UI grad Ryan Chalmers is pushing his racing wheelchair across the U.S.
Ryan Chalmers is on a road trip few would attempt.
Chalmers is crossing the U.S., from Los Angeles to New York City — his Push Across America — in his racing wheelchair.
He’s pushing more than 3,000 miles in 71 days, through Death Valley, over mountain passes and into the winds of the Plains states.
He started his journey April 6 and plans to arrive in New York City on June 15. And he’ll be pushing into Champaign on Wednesday.
“It’s just incredible,” said Adam Bleakney, coach of Chalmers and the University of Illinois wheelchair track and road racing athletes. “Some of the climbs he’s having to ascend and the mileage every day, being in a chair six to eight hours every day, day after day after day.” 
Chalmers — a 24-year-old UI graduate who raced for the university’s wheelchair track team and still trains with the squad — is doing it to raise awareness of people with disabilities and all they can accomplish.
“Able-bodied or not, if you set goals and are passionate, you can achieve anything,” he said.
He’s also raising awareness and money for Stay-Focused, a nonprofit organization in the Cayman Islands that teaches scuba diving to young people with disabilities.
Chalmers has been involved with the organization since he learned to dive at age 15. He’s been a mentor for other young people in the program since 2007. And last year, he became a certified Divemaster, so this summer he can help instruct the participants.
“It’s really just made an impact in my life,” Chalmers said of Stay-Focused. “(Scuba diving) is one of the only sports you can do where you don’t have some adaptive equipment attached to you. I can look over to my left or my right and see an able-bodied person, and I’m doing the same thing they are. It’s a sense of freedom.
“I knew I wanted to be able to make a difference in the organization, and this was the perfect opportunity because I’m able to put my passion for wheelchair racing and passion for the organization together.”
He’s been planning the Push Across America for a couple of years. Chalmers raced marathons as well as track events at the UI, and he did the marathon in the London Paralympics last summer. To prepare for his Push Across America, he thought he’d need to train his body to be in his racing chair and pushing for six to eight hours a day.
He’s used the same training schedule he uses to prepare for a marathon — plus more weight training and some 30-mile pushes.
“It’s better for him to be fresh physically and mentally going into this push than having him fatigued and overtrained and already tired when he has 3,000 miles to go,” Bleakney said.
Last November, Chalmers did a 55-mile push across the Cayman Islands to generate attention for his Push Across America and to test himself on what would be an average day of mileage on his cross-country trip.
“It was good for me to see what it was like,” he said.
His hardest day physically was around Day 5, when he was in Death Valley National Park. The temperature was in the 90s, and Chalmers started his push that day at 5:45 a.m., with a 7-mile climb. He pushed 65 miles and ended the day with a 13-mile climb out of the valley. He thought he had just 3 miles left, and when he realized he actually had 4 miles to go, he had to stop, get out of his chair, sit in the RV following him and reflect before he could go on and finish the day’s mileage.
He’s had the benefit of UI athletic trainer Karla Wessels, who works with several wheelchair teams including the track team. She’s along for the Push Across America, and each night she works on Chalmers’ forearms, wrists, shoulders — whatever is hurting.
Bleakney didn’t doubt Chalmers would be able to push across the country. He described a 2011 world championship marathon race, when Chalmers dislocated his shoulder 3 miles into the race and continued to push the next 23 miles with a dislocated shoulder.
“He’s a tough kid,” Bleakney said. “He won’t back down.”
Chalmers said the push has been harder mentally than he expected.
“A lot of the things I think about is why I started this whole journey in the first place,” he said. “It makes it a lot easier to push yourself harder than you thought you could go if you have a phenomenal reason to do it.”
He also finds encouragement in the Facebook and Twitter messages he receives, evidence of the awareness his push is building.
Chalmers is pushing mostly along two-lane roads, on a route created by Paul Curley, a former professional cyclist who has bicycled across the country. There have been a few changes to the route to avoid road construction or dirt roads. And the route isn’t as direct as it could be because Chalmers wanted to push through certain cities along the way.
Bleakney and several other UI wheelchair racers plan to meet Chalmers west of Decatur on Wednesday and push the 63 miles into Champaign with him.
“I imagine it will be pretty exciting for him to get to Champaign and be in a familiar setting. It will be a little bit of an extra jolt of excitement,” Bleakney said.
Chalmers feels like the campaign has been picking up steam along the way. As his journey has progressed, he’s had more media attention and he’s excited about more people learning about Stay-Focused.
Chalmers said he’s enjoyed the journey so far and the response he’s received from people along the way.
“I was a little bit nervous going into the push, if cars would be upset if I was in the road and going 11 miles per hour and they would have to go around me,” he said. “I haven’t got any of that.”
Instead, he’s got encouraging beeps on the horn, thumbs up and people videotaping him as they pass.
Chalmers has also met some people along the way who were injured recently and who now use wheelchairs.
“Being able to talk to them, hearing their stories and the impact this campaign is making … those are ‘Wow’ moments,” he said.
On the Web
For more information about Ryan Chalmers’ Push Across America, visit www.pushacrossamerica.org .
Photos: Top: Ryan Chalmers begins a grueling 13-mile climb over Daylight Pass on his way out of Death Valley National Park. Bottom: Chalmers hits the 500-mile mark on his cross-country trek. Photos by Parker Feierbach/Push Across America.