be coming to an end for Ryan Chalmers on Saturday morning in New York, the journey is really just beginning.
The 24-year-old Paralympian, who pushed off in his specialized high-tech wheelchair from L.A. Live near Staples Center on in early April to rousing cheers, finds himself just 40 miles away from the finish line in Central Park.
His hands are somewhat gnarled. His shoulders ache. His knees are ready to buckle. But the adrenaline level is overflowing. And there are stories to be told.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” he admitted this morning, after having visited a children’s hospital outside of Philadelphia during a “rest” day. “This is all kicking in now and it’s getting exciting. We’ve been doing this a long time and in a way it’s sad to see end, but I know it’s the start of a new chapter where we’ll go out and talk to people about this adventure and get everyone excited all over again.”
Chalmers, the central New York native born with spina bifida that has required the need to use a wheelchair his entire life, has received enormous support and visibility in his mission to raise awareness for those with disabilities with a “Push Across America” campaign. It was created by him with Roger Muller, founder of the Stay Focused nonprofit organization that offers SCUBA diving experiences to disabled teens and young adults.
The final surge for Chalmers starts at 6 a.m. Saturday in Highland Park, N.J. With a police escort the entire way, he will cross three bridges – including the Brooklyn Bridge – before he reaches the designated ending points and is greeted by Commissioner Victor Calise of the Mayor’s Office for People with Disabilities.
This has been anything but a relaxing sight-seeing tour for Chalmers, a wheelchair racer since he was 8 years old, having finished fifth in the 2010 L.A. Marathon and becoming a member of the U.S. Paralympic team at the London Games in 2012.
Along the way, he’s had to replace 13 tires on his chair. Most, due to wear and tear, but a couple after riding over glass or metal.
“It’s a bummer, but we’ve actually got pretty lucky that’s it’s only been three in the front,” he said.
Once, his support team had to find a welder to repair a steering stem that broke as he was picking up speed down a hill.
His shoulders need an ice bath every night, on orders from his trainer Karla Wessels. His knees, which support the weight of his body in the chair, “feel like they want to break,” he said.
His blackened hands are marked with callouses from the constant grabbing of the wheels to get them in motion.
Ironically, for the most part, he hasn’t actually been able to enjoy the view along the way, either.
“I usually have my head down when I’m pushing, following the lead vehicle, trying to pay attention and my directions can get a little off,” he said. “But there were those moments, when I was climbing a mountain and I got to the top of a summit and I got to look out. That was really amazing. I did get to have that.”
It may also seem like an eternity ago when he left L.A., but that image, too, remains vivid.
“I remember it like yesterday, even though it’s such a long time ago now,” said Chalmers. “It was really a ‘wow’ moment. Roger and I had been talking about doing this since 2009, and it finally picked up in 2011, and we worked so hard to make it happen, and it was finally a reality.”
Other moments of reality set in along the way, starting with a strenuous trek through the heat of Death Valley that could have derailed everything.
“It was definitely an eye-opener for me to happen so early,” Chalmers admitted, “but it got me ready for the next 65 days.
“This isn’t supposed to be easy. Not something of this magnitude. There’s been plenty of ups and downs along the way. But you just have to embrace the difficult moments and enjoy the really fun times as well.”
That’s the first-hand message he’ll have ready to deliver to others who he plans to meet going forward, providing an inspirational blueprint for those who might feel their physical condition limits their ability to push forward through tough times.
A video crew has been along this trip to document it all, posting clips on the PushAcrossAmerica.org site as well as a Facebook page dedicated to it. The variety of scenery photographed is breathtaking.
After taking a trip to the Cayman Islands to help run a Stay Focused diving program, Chalmers will be back to what’s likely a whirlwind of speaking engagements.
“I’m excited to push this even more forward,” he said. “It’ll be great to go back and hang out with some of the people we’ve met along the way. I’ve had a couple of times lately coming through Washington D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, where people in chairs have come with me to do the last five or six miles, pushing together. We’ve build so much awareness at this point. This won’t be the last hurrah to this campaign.”
Follow the journey on Twitter at https://twitter.com/PushUSA