Yarmouth County resident hopes to qualify for Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016; he lost the use of his legs in a 2013 car accident
A January 2013 accident left Ryan Shay in a wheelchair but it hasn’t slowed him down, nor has it slowed his determination.
By Tina Comeau
When asked to describe his life, Ryan Shay finally settles on the adjective unbelievable.
It’s unbelievable that a last-second decision to make a left-hand turn, on an otherwise uneventful drive just over a year ago, would result in a car accident that would render him a quadriplegic.
But it’s also unbelievable that in just over a year since the accident, he is training and competing in paratrack wheelchair racing and has set his sights on qualifying for the Paralympics happening in Rio in just over two years.
Life, he says, goes on.
It may be different, but it keeps going.
It’s how this young man – he only turns 20 in March – has coped with the hand life has dealt him that has been an inspiration to his family, friends and even strangers.
Consider that just slightly over 13 months ago, in the weeks following his accident, that he couldn’t sit up on his own for more than 30 seconds, that he had extremely limited mobility with his hands, that tubes kept him fed and that he couldn’t immediately speak and you start to get the picture.
This former AAA hockey player – who no longer has the use of his legs, nor any sensation from the nipples on his chest down – can muster up more determination on any given day than most of us would ever care to.
He doesn’t wallow in how his life is different, but instead focuses on what he his life is now and what more it can become. He sets goals for himself and ticks them off along the way.
And as if that smile of his isn’t infectious enough, his enthusiasm is beyond contagious.
But to really appreciate how far he’s come you need to go back in time.
It was Jan. 10, 2013. Ryan was driving through Arcadia heading towards town. His passengers included his girlfriend Bryce Muise and his friend Josh Heroux.
As he approached the curve leading out of Arcadia onto the airport stretch he decided to turn left onto the road that leads to Chebogue. “I don’t know why, I just wanted to go for a nice drive,” he says.
Instead he lost control of the car, which first rolled onto the passenger side and then landed with great impact on his side.
“It was just like a pancake,” says Ryan, who was seat-belted in. “My neck took all the damage.”
His passengers escaped the accident without any serious injury, and Ryan himself didn’t even have a scratch on his face. But although you couldn’t see his injuries, there were there.
“I was screaming, ‘I can’t feel my legs!’ ‘I can’t feel my legs!’”
During his lengthy stay in hospital in Halifax, someone would have to come turn him in bed every couple of hours. Add to this the seven-and-a-half hour surgery on his vertebrae and displaced spine, the feeding tubes, the tracheotomy, the ventilator, the IVs and constant needles, losing 30 pounds in a very short period of time and also losing pretty much all of his muscle. He couldn’t drink water for about eight weeks since he couldn’t swallow. His body couldn’t regulate blood pressure. He had ulcers. He had a lung infection.
He’d make gains. He’d have setbacks.
But what the accident never claimed from him is his strong will. This was evident when he got into occupational therapy and rehabilitation. Aside from giving major kudos to those who worked with him – Megan Barry and Sue MacLeod, whom he calls amazing people – he also credits his athletic background for helping him as he learned wheelchair skills, worked on his hands and motor skills and did his physiotherapy.
“It got to the point where I was getting pretty strong. For a quad I’m a high-end quad so I’ve got a lot more strength than most quads out there,” he explains. “We were running out of things I could do around the gym.”
So they started focusing on what he could do outside of the traditional physiotherapy indoor setting, things like rowing and kayaking. He also has other things on his to-do list: wheelchair rugby, basketball, sledge hockey and skiing.
But it was at a point last year that life presented Ryan with a new opportunity - one the Yarmouth resident quickly latched onto.
He was introduced to wheelchair athlete Ben Brown and on the track he gave Brown’s racing wheelchair a try. And then other racing chairs too. But in something off the pages of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, there were issues with the chairs.
This one was too big.
This one was too small.
Still, he wasn’t deterred.
“Eventually I found the right-size chair and we went from there,” he says.
He was immediately hooked.
“It’s pretty cool, you feel fast,” he says about wheelchair racing. “Most quads, from the start of their career, need someone to lift them into the chair but right from the get-go I just pulled myself right into the chair. The coach there was amazed at how strong I was. Ben was excited too. It was great.”
Aside from doing training at the YMCA in Yarmouth, and wheeling around at the Mariners Centre when there was no ice on one of the surfaces, Ryan travels twice a week to and from Halifax, where he trains at the Canada Games Centre. He’s classified as a T52 quad racer. He has a chair on loan that fits him better. It’s not yet a case of this one fits just right, but it’ll do for now until he and his family can raise money for a customized chair.
The training and the traveling, he admits, can be grueling.
“It’s pretty tiring. Before when I did hockey, I would sweat, I was completely gone. I don’t sweat now, really, being a quad, and so you don’t feel like you’re working as hard,” he says. “But it’s a different type of burn. It’s a type of burn where I’m trying to push and my arms are flopping around. It’s quite hard.”
Specialized gloves designed for wheelchair athletes help him where his arms and hands can’t.
And how is the training going?
“I get a new personal best pretty much every week,” he says.
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