Ricky James was well on his way to fulfilling a childhood dream of becoming a Supercross champion, when life took a drastic turn. Two and a half years ago, at just 16 years old, he was injured in a Motocross accident on the track. The blow to his T7 vertebrae left him paralyzed from his mid-chest down. Today at 19, he’s deftly navigating the new terrain of his life.
Mere days after the accident, James declared that he would ride again. But first he had to redesign his motorcycle. After he did that, he was determined to compete in the 2007 Tecate SCORE Baja 500, which he did. On the heels of those victories, he set his sights on performing a back flip on his newly modified motorcycle. He licked that too, and now has set his sights on NASCAR racing. In the meantime, he’s shifting out of his teen years into the higher gear of independent adult living.
ABILITY Magazine, editor-in-chief, Chet Cooper recently caught up with James and idled alongside him for an hour or so to talk about his accident, his recovery and his plans for the future.
COOPER LOOKS OVER JAMES’ MODIFIED MOTORCYCLE…
Cooper: Pretty nice, Ricky.
James: Yeah. When I got hurt, I took it to my suspension guy and he was like, “Yeah, I know who’ll do it up for you.” He held on to it for about two months without doing a thing. “You know, I don’t really want to build you this bike,” he told me. He didn’t want to be responsible for me getting hurt again. Then I met Brad Meinzer through David Bailey, and I saw the downhill mountain bike he’d designed for paraplegics, and I was like, ‘Dude, you could make me some Nerf Bars,’ which are basically crash bars to protect my legs. He made it happen. Brad’s awesome.
Cooper: Being in a chair, he knew exactly what you needed.
James: Exactly. The bars used to go all the way underneath the bike, which was a little bit wider. But now it’s more streamlined. This is as simple as it can get.
Cooper: How long did it take you to come up with the idea?
James: About six months. But I started riding my smaller motorcycle just four months after I got hurt. I would get duct-taped to it, and ride around with buddies, like my friend Jason Lawrence. That’s when I knew I had to ride, so I’d sit in the garage and my dad was like, “If you really want to ride it, let’s do it now.” That’s when he got out the roll of duct tape and secured me to the same bike that I’d crashed on. At first, I just went up and down my driveway. But my hips were sliding off, so I knew that the seat was the key part that kept me on the bike. Everything else I’ve added is basically to go faster or protect my legs, like the electronic shifting gear.
Cooper: Tell me more about the controls? How exactly are you shifting and braking?
James: There’s a hand back brake where my clutch used to be, and I have an automatic clutch that’s centrifugal. I give it gas and it feeds the clutch out for me, and then I have an electronic gearshift—basically two little tabs with buttons that shift between gears, while engaging the transmission. And that’s about it for the motor.
Cooper: You say “thumbs” plural, so it’s on both sides?
James: Yeah, there’s down shifting on the gas (throttle) side, and acceleration on the other side. So there’s only one button for me to push on each side. We modified that, along with the seat to keep me on, the crash bars to protect my legs, and the foot trays to keep my feet in place. That’s what it took for me to ride again.
Cooper: So when you stop, you basically have to look for a tree to prop yourself up against or…
James: Or my friends catch me. I have to have someone with me to load and unload my bike as well as to get me on it. I probably could get on it myself, but I have to have one guy to go out to the track with me in case I crash. Then he’ll come out and get me, or help me if I need to stop. He can catch me and put my kickstand down. I’m working on an automatic kickstand, where I push a button and it flips down. I’ve been working on it, but it’s not perfected, and like I said, at a Motocross track I don’t really need to stop. When I’m done, I’m done.
Cooper: Do you have siblings?
James: I have two sisters; one is 24 and the other is 28.
Cooper: How did your family deal with your injury?
James: Afterwards, they were on the computer 24 hours a day, looking into treatment options and what life might be like after a spinal cord injury. They told me more than the doctors did. I’ve become really close with my sisters. They call me to hang out, and I love being with them and my two little nieces. My younger sister actually dated Jesse Billauer, the guy who started Life Rolls On, for about a year.
Cooper: Before or after his injury?
James: After. He’s been hurt for about 10 years. He came and visited me in rehab.
Cooper: Small world.
