Ryan Boyle ’18 has had a pretty good 2014. In May he won a World Cup cycling gold in Italy. In July, he matched the feat at the national championships held in Madison, Wis., and beginning Aug. 28 in Greenville he’ll attempt to make it a trifecta while representing Team USA at the 2014 World Championships.
For most people, those are the accomplishments of a lifetime. For a person who wasn’t supposed to live to see his 10th birthday, however, they’re merely icing on the cake—like just about everything else since that awful Connecticut fall day in 2003.
“I was on a Big Wheel at a friend’s birthday party. I slid down the driveway into the path of a speeding pickup truck,” Boyle said matter-of-factly recently during an interview at Furman’s Trone Student Center. “It hit me in the back of my head, and I had to undergo emergency brain surgery where they removed most of my cerebellum, which controls balance and many other of the body’s functions. Once they did that, they really had no hope for me . . . I was 9, and I spent my 10th birthday in a coma. My birthday present was getting a feeding tube put into me.”
Boyle delivers the line with a wry smile. He’s told the story many times during inspirational speeches around the country and doesn’t pull any punches about the experience in his 2012 autobiography, “When the Lights Go Out: A Boy Given a Second Chance.” But it’s always a tough one to hear.
“I remember eating breakfast that morning, but I don’t remember the accident at all. And actually when my parents told me what happened to me I just laughed in disbelief. But I soon found out it wasn’t a joke,” he said. “I could only move my right index finger, and I couldn’t swallow or speak for probably the first three weeks.”
Boyle spent two months in a coma at the Yale-New Haven Children’s Hospital, and when he woke he was moved to the Blythedale Children’s Hospital in Valhalla, N.Y., where he had to learn to do virtually everything again. His brain damage had caused him to lose almost all motor control, and though he was a fourth-grader he no longer knew the alphabet or how to do basic arithmetic.
It took two years of excruciating rehab before he could walk on his own, but he slowly began readjust to regular life. By all accounts, that would have been considered a complete victory for him and his family, one so inspirational it was featured on CNN. Boyle, however, realized it wasn’t going to be enough.
“I just remembered what my life was like before my accident and how much I wanted to get back to living life like before,” he said. “Before my accident I was one of the most athletic kids in my elementary school. I did mountain bike racing, I was an avid runner, I played soccer, I did BMX racing—it was just so much fun that I couldn’t let go of it. So I kept on striving toward that.”
One of Boyle’s rehabilitation stints led him to the Beyond Therapy Program at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. He liked it so much he convinced his parents to move south, where he eventually enrolled in Berry College before transferring to Furman in the spring of 2014 for better training opportunities.
Boyle had decided he was going to become an elite competitive paracyclist, and his Team Roger C. Peace Para-Cycling squad was based in Greenville, as was the Greenville Health System’s Acceleration Sports Institute. It was the right decision.
Boyle was invited to join the U.S. National Team in January and hasn’t looked back—unless it was to see how far ahead he was. In Italy, he captured first place in his division’s time trial, upsetting the 2012 London gold medalist in the process, and in Wisconsin he was first in both the time trial and the road race. It was the second year in a row he won the MT2 road race national championship.
He’ll be trying for a sweep of both races again on courses south of I-85 off Laurens Road as one of 45 U.S. athletes. MT2 means men’s division, tricycle (because of his balance problems, Boyle’s bike has two rear wheels), degree of impairment. There are five degrees, and the lower the number, the greater degree of impairment.
Boyle’s coach is Simon Bennett, and for nine months Boyle has been training twice a week with ASI’s Keith Scruggs, who donates his time because Boyle is “a personal project” for Scuggs’s Ph.D. work in motor control at the University of South Carolina. Scruggs came to Greenville from the U.S. Olympic training facility in Lake Placid, N.Y., so when he compliments Boyle’s dedication, they aren’t words to be taken lightly.
“Ryan is probably the hardest working athlete that I have ever had the pleasure of working with, and that says a lot,” Scruggs said. “He’s very determined, and I appreciate that. Sometimes I have to pull him back a little bit.”
Boyle still walks with a halting gait, but Scruggs says the balance and core exercises they do have made a big difference.
“In the nine months I’ve been working with him he’s actually gained 11 pounds, and nine-and-a-half of that was lean muscle mass. Usually you tell a cyclist, ‘hey, we’re going to gain 11 pounds,’ and they run the other way. But he trusted me,” Scruggs said. “He’s gotten tremendously stronger, and he’s able to control his body in ways he hasn’t been able to do before, which transferred over to the bike.”
One training moment in particular stands out. As the two walked past one of those huge truck tires Crossfitters sometimes flip as part of their workouts, Scruggs jokingly asked Ryan if he’d ever done one before. He hadn’t—but that was about to change.
“I could see it in his eyes, we were not going to take another step until he flipped that tire,” Scruggs said. “I got him in position, I was there behind him to spot him, I give him the same cues—butt down, flat back, big chest, lift. As soon as he lifted the tire, he flipped it and just started beating his chest and roaring like a gorilla. It’s the first time he’s ever done something like that, and to see the joy and excitement in his face and his actions was priceless.”
The world championships are the last race of the season, but Boyle’s career is just beginning. His ultimate goal is to make the 2016 Paralypmics in Rio de Janeiro, and he plans to use his communication studies major to continue his motivational speaking.
Most of all, though, he just wants to keep enjoying a life he wasn’t supposed to have.
“A friend of mine who also rides, she was like ‘we have already been through the hard part. All the pain, that’s all behind us. What we’re doing now is just fun,’” he said. “I’m not saying what I’m doing now is easy for me, but it’s not as bad as it could be.”
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