CHAMPAIGN — Ryan Chalmers pushed 71 miles into Champaign on Wednesday, on Day 47 of his Push Across America.
Oda Poole drove his three children 180-plus miles from Rockford to Champaign on Wednesday, so 10-year-old Cameron could watch from his wheelchair as Chalmers pushed his racing wheelchair down Oak Street.
Chalmers is pushing from Los Angeles to New York City in 71 days, to raise awareness of what people with disabilities can accomplish and of Stay-Focused, a nonprofit organization that teaches young people with disabilities how to scuba dive. The Push Across America was conceived as a way to mark the 10-year anniversary of the Cayman Islands organization, which Chalmers has been involved with since he learned to dive at age 15.
The Pooles have been following Chalmers' journey on the Push Across America website (http://www.pushacrossamerica.org). When they told Cameron that Chalmers would be coming through Champaign, he asked if they could go watch him.
"I thought it was kind of cool he was in a wheelchair and pushing across America," Cameron said.
Chalmers was joined on Wednesday's push by a number of University of Illinois wheelchair athletes and several cyclists. Chalmers is a UI graduate and trains with the UI wheelchair racing team. He finished his push into Champaign at the UI Disability Resources & Educational Services building.
The group ran into some rain in Monticello and decided it would be a good time for a lunch break. Otherwise, said Roger Muller, president of Stay-Focused, the trip has been blessed with mostly good weather, with the exception of one rainy, cold, windy day in Colorado.
Chalmers said Wednesday's push was fun, with a nice day other than the brief rain, a tailwind and plenty of company.
"It made it go a lot quicker," said the Paralympian from the 2012 London Games.
"It's good to be here and relax, hang out with the team."
Cameron waited to meet Chalmers after he and the other wheelchair athletes arrived on campus. Both Chalmers and Cameron have spina bifida, an incomplete development of the spinal column that can cause nerve damage and muscle weakness and affect the ability to walk.
Cameron is a swimmer and he plays basketball. After finishing Wednesday's push, Chalmers chatted with Cameron about basketball and asked him if he would try wheelchair racing someday. Cameron was noncommital.
Chalmers also asked about Cameron's swimming, telling him "I'm not very good at it. You'll have to teach me sometime," and recounting a story about once being disqualified during a swim meet. (Chalmers is now a certified Divemaster who will teach scuba diving for Stay-Focused this summer.)
Chalmers will have a rest day today, although his rest day includes a radio interview and a meet-and-greet luncheon. He'll be in Indianapolis on Saturday, where he's been invited to do a lap on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. He'll be a guest at the Indy 500 race on Sunday.
He's scheduled to complete the Push Across America on June 15. Muller said plans for the fall include some fundraising events in different cities, where Ryan will talk about the experience and show footage from the Push Across America.
"We want to get the message out as much as possible: Figure out what you want to do. Do it. Don't let anything get in your way," Muller said.
That's the message Poole hoped his son would take from seeing Chalmers on Wednesday.
"I just want him to know there's nothing he can't do. I think he understands that," Poole said, agreeing that seeing an athlete push his wheelchair across the country should make a powerful impression.