James: He came and visited me in rehab, and my sister sent him an email that said, “Thanks for coming to visit my brother,” and he was like, “Hey, are you single?” So they started talking and dated for a year or so. It was cool. They broke up, but I’m still good friends with Jesse and the whole Life Rolls On crew.
Cooper: Tell me about your dad?
James: He’s awesome.
Cooper: It’s pretty cool that he’s dealt with his fears and still let’s you be who you are.
James: He knew I was capable of riding again. I’m a pretty smart rider. I know what I can do and what I can’t. There are some double jumps out here today that I probably could have done, but it wouldn’t be worth it to push things too far. If I do certain moves, it’s going to hurt.
Cooper: And yet you dropped it twice out there.
James: Yeah, I crash probably once or twice every time I go riding. I push it just beyond the low level, and that’s what’s fun about it. You’ve got to scare yourself a little bit to make it fun.
Cooper: Earlier I heard your dad talking about Christopher Reeve’s research doctor…
James: His name is Hans Keirstead (see article on pg. 54), and he was working with Reeves. I was lucky enough when I got hurt that David Bailey—another paraplegic who was once a top racer and my trainer— told us of some doctors who were on the forefront of stem-cell technology. My dad called up Hans. They talked for about an hour. The day I got hurt, he gave my dad a lot of confidence. He told my father, “Keep him healthy for four or five years and I’ll have him fixed.” I have an exercise bike that I use to work out my legs. I do that as much as I can. I do believe that there is a lot of potential with stem cells.
From day one, my dad has said: “Don’t worry about the cure. I’m going to do all I can to help.” He puts on a golf tournament once a year to raise money for Reeve Irvine, which does stem cell research at UC Irvine. My job is to do what I do, have fun and stay positive; my dad’s job is to get the cure. He feels it’s his duty.
Cooper: He’s taken on a lot.
James: Yeah, if there was a cure anywhere in the world, my dad would track it down. He would send me into outer space if there was a cure there. The U.S. is the best in terms of advances. The FDA is holding things up for now, but in the long run, they’re just making sure everything is safe, and no other country has an FDA like ours. So the cure will probably be found here in the U.S. We agree 100 percent with Hans. He’s the guy who will have the breakthrough in terms of helping people recover from spinal cord injury. I’ll say it now. He will do it in the next couple of years.
I’ve met Hans five or six times. My parents went out to lunch with him before he flew back to China to go do some research there. He’s gone to a lot of different countries. He has to be a politician to cut through everything, but at the same time he has to do the research.
Cooper: So he’s lobbying for his research and performing it at the same time.
James: Yeah. It’s amazing. He’s only like 35 years old. He’s a full-on surfer dude. He wears flip-flops into the lab. He’s so cool. I can’t stress how much I believe this guy will one day save my life. He invited my parents out to dinner, and I couldn’t make it. I was supposed to go, but I was having so much fun riding at the track. That was, a big, big dinner for me to miss, but there was a bunch of pros out riding, and I actually got my Alpinestars sponsorship that day, so I was like, “I’m staying, I’m having fun.”
Cooper: They’re working really hard at the ReeveIrvine Research Center, and with new money coming in, things look promising.
James: Yeah, in the next couple years, we’re going to see a lot of progress. They want someone who will put in the hours, and get spinal cord surgery to finally work. They’re looking really closely at me in terms of the whole breakthrough of stem cell technology. As young as I am, working out as much as I do, I’m in a good position to benefit from it.
Cooper: Did he tell you how he’s going to do it?
James: Step by step. And at the end, he’s said, “I have the cure, and now we just have to develop the drug. The research is done.” I’m thinking. That’s amazing. It’s been two and a half years. He told me, from the day I got hurt, four to five years. It’s been two now. The research he’s doing is going to be tried on humans soon Hans says someone has to be injured two to four years for him to even do the surgery to prove that it was a chronic split spinal cord. He doesn’t want someone only a year into it, because people would say it might have come back anyway.
Cooper: So they’re doing animals trials now?
James: Yeah. I’ve seen rats up and walking only three months after their spinal cords were completely severed. Next, they plan to move on to primates.
Cooper: You think they might be allowed to do human trials soon.
