Ryan Shay: Shooting for new goals in life, including the Paralympics in 2016

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

Tina Comeau tcomeau@thevanguard.ca
Published on February 16, 2014

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

THE VANGUARD

www.thevanguard.ca

 

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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So if you’re going to set goals, might as well set them high. That’s what Ryan has done as he aims to qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. On his Facebook page called Ryan Shay Paratrack he’s posted an advertisement featuring paralympians.

“If I inspire you, this inspires me. Love this,” he writes on his page. “I want to be on one of these ads one day. Actually I'm going to be.”

Aside from his training in Nova Scotia, Ryan has attended a training camp in Atlanta and has another one coming up in March in Daytona. His first wheelchair race was the Runway Run in Halifax.

“It was five kilometres and I had never pushed in a race before,” he says, noting his main area of training is in the shorter distances of 100 metres or 200 metres.

“I was expecting it to be flat. It wasn’t,” he says with a laugh about the Runway Run. “It was flat, turn, hill, steep incline and then downhill. It was quite a push and the chair wouldn’t go straight. I had to turn the steering every few pushes but it was exciting.”

He did the race in a time of 28 minutes and 19 seconds. He was thrilled to have been under the half-hour mark.

Equally pleased was Ryan’s coach Ueli Albert, who spoke with the Vanguard about Ryan’s training and his potential. Albert says Ryan shows initiative, he’s mature and he’s known from the start that you want something, you have to work hard for it.

“Because he was doing AAA hockey before and he did track before, he knew what he has to put into it. Right away I was impressed with that,” says his coach. “I was also impressed with his strength.”

So does he think Ryan can qualify for the 2016 Paralympics? “Absolutely,” he says, adding, however, Ryan still has a long way to go but he’s on the right path.

“When he first started out with the chair it took him about 40 seconds in 100 metres and now he’s down to 21 seconds,” says his coach. “In order to qualify for the Paralympics he’ll probably have to push on 18 seconds.”

Eventually having his own customized chair will help, it’ll probably shave off at least another second from his time right away. Racing with the proper size wheelchair is as important as racing in the right side shoes, his coach says.

“If it’s too wide it’s almost like running in too big shoes,” says Albert. “And if it’s too small, obviously you don’t fit into it.”

Meanwhile, his coach continues to be in awe of Ryan’s determination.

“He drives up here two times a week from Yarmouth. He drives six hours to do a two-hour workout, which just shows you his commitment,” he says. “He’s the package, he’s got it all. It’s just a matter of staying focused and putting in the work.”

In May, Ryan will be traveling to his coach’s home country of Switzerland to compete.

“It’s the biggest wheelchair competition in the world,” says his coach, who describes it almost like a world-cup race. “This will be a huge chance for him to measure himself up against his competition.”

 

One thing Ryan Shay doesn’t lack is supporters. From the healthcare workers who treated him after the accident, to the people at home that organized fundraisers and a benefit to help him and his family – a big one was held at the Grand Hotel last March featuring the Rockabillys – to his former teammates, coaches, his friends and even people he’s never met, everyone is pulling for him.

“I was never alone unless I wanted to be,” he says. And now he’s feeling the support once again on the Facebook page that he set up to help with fundraising and to chronicle his training, his competitions and his goals. He was amazed that within the first week he had reached around 1,600 likes of his page.

(Incidentally, he’d love more likes on his page. And anyone who feels like throwing some likes the way of his friend and training mate Ben Brown on his Facebook page, he says, would be great too.)

As for his biggest supporters, that honour is reserved for his parents, Greg Shay and Monette Shay, who still get emotional talking about how far their son has come, and how far he’s determined to go. Aside from the training he’s doing, he’s also driving again with the assistance of special adaptations for his vehicle, and while he depends on others, he’s also very independent. It’s a vast difference from where Ryan and the family found themselves a year ago.

“We’re very proud of how far he’s come in a year,” says his mother Monette. “A lot of athletes don’t choose to participate in sports until they’re two or three years after their injury. We’ve very glad that he’s determined to give it his best. He’s got a lot of focus.”

Says his father Greg, “He’s been presented a unique opportunity . . . it could open some good doors for him in the future if he pursues it and sticks with is. It’s exciting and impressive the way he’s stuck with it so far.”

Ryan’s girlfriend Bryce also says he has come a long way since the accident.

“I go up to Halifax with him every Sunday when he goes up and trains,” she says. “He looks a lot faster. I’m really proud.”

This isn’t to say there aren’t days when Ryan doesn’t feel like training.

With the good days, come the bad.

But giving up isn’t an option.

“I look at it as if I’ve got to do it,” he says, not just for himself, but also for others. He wants to create awareness for all para-athletes who, like himself, are making huge strides in their sports. Many of these athletes, he says, are accomplishing things that wouldn’t even cross his mind.

He also wants others with life-altering disabilities or injuries to be encouraged and inspired by what para-athletes are doing.

“I see a lot of people liking my Facebook page who I saw in rehab and they’re in a wheelchair and they could be doing something, or they could be trying to do sports but they’re not.

“A lot of people just lay in bed after their injury and let their body go to waste,” he says. “I want them to look at me and think about themselves and say, ‘Just because I’m injured and it’s a horrible thing I have pretty good chances for good stuff afterwards too.’”

Because although circumstances, at first, may appear life ending, instead they’re really just life changing, he says.

And they can also be unbelievable.

 

 

Note to readers: On Ryan's Shay Facebook page will also be information on how people can support him financially or through fundraisers as he looks to raise money to purchase a customized racing wheelchair and raise money for his training and competitions.

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