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Wheelchair racer, pushing across country, will roll through KC

Updated: 2013-05-14T04:06:15Z

By MARÁ ROSE WILLIAMS

The Kansas City Star

No one has ever seen this country the way Ryan Chalmers is seeing it now.

That’s because no one has ever done what Chalmers is doing — pushing his wheelchair across America, more than 3,000 miles from Los Angeles to New York City. He should reach Kansas City today.

“It is an incredible journey,” said Chalmers, 24, who was born with spina bifida and never had full use of his legs. He uses a wheelchair much of the time, although he can walk with crutches. As a child, he played soccer and baseball on crutches.

“I wasn’t very fast, though,” he joked in a phone interview.

Chalmers found his niche with wheelchair racing when he was an 8-year-old growing up in upstate New York. Last year he raced as a member of the U.S. Paralympic team in London, and in 2016 he expects to compete in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

This push across America amounts to his biggest feat yet. In 2011, a man crossed the country in a motorized wheelchair, but Chalmers is said to be the first to make the journey in a racing wheelchair.

He hopes to encourage people with disabilities to not let physical challenges stop them from pursuing dreams. He also is raising money for Stay Focused, a nonprofit diving program for teenagers with disabilities.

Today is day 39 for Chalmers, who will push his way up Kansas 32 from Lawrence into the Kansas City area. He travels 55 to 60 miles each day.

Less than 20 inches from the pavement, Chalmers sits tucked into his racing chair, which has two large rear wheels and a single smaller wheel in front. His legs are folded beneath him. He punches the big wheels forward — one, two, three, rest; one, two, three, rest — with opened, gloved hands.

“You get into a sequence,” he said. “It’s a rhythm.” Except when he was climbing the Rockies. “Then it’s constant. You have to keep it going so you don’t slide backward.”

But downhill was fun. “Like a roller coaster.” At one point, he hit 53 mph.

The push is grueling, and Chalmers said he had no idea of the toll it would take on his arms, shoulders and even his legs.

It’s a good thing his trainer from the University of Illinois, where Chalmers earned his bachelor’s degree in athletic training, is following in a car. Another vehicle, stocked with energy bars and drinks, leads the way. The two vehicles protect him from traffic.

Most passing motorists are pleasant, Chalmers said. They wave or their honk their horns. Some even stop and want to talk about what he’s doing and what motivates him.

“It’s a mental thing,” Chalmers said. “And it’s the cause. It would be a lot more difficult if I didn’t have a reason for doing what I’m doing.”

In Kansas City, Chalmers will meet spectators about noon today at City Hall and at 4 p.m. Wednesday at Barney Allis Plaza. Donations can be made online at PushAcrossAmerica.org or by texting “push” to 50555.

To reach Mará Rose Williams, call 816-234-4419 or send email to mdwilliams@kcstar.com.

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