No Surrender: Ryan Chalmers Keeps Pushin’ ‘Til It’s Understood

Ryan Chalmers Pushes Across America

Ryan Chalmers Pushes Across America

By Ryan Hilligoss, May 22, 2013

“Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage,” Anais Nin once wrote. If that is true, then Ryan Chalmers is a man with a never-ending world of possibilities before him. For Ryan is man of fiery courage, a man on a mission as he pushes across America, carrying a message of hope, courage, determination and the invincibility of the human spirit. Ryan is a world-class athlete who does more on wheels everyday than most people do with two feet. He is spreading his message from his racing chair one spin of the wheels, one mile, and one state at a time. His message comes across loud and clear in both actions and words, “Disability or not, if you are passionate about something and you set a goal for yourself, you can achieve anything.”

Ryan Chalmer's hands after a hard day's push

Ryan Chalmer’s hands after a hard day’s push

Ryan’s current journey started on April 6th in Los Angeles and will end June 15th after rolling through Central Park in New York City, but only after pushing himself 3,400 miles across America, on average 60 miles a day, through hundreds of towns and cities and 14 states and the District of Columbia, with a mission to raise awareness for the potential of all persons with disabilities and giving back to Stay-Focused, a non-profit organization that helps teens with physical disabilities. The organization has been a big part of his life and one that he deeply supports and believes in.

Ryan is travelling across the country with a support team, including Stay-Focused founder Roger Muller who says, “We have a support team of 6 people, and now we have two more who are filming this and want to make a documentary of it. We’ve had cameras stuck in our faces every day and it feels like we are filming a reality series. The amazing thing is he pushed 35 miles today, and then afterwards we drove back in the support vehicle at 50 miles an hour and it took about 30 minutes, but he pushed the whole thing in his chair with no gears. He is just pushing and pushing down the road . This is a huge challenge and Ryan has done very well.”

On the road, Ryan Chalmers and Roger Muller

On the road, Ryan Chalmers and Roger Muller

On the day I talked to Ryan a few weeks ago, he had pushed 67 miles through Navajo territory in northern Arizona and was headed towards Colorado and the Rocky Mountains. The elements that really bother him are elevation, some as much as 22% incline, wind, rain and heat. He much prefers pushing in a cool environment because the heat messes with his head. According to Muller, ” He’s never questioned his ability to do it from a physical standpoint, but he said it’s a mental game, the ability dig deep when he has to. We were in Death Valley and it took him 7 hours to push 13 miles. And when he got the seven mile point, he thought he had 3 miles left and when he found out he had 6 miles he hit a mental wall. He stopped, got out of his chair, went into the RV and had a drink and a snack and refocused. And then I walked the remaining miles with him. But he’s a tough, amazing guy.”

Ryan and the Push Across America team, Utah

‘There’s a dark cloud rising from the desert floor’, Ryan and the Push Across America team in Utah

Ryan was born in upstate New York with spina bifida and has never had complete use of his legs. Beginning at a young age, Ryan played sports, focusing on basketball and track. He learned to scuba dive with Stay-Focused in the Cayman Islands and became a certified PADI scuba instructor. Eventually, he found his way to the Land of Lincoln to attend the University of Illinois in Champaign due to the school’s educational reputation and, more importantly, the university’s wheelchair track and basketball programs, only one of two schools in the country with those programs. Ryan earned a degree in sports management in 2011, while simultaneously preparing himself for theParalympics. In the summer of 2012, Ryan was one of ten Stay-Focused alumni to travel to London and represent the United States as members of Team USA in the Paralympic Games where he competed in the 400 meter, 800 meter, 4×4 relay and marathon races.

Ryan Chalmers, 2