James: Yeah. I’m pretty excited about the whole deal, honestly. Where I got hurt-the T7—only 20 percent or something like that get hurt in that section. The other 70 percent are injured in the cervical area, and the other 10 percent in the lumbar region. They want to do the surgery right where I’m hurt, because each section represents some aspect of mobility. There’s triceps, biceps, finger function. So if they do the surgery on a quadriplegic, that might mean more risk for them. Me, if I lose another section, it’s no big deal. I have seven more sections before I start functioning with my arms. And that eliminates 70 percent of the people right there, because they’re injured lower down, in the cervical area. So that, along with what I’ve done in the past few years to keep positive and healthy…
Cooper: So you exercise on a regular basis?
James: Yeah, every week. I’m supposed to do it three times a week. Sometimes I do it five times, sometimes two. It depends.
Cooper: Do you do any forced walking?
James: Gait training? No. I have an RGI stem bike, a home-based program. I put 12 electrodes on my legs and it shocks them into pedaling the bike for me, which keeps my muscles from atrophying, improves blood circulation and helps with bone density. It’s a $15,000 bike. And then I have a standing frame that I use also for bone density. So that’s what I do. I also plan to start Project Walk. My spinal cord is split in half, and I know that there’s no rehabilitation out there that will get me walking again, but I just want to keep healthy for that stem cell technology. Project Walk is a rehabilitation center to get spinal cord injury patients to walk again. I want to go down there, where they have training professionals, so I make sure I stay healthy.
Cooper: Is that project out of Miami?
James: No, this one is in Carlsbad, CA. It’s around $100 an hour. I’m going to go down there once a week, just to make sure I’m doing the right stuff and to use some of their machines to do that training. When I first got hurt, I thought, “I just want to ride, be happy, keep my mind off being hurt.” I don’t think any 16-year-old should have to go through what I went through. A lot of people have and still will have to go through it, but it’s not very cool. So I focus on doing the more extreme stuff, and I love it. I love riding, dropping in the quarter pipes, sky diving, driving an Indy car— a bunch of extreme stuff that keeps my mind off my situation. When I’m doing that kind of stuff, things are almost cool.
Cooper: It sounds like you didn’t go through the typical depression that usually follows a serious injury.
James: I have awesome friends and family. I almost felt like if I was depressed, it was a disappointment to them. When a person gets hurt, everyone around them goes through it, too. I didn’t want to make their lives worse, so I tried to be positive. There’s no reason to get down or have a bad attitude. It doesn’t get you anywhere.
Cooper: Prior to using a chair yourself, did you have any friends with a spinal cord injury?
James: David Bailey. He was a Motocross trainer and managed some teams. He saw me out at the local track when I was about 14 and offered to coach me. He got hurt 20 years ago.
Cooper: So he uses a chair?
James: Yeah. He was a world Motocross champion on the top of his game when he got hurt. It was the year before I was born. But I knew who he was, and I’d always seen him around. He’s a legend in the sport. For him to come up to me at a local track and say he wanted to help me out was amazing. I jumped on the opportunity, and he started coaching me. About two weeks before I got hurt, we were out at the track together, and my mom was like, ‘What if that happens to you?’ All I said to her was, ‘He’s a cool guy. I wouldn’t mind it.’ So when I got hurt, I thought, Damn, now I have to live up to my word. But David is so cool that I know it’s doable.
Cooper: So seeing someone in a chair, doing whatever he wants in life gave you a sense that anything was possible.
James: Yeah. When I saw him, I thought, “He’s awesome, he still gets to be in the sport, he’s making a living in Motocross.” At the same time, I never understood all the things that went along with being in a chair. The stuff you see is not even the hard stuff that a paralyzed person has to deal with. Not walking is only the half of it, the other half that people don’t see is just as hard.
Cooper: What kinds of things are you talking about?
James: Bathroom care, hanging out with friends, everything you do in life. It’s harder to go to the beach. I second-guess everything now. Do I want to do that? Will it be worth it? There are so many situations I come across every day, where I have to adjust and find a way around it. It’s kind of a pain to do some things, such as going out on a boat; I have to be lifted into it.
Having good friends helps a lot. They get me around. So, I’m pretty comfortable. I think that’s why you don’t see 90 percent of the paralyzed people out and about: They don’t feel comfortable with other people looking at them, doing the stuff they want to do. It’s kind of sad. You’ve got to be stronger than the other people and not mind them, just do your thing. It’s kind of awkward and weird for a paralyzed person to ride a motorcycle. But I love riding, and I don’t care. It makes me happy and I get enjoyment out of it, so I’m going to do it.
