Unstoppable” An Interview with Ryan Baker Co-founder and Co-inventor of Wheelchair Lacrosse
“I am not in a wheelchair, I am on it.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Baker. Ryan has many inspiring stories to tell but one of the highlights is that he is the co-founder and co-inventor of Wheelchair Lacrosse — the first adaptive organization to bring the game of lacrosse to disabled athletes. He started the sport in 2009 with a few friends in San Diego and the organization has now grown to more than a dozen teams in the US and Canada. Through the sport Ryan became a Nike-sponsored athlete and was invited to sit on the diversity board for the Federation of International Lacrosse. He has also been invited to speak and introduce war veterans to Wheelchair Lacrosse at the Walter Reed hospital in Washington DC.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I am a native to the San Diego area and graduated form High School at Temecula Valley in 1991. I have a brother, step brother, mom and step dad. My father passed away in 2011. I am 46, married and we just bought our first house! I love my work (Spinergy, Inc. www.spinergy.com).
Can you share the story of how you became disabled, and what you did to not let it stop you?
I was injured in an automobile accident in 1991. I was asleep as passenger in a full size van and the driver fell asleep at the wheel. When I opened my eyes, on scene, I could not move my legs. The accident occured leaving California to go live in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. I ended up doing my rehab at Sharp hospital in San Diego, after a few surgeries. The day they left me out of rehab, I was on a plane to Steamboat and lived there for almost 10 years, post injury.
Can you tell us about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability ?
This is an interesting question and I feel like there are many answers. It could be as simple as, I learned to drive again, get dress and stay clean, go shopping and cook… Basically all the things that seemed so simple before, all became accomplishments at some point. then , like the life we all live, those things become routine and mundane. The real accomplishment(s) comes in various forms… It has been how I look at myself, my self image, or perceived self image, how I am able to empathize and have compassion for others, allowing myself to love, or even more, to be loved. These are great accomplishments for someone that lives with a mobility impairment, or even if they do not. There are other more physical accomplishments like learning how to snow ski, or getting involved in sports, getting back into school…
What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities?
Life is not always what you think it is and unmet expectation is can be dangerous, when your life’s plan takes a turn for the unexpected and tragic. The advice I would give to a person that is newly injured with a spinal cord injury (like myself) is, be patient. We do not know what will become of our lives. There is no taking away from the simple fact that this is a catastrophic & bizarre injury, but there are so many possibilities before you. I would say that AFTER the injury I have met, experienced, traveled and seen much more than I would have, had I NEVER been injured. With the tragedy of it all, also comes a vast and open life to with what you want. The danger is getting caught up in what has been lost as it is not always as easy to how much has been gained.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
There are several people that have played a vital role in my recovery and regaining my independence. My mom and dad have always been there. I am lucky to have a good, strong family and incredible friends. The one person that I would say has helped me get to where I am today is my brother Aaron. He, in his own way was crushed by my injury. He had his own way of dealing with it and struggling through it, but he was always there to push me and challenge me, to give the tough love right when it was most important for me receive it. I would be sitting on the couch watching a movie maybe some sports. He would come over to my chair and move it away from the couch, then take the remote and throw it to the other side of the room, after he changed the channel to something awful. Then would just look at me and say good luck as he left the room. It sounds cruel, but he made me do things that I didn’t know I could do and he ultimately help craft me into something much more than I thought I could be by putting me in these (slightly) harsh situations. I feel like he needed me to accomplish some of these things for my own benefit, but also for him to know that I am not going to just sit there and be content with what he did.. I also think that in some way it was also cathartic for him to see me overcome simple things that then would lead to overcoming much greater things later in life.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am not sure I see myself as a success, but I have had some victories that make me feel successful. The major highlight for me was creating Wheelchair Lacrosse USA with my friend and Co-Founder Bill Lundstrom. In 2009 we started WLUSA (www.wheelchairlacrosse.com) to bring the sport of lacrosse to the disabled athlete community. Team sports are pretty limited for our demo. There is obviously basketball which tends to be most popular and most well known. Sled Hockey, softball, Rugby (specifically for quadriplegics). We wanted to bring a new option to the table of wheelchair sports. We operate as a 501c3 and in 2010 did our very first clinic for about 25 players. SInce then we have grown to almost 30 different programs across the USA. I have realized that no matter how bad I want this to take off like a rocket, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Not all of our programs have competitive rosters, but they are all growing and getting more people involved. We created a rule book, given away almost $20,000 in gear over the last 9 years and it has been an incredible blessing. We are very proud about what we have done and what the future holds for WLUSA. The ultimate goal is to bring this into the Paralympics a medal sport.
The other thing I would mention is a Podcast I started a long time ago called SCI Bootcamp. It was a weekly show that highlighted different people in our community with interviews and stories about how they recovered and cope with their SCI injury. I interviewed Dr’s and Physical Therapists, Fertility Specialists, driving instructors, etc… I was basically just trying to dispense as much info as I can about the SCI life, recovery, strategies for success and an active & healthy lifestyle. This is something that I would like to pick up again,as I feel like people got something out of it and I really enjoyed recording these episodes.
Can you share “5 things I wish people understood/knew about disabilities” and why.
- I am not in a wheelchair, I am on it.
- No 2 disabilities are alike.
- If a person with a disability needs help, they will ask.
- Yes, you (or your kids) can ask me about my injury, it would be more awkward if you didn’t & just stared at me, not knowing my story, because I used to stand and walk, like you.
- Simply being disabled does not make me your default for inspiration. Sometimes, being disabled isn’t as hard as it looks.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
I have a few, so I am not sure which one I like best, but given the spirit of the interview, I like a saying by Victor Frankl: “When we are no longer able to change our situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Also, Proverbs 3:5–6 Lean not on your own understanding, but trust in the Lord with all your heart and he will make your path straight.
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