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Wheelchair athlete takes perseverance to the Ironman

CLEARWATER — At age 16, Ricky James had to start all over.

He had to learn how to take a shower, how to put his clothes on and how to practice good hygiene. He had to learn to tie his shoes.

Life is different in a wheelchair.

His life changed on March 10, 2005. James, of Murrieta, Ca., was thrown head first from his Yamaha YZ80 after colliding with another rider during a motocross race. He crushed his spine. He broke his wrist and a couple of ribs and a lung collapsed.

James spent seven hours in surgery, where rods were inserted to stabilize his spine. He spent 10 days in the hospital and 25 in rehabilitation.

"It came across my mind that I couldn't ride again and that bummed me out," said James, now 20. "But I didn't think about everything else that went along with the injury."

He began adjusting almost immediately.

"In less than a year, I had adapted a bike to racing," James said. "In a year and half, I've developed three versions."

While anything that has to do with a motor and driving fast and finding the right amount friction and traction is James' first love, in the last year, he has turned to competing in triathlons.

And just as he quickly adjusted to life with a possibility of never being able to walk again, James overcame a steep learning curve and has excelled in the sport.

"I didn't learn to swim until April," James laughed.

Saturday, James will be one of five physically challenged athletes to participate in the Ironman World Championship 70.3 at Clearwater Beach. More than 1,500 athletes from around the world will swim 1.2 miles, bike 56 miles and run 13.1 miles.

James will use the hand-cranked cycle on the bike ride and a race chair for the run.

"I wanted to pick up a new challenge," James said. "I wanted to prove that I was an athlete."

James started with the hand-cranked bike at about this time last year. In March he learned the racing chair, then swimming followed in April.

Fortunately for James, he has a coach who has proven it can be done. David Bailey, also a paraplegic, lost the use of his legs in a motocross accident in 1987. Like James, Bailey, now 46, was at the top of his game when the accident happened. Bailey went on to compete in triathlons and in 2000 he captured first place in the Ironman 140-mile event in Kona, Hawaii, after three tries.

"He's the best student I've ever had," Bailey said Thursday as he watched James take a practice run on the hand-cranked bike. "He doesn't question when it comes to training. I probably could tell him it's dark right now and he'd say okay. But because of that, he sees results."

In May, James completed the 70.3 in Kohala Coast in 7 hours and 14 minutes. He had never swum in an ocean before. In June, he competed in a 70.3 in Lubbock, Texas, bringing his time down to 6 hours and 44 minutes.

Last month, James competed in the 140-mile Ironman World Championship in Kona, where he biked 112 miles, swam 2.4 miles and pushed the race chair 26.2 miles. He completed it in 12 hours and 44 minutes.

"I was kind of scared that I couldn't do it," he said.

It's been a full year for James. There are the triathlons, the television commercial about spinal injuries and the likelihood that he will be crowned rookie of the year in the West Coast Pro Truck Series in Irwindale, Ca., where he races trucks.

Rick James has witnessed the tough road and is proud of his youngest child and only son's ability to adjust so quickly.

"Once the family went through the pain, we could see how much hope Ricky gives other people with spinal cord injuries," James, 51, said of his son. "He's helped 20 guys get back on bikes already. It's amazing."

James has adjusted, but he's still trying to find a job he will enjoy.

"Getting a job right now is tough," he said. "I want a job that's physical but I have a physical disability. That's what's difficult about being in a wheelchair. You get injured doing active stuff. It's not like I was sitting in a classroom in college and got injured."

But like everything else in James' young life, he said he follow the guidance tattooed in scripted letters down his right leg.


Demorris A. Lee can be reached at 445-4174 or

Ironman World Championship 70.3 • 6:45 a.m. Saturday, Clearwater Beach. Starts and finishes at Pier 60. • 1.2-mile swim, 56-mile bike, 13.1-mile run • 1,800 U.S. and international competitors. All earned a spot in this event in one of 29 global qualifying races. •

>>Fast facts

Helping out

Rick James is racing for Challenged Athletes Foundation, which recognizes the athletic abilities in people with physical challenges and supports their athletic endeavors by providing grants for training, competition and equipment needs.

To learn more

Wheelchair athlete takes perseverance to the Ironman 11/06/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 9:08am]
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