Cooper: Do you know about the ADA?
Cooper: Did you know what it was before?
James: I had no idea, but I learned that by law every place is supposed to be accessible. This is the first Motocross track I’ve seen with handicapped parking spots. That’s pretty sweet. But I’ve learned about all the ADA rules. I had a girlfriend who lived up north. I met her through one of my buddies who’s a quadriplegic. He and his girlfriend and my girlfriend came down and we were like, “Let’s go to the bowling alley.” I lived in Mission Viejo at the time. It’s something that we could actually do. You don’t think it’s possible, but we got the ball on our laps and just threw it directly down the lane. I’m a decent bowler.
Cooper: Are you familiar with the IKAN bowling system. Basically you bowl from the ramp.
James: No, I pick it up and just chuck it straight out from my chest. Even my buddy who’s quadriplegic can bowl. He pushes it off his lap, but he does it. So we’re like, “Yeah, let’s go bowling.” It’s something we can do. It’s awesome. We go out to the place and there are no accessible spots around. It’s three steps down to the bowling alley. You know how there’s the waiting room to the lanes? There was about a four-inch little lip so every time we bowl we had to go up this thing. Our girlfriends had to help us down the stairs, and then there are two steps up to the bathroom. It was completely not ADA. It sucked.
Cooper: Do you have a carrer path?
James: I’m still trying to figure out what’s next and what I want to do for a living. Cooper: What do you like?
James: I like motorcycles and I like sports. I would love to drive in NASCAR some day. I have a NASCAR truck right now. I’ve only raced twice. I’m going to try to get going in that and put as much effort into the truck as I’ve put into Motocross. I may be racing monster trucks soon, too. But I might do some speaking at schools and stuff like that. I don’t really like to talk too much about my story; I talk about it every day to my friends, so I’m not sure I want to do it for a career. But, every kid and every teenager out there has problems; I’m not the only one. Mine are just more obvious, but I’ve done quite well emotionally. So I might be open to sharing my story about overcoming my physical situation. I think kids could take away something from my story. I might just try motivational speaking. I could pick my own hours and talk to kids. I think it would be a cool deal. I have the opportunity.
Cooper: It’ll mean lots of traveling. How do you like traveling?
James: I love it.
Cooper: Apparently you don’t have a problem with public speaking?
James: I don’t. I think I have good morals and I’m a positive thinker. So if I could roll that into a speech, I think I could give a pretty cool one. Like I said, I have the opportunity; not many people have that, so I might as well try it out.
Cooper: Tell me about your motorcycle accident.
James: It happened during the amateur motocross national race, when another rider-actually one of my best friends—came down and landed on my back brake pedal. There was a little cliff on the edge of the track, and I went into it head first; my bike came after me.
Cooper: Do you ever talk to that friend any more?
James: No. He came to the hospital a few times, but he never said he was sorry. I heard that he gets pissed if anyone even talks about the accident. I don’t want him to feel guilty. If he doesn’t want to say “sorry,” that’s okay. I’m the one who has to live with this every day. But I know he remembers it. I rode for Honda. He rode for Suzuki. We were awesome friends, but really competitive toward each other.
Cooper: Maybe he doesn’t think he did anything wrong?
James: He says our lines came together, but I was in second place and went off the jump and I see a bike coming down on me. I had no control over it. It was the tightest part of the track, and he tried to pass me, which wasn’t smart. It was only the first lap, too. It wasn’t like it was the last one; there was no reason for it.
Cooper: You were both in the air?
James: Yeah. It wasn’t even a big jump, and as we landed, we collided. That’s when he hit my back brake pedal, and Newton’s first law of motion kicked in: Whatever is in motion stays in motion, I just kept going—right over the handle bars. It happened so fast. I didn’t even have time to put my hands out. I thought we were going to get tangled up in our bars and go down together, where I would’ve kicked his ass. But I went head first, and then the bike did a flip, drilling me into the embankment, breaking my back in half.
My vertebrae went one way, and the rest of my spine just crumpled. They rolled me over onto a hard, plywood backboard and strapped me down. It was excruciating. I’m like, “Dude, is there padding or something?”
Read PART 2 in our next issue