Ryan Chalmers pushes the limits every day.
Up at 5.30 every morning, puts in a good 12 miles toward his marathon training, does a couple dives later on and then goes kayaking or parasailing in the afternoon.
The fact that he was born with spina bifida, a condition that affects the development of the spine, shouldn’t give you pause. It hasn’t kept Ryan from being active in sports all his life.
One of his favourite sports, in fact, is diving in Cayman with Stay-Focused, a scuba diving programme for young people with disabilities.
“Diving is just very therapeutic, and it’s the one thing people with disabilities can do that’s not adaptive – there’s no adaptive equipment. We’re doing the same thing that everyone else is doing,” he says.
Beyond that, “What this organisation does is build independent skills, confidence and leadership, and I can see in myself how that’s happened,” says Ryan, who is quickly becoming the public face of the organisation. “How much I’ve learned and the improvements I’ve made over five or six years are incredible. Hopefully I can help others do the same.”
The recent University of Illinois graduate, who grew up in upstate New York as a track and basketball athlete, first came to Cayman in 2005 with Stay-Focused, founded by New York go-getter Roger Muller a year earlier.
“I’ve been here every year since,” says Ryan, who is now a mentor for new arrivals in the Stay-Focused programme.
“If kids are scared, bringing someone in who’s closer to their age and who’s been through it really helps,” he says. “It’s incredible to see since Day One the changes that happen with the kids.
“The programme does so much for me, I told Roger I always wanted to give back,” he says. “I want to be a part of this organisation as long as I can.”
Toward that end, Ryan is doing an internship with Roger this summer, learning the workings of the organisation (which has no paid staff, by the way, and is fully funded by donations) and becoming the motivational face of the programme.
Paralympics on the horizon
Meanwhile, his “spare time” is spent training for the 2012 Paralympics marathon (personal best: 1 hour, 31 minutes), following the Summer Olympic Games in London. As a member of the US paralympics track team, Ryan will do most of his advance training at the University of Illinois. The time spent on island is no vacation from training, however. He “pushes”, literally, from Stay-Focused sponsor hotel Marriott to the Turtle Farm and back every morning, early, to avoid the traffic. Then it’s on to diving and other activities with the Stay-Focused groups.
“There’s never really any ‘down time’ while we’re here, which is a good thing,” he says with a broad smile. Never mind the logistics of it all: “You’re in Cayman, so why sit in your room?”
That’s hardly Ryan’s style, or the style of any of the other divers, and certainly not Roger’s by any measure.
“I started this from scratch, totally from scratch,” says Roger, who poured much of his own money into the non-profit inspired by his brother, a disabled Vietnam veteran. Initially there were two kids in the programme, along with a doctor and a coach. This year Stay-Focused welcomes 30 teens to Cayman, and the physician who accompanies the group is gathering valuable data for medical research on how diving affects the quality of life for people with disabilities.
Freedom and success
“Freedom” is the word most associated with the experience, as Roger explains that water is the great equalizer that allows disabled divers to participate just like any other diver.
Not only do the teens (generally ages 15 to 18) learn the skills to become scuba-certified, but they also set goals and learn to become focused.
“This is an achievement-oriented experience,” says Roger. “We want them to succeed.”
Success, right now, looks very much like Ryan Chalmers. Not only has he participated in the Cayman Islands Marathon (with fellow Stay-Focued diver Brian Siemann, without both of whom there might not be a wheelchair division in the race), he’ll be pushing on a much larger scale in 2013. Look for Ryan as he pushes his wheelchair across America – and in Cayman – to raise funds and awareness.
In the meantime, Ryan’s parents will be in London to watch him in the Paralympics, and he hopes Roger can come, too.
“I’ve always had the dream to become a paralympian, but the real reason I’ve done it is because of the support of my family and friends. That’s been my inspiration – the people who are always there for me, pushing me to go forward.”
See video of Ryan diving at caycompass.com