When last we sped up to catch road warrior Ricky James, he was gunning it around a Motocross track on a souped-up bike, and enjoying the occasional thrill of a back flip off a 20-foot-high ramp into a forgiving vat of foam.
Even with a blow to his T7 vertabrae that paralyzed him from the mid-chest down nearly three years ago, he continues to leave worrying to the sissies. James, 19, is currently training for the Iron Man competition, which entails four miles of swimming, 104 miles on the handcycle and 26.2 miles of racing in a wheelchair. His trainer and friend, David Bailey, who was also in a paralyzing Motocross accident roughly two decades back, nabbed the top prize in the 2000 Iron Man contest, so James has a powerful coach and personal motivator.
In Part 1 of this story, which ran in our last issue, the athlete shared how he got back on his bike
just four months after he was hurt, the loving support of his family, and his unwavering faith that an effective treatment for spinal cord injury will be found surprisingly soon. Here, he and Chet Cooper, editor-in-chief of ABILITY Magazine, talk about those terrifying moments after a friend crashed into him at the track, and James was carried away by the emergency medical team. …
Cooper: So there you are, on a stretcher being wheeled in…
James: Right, and as they lift me from the stretcher to a bed, some guy had my arms, and the other dude had my legs, but there was no support underneath, and I was like, “Hey! My back is broken. Are you stupid?”
Cooper: The accident happened in Texas?
James: Yeah. The first hospital they took me to wasn’t equipped to deal with my situation, so they airlifted me to another one. I was in ICU for four days and sat up on the fifth. Then they flew me to another facility. They said I had to be there for three weeks, but after 10 days I flew out on a private jet back to California. They said I would be in rehab for six to eight weeks, but I moved through that in just three weeks. Then I went to Las Vegas. There are five, big amateur nationals, and one was coming up in Vegas. (I was at the first one when I got hurt.) My goal was to get through rehab, so I could go to those nationals in Vegas.
Everyone was so supportive. When I woke up in ICU, people had raised $60,000 for me out at the track. I was so driven to get back out there that I worked especially hard in rehab. I had sustained other injuries during the accident as well, so I had to go through rehab with a cast on my right arm, four broken ribs and a punctured lung. But I still left after five weeks—without my doctor’s permission—to head to Vegas with my dad. That night I rode on the roller coaster at the New York, New York hotel, where I stayed, and the next day one of my really good friends drove me around the amateur national track on his 450. So already I knew I’d be getting back to riding. It was just a matter of time and figuring out the best way to do it.
Cooper: Hmmm. I wonder…Why do “Vegas” and the term “taking a big gamble” come to mind?
James: (laughs) Yeah, It wasn’t too smart to go on that roller coaster the first day out of the hospital. But my back is tough. And then, exactly one year later, I rode two laps around the same track where I was injured. I whipped around the corner that I had crashed into, took a quick look back at it and then kept going. It was cool.
Cooper: You can actually whip?
James: Yeah, on bigger jumps.
Cooper: I just started riding again after many years, so I don’t know how to do that yet. I was told that one thing I’m not doing is holding my knees to the tank, not positioning myself up forward enough. But everything I’m told to do, you’re not able to do, so how the heck do you make it work?
James: I don’t know. I’ve been riding since I was five. I rode BMX from eight to 12, so I’m always comfortable on anything that has two wheels. To whip it, you have to slide off the lip or the back end. It almost feels like I’m losing control, but I just have to balance down on two wheels.
Cooper: But how do you bring it back, then?
James: I don’t know. (laughter) It comes around, and you tug and pull. Everything has to be fluid when you do it. For me, it’s second nature. One of the biggest whips I’ve thrown was out at Competitive Edge for Transworld Motocross magazine. That was crazy. I was just trying to slide as much as I could off the lip. The thing was out of control; you could see my tire marks off the lip. But it was cool.
Cooper: You know what we’ve got to get you to do? We have a nonprofit called ABILITY Awareness, kind of doing what you’re doing, awareness of…
James: …spinal injury? It’s as important as research to make life better for the person who is paralyzed. If people around them knew what the situation was about, that would help.
Cooper: Yes. It’s about changing attitudes, allowing an equal playing field. So if you want to go out and get a job, and there are two equal candidates—one in a chair, and one not—they don’t just rule the person in the chair out and say, “I’m not sure if that’s gonna work in our company.” That’s where the ADA and anti-discrimination laws come in.
RICKY’S NEW LIFE
Cooper: So KTM Sportmotorcycle’s going to sponsor you?
James: Yeah, it just happened recently. They’re going to give me a bike. I can build it and make it deluxe at the factory race shop, using all the parts I need. And then they have all the machines to do welding, machine brackets for my seat, make aluminum Nerf Bars—whatever I want.
Cooper: So it’ll be a lighter bike.
James: Yeah, I was thinking about a little mountain bike with a shock in the air box for a little cushion. That sounds totally doable with the factory behind me. It’s a sweet opportunity.
