Ricky James Oceanside, California SCI - T7
 

Motocross phenom Ricky James has never backed down from a challenge. Perseverance was built into his DNA. Born in Corona, California, on August, 24, 1988, Ricky, the youngest of Rick and Tina James’s three children, began riding motorcycles at the age of 5. Ricky’s parents realized their son had a gift; he was a natural athlete.

“What I remember most about Ricky’s childhood was how driven he was to succeed in everything he tried, which was just about every sport under the sun,” says Rick James Sr., Ricky’s dad. “He was never satisfi ed with fi nishing second and really hard on himself when he wasn’t in the winners circle or on the top step of the podium.”

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Although Ricky was adept at a variety of sports, including roller hockey and BMX, his love for motorcycles quickly became an obsession.

“Growing up I always wanted to race dirt bikes,” Ricky says. “I watched guys like supercross racer Jeremy McGrath and I was instantly hooked.”

By age 13, he discovered the off-road thrills of motocross and his freakish abilities were let loose to wreak havoc on amateur dirt tracks near his hometown. For Ricky, it was a little slice of heaven––the fans, the high-flying acrobatics, the rush of adrenaline with each completed lap at the head of the pack––success at the pro level was inevitable.

It didn’t take long for Honda, a motorsports Goliath, to notice what everyone close to Ricky already knew. In just his third season, Honda signed him to its coveted factory amateur motocross team. “I was stoked,” he says. “It was nice to know that people believed in me. It really helped my confidence, but it pushed me to train even harder. All the top amateur riders would have killed to be in my position so I felt like I had a lot to prove.”

On March 10th, however, at the age of 16, his dreams were shattered when he was involved in a collision with a good friend and fellow rider, crushing his T7 vertebrae. He would not regain any movement from the sternum down.

“We were completing the first lap, I went through a turn with a jump in it and I kind of whipped my bike in the air to get going straight down the track, I looked over at the green flag signaling it was a legal race and all I see is a wheel coming down at me. I flew off my bike head first over the handle bars into a little embankment on the edge of the track,” explains Ricky, who admits that he still holds some animosity toward his friend involved in the crash.

“Accidents do happen all the time on the track. I know it wasn’t intentional. But I don’t agree with his judgment to try to pass me at the time. It was a dumb decision on his part.”

Ricky’s life should have changed dramatically, but in many ways, it didn’t. He was still the same competitive kid from Corona, except now he used a wheelchair. Just 1 day after his injury, with the support of his mom, Ricky underwent surgery to stabilize his back. He quickly learned to get around using his wheelchair and approached rehabilitation as he did sports growing up––success came at a lightning pace.

“Getting back on my bike was my motivation to complete rehab. My family was very supportive. Obviously they wanted me to be safe, but they knew my personality. They knew racing was what I loved to do.”

“The things that make me the most proud of Ricky is how he handled his injury with so much maturity at such a young age,” James Sr. adds. “His strength gave our whole family strength to get through a tough time. Also it makes me proud how he is so giving of himself to others even when he’s having a rough go of it himself. His accomplishments in sports are a great thing, but the kind of adult he is maturing into is even better.”

Two months after returning home from rehabilitation, at age 16, Ricky graduated high school as a junior. His next mission was to return to racing. Ricky first needed to redesign his bike. His dad and good friend Brad Meinzer, who is also spinal cord injured, helped him build the bike to his specifications––modifying it to include a variety of adaptive features such as hand controls (electronic gearshift), foot trays, a custom seat––which his dad helped him fabricate in their garage–– and crash bars to protect his legs.

Against all odds, on March 10, 2006, the first anniversary of his crash, #824 returned to Lake Whitney. In front of thousands of friends, family, and supporters, he completed the race he hadn’t had a chance to finish a year earlier. It marked an extraordinary comeback.

Learning to ride a modified bike did have its drawbacks. For one, Ricky was strapped in tight to keep his body positioned correctly, so wherever the bike went, he would follow.

“I had only practiced riding with modifications for about a month before returning to Lake Whitney,” Ricky says. “My first thought was that it wouldn’t be a good thing to be strapped into the bike and go over the bars or lose control.”

But Ricky gradually regained his confidence, pushing his bike harder and riding faster than he ever imagined.

In 2007, he became the first paraplegic to complete the SCORE International Baja 500 in Ensenada, Mexico on a two-wheeled dirt bike. He finished his 120-mile section of the race in 4 hours. Ricky also won a Silver Medal in the first ever Adaptive Motocross event at X Games 14.

He soon began focusing on new endeavors, including racing NASCAR-style trucks. He won three West Coast Pro Truck Series titles for 2008––Rookie of the Year, Irwindale Champion, and overall West Coast Pro Truck Champion. He also competed in the Ironman World Championships, his toughest challenge to date, in Kona, Hawaii, successfully completing the Ironman distance of 140.6 miles in 12 hours and 44 minutes in his first attempt. Four weeks later, in Clearwater, Florida, Ricky recorded a World Championship title at the Ironman distance of 70.3 miles

 

Despite his injury, Ricky has continued to achieve everything he puts his heart and soul into. It’s a message he’d like to share with others who are also battling the daily challenges of living with a spinal cord injury––never give up.

“The first two years after my injury were easier than the last two,” he says. “I think it’s because early on I was just dealing with being injured and trying to overcome a lot of adversity. It wasn’t a lifestyle yet. Now I live on my own. I have to deal with showering, getting dressed, a bowel program––it’s kind of getting tough for me. I will not give up on the possibility of walking again one day. I believe there is a cure out there.”

Ricky would like to focus more on racing cars and trucks in the future. Racing is the one sport that he believes everyone, with or without disabilities, can compete on an equal playing field. “It’s not easy for athletes with disabilities to make a career out of playing adaptive sports because there is rarely any recognition or media coverage. But for me, racing has always been my passion and I can’t think of any better way to make a living. Even now after my injury, racing is still accessible to me because all of the adaptive technology available.”

Presently, Ricky, somewhat of a mad scientist at heart, is trying to design a device that would allow him to sky dive by himself. “I watched a video of this paralyzed lady on You Tube who jumped alone and landed safely. She was able to do it without any help, so why can’t I?”