Cooper: Maybe they can help you with your automatic kickstand.
James: Yeah, they can do that. And it’ll be better for the back flip. I did the back flip on the motorcycle I got hurt on, but my KTM machine will be faster and lighter and way easier to flip.
Cooper: You did the back flip off a ramp?
James: Yeah, a metal ramp into a foam pit. It’s a jump of about 20 feet. You can see it on YouTube; just search ‘Ricky James back flip.’ I was lucky not to land upsidedown, because that would’ve hurt a little bit. The pit is where you learn to do crazy tricks, like 360s. You could also go on Google and search “double back flip.” It’ll blow your mind.
Cooper: Let’s talk about your dreams.
James: I was telling a friend last night that everything I’ve dreamed has come true. I’m so thankful to be doing what I’m doing. I said I want to do a back flip, and I did that. I wanted to do the Baja 500, and everyone said I was nuts, but I proved them wrong. I love proving people wrong. It’s my drive. If someone says I can’t do it, that’s just more reason to try.
Cooper: Like if someone says ‘I don’t think you’re going to be able to walk again….’
James: A lot of people say that. We’ll see. But either way, I want to keep moving forward with these great opportunities. I’ll hopefully roll one of them into a living, get some good sponsors, and go into the schools. I’ll find an angle on it. This truck racing is cool, and I’m excited to get a monster truck built for me. But right now I’m at ground zero. I could go into stockcar racing, late-model racing … I’d like to move up to the next level and prove myself. When I’m racing in a car, I’m sitting down, so other drivers don’t have any advantage over me. I did pretty well the first race, so I’m looking forward to more racing and being competitive again. My dad’s backing me with the race truck right now, so I’m gonna give it my all every time I’m on the track.
Cooper: Well, there’s definitely money in NASCAR.
James: Yeah, no paraplegic has ever done that before. That’s my true dream, honestly man. I’d blow all the people I used to race in Motocross out of the water. I thought it was a bummer getting hurt, but to go back and do something like that would be amazing.
Cooper: Matter of fact, it might even be an advantage in a sense. Isn’t weight an issue?
James: There’s a minimum weight limit on the car, so I’d probably have to add weight if I was too low. But that is a good point. I actually had to add weight to the little shifter car I have. The less you weigh, the faster your car will go. It’s like being a horse jockey.
TECATE’S SCORE BAJA 500
James: I raced the Baja 500 last year and hurt my shoulder, so today is the first time I’ve ridden since that. I rode my hand cycle yesterday for the first time, and I’m starting to get stronger.
Cooper: In the Baja race, how many times did you go down?
James: About twice. One time my shoulder popped out of the socket. It hurt so badly. My seat also popped out and my shifter broke, so I couldn’t get it to downshift— that’s another reason I fell. At mile 20 I was like, “I don’t think I can do it.” I thought I was going to have to pull out because it was so dusty. I couldn’t see anything. They had a record number of entries this year—over 500, so they started them 15 seconds apart instead of 30. So it put everyone closer together, and the dust was overwhelming. I think I had the gnarliest section, too. There was about a quarter or a half-mile of this deep silt.
Cooper: Did you have somebody riding with you?
James: Yeah. He started the ride behind me. I was 120 and he was 121. I should have had two guys helping, particularly to get on the bike. But we got it done. I finished 120 miles in four hours, and my team went on to finish 13th out of 22. The race was 12 hours and 18 minutes total. So we did pretty good, considering everything. Technically, I lost about 45 minutes with all my falls and getting back up and everything. If I hadn’t fallen, our time would have been 11 hours and 15 minutes, and we would have gotten 11th. So my mess-ups really didn’t cost us too much. But, I don’t really want to race any more. I can’t go as fast as I used to, and I can’t go as fast as the kids nowadays.
Cooper: So why did you do Baja?
James: That’s a race I know and it’s more about endurance than speed. In truth, I’m not happy with what I did in my career before I got hurt. I was one of the fastest in my class, but that’s not good enough. I want to be the fastest. That’s what’s so awesome about Motocross, there’s always someone faster than you. It’s the work that you have to do to become fast that drove me. Same thing with truck racing. There are a million guys out there who can do it, and a million people out there with money to get awesome cars. I’m 19, I don’t have money, but I’ve got heart and determination.
Cooper: Did you ever meet Ricky Carmichael?
James: Yeah, I did, and it was cool. I met him before I got hurt. I raced in Florida, and we were on our way home and Shift, my gear sponsor, invited me out there. James Stewart and Ricky Carmichael were there, and was like, “Hey, I’m Ricky and I’m James, both of you!” I got a picture with them.
Right now, I’m just trying to move forward, doing what I love and being a role model in the spinal cord injury world. I want to do something important. I have something to give. I want to raise awareness around spinal cord injury like Lance Armstrong raised awareness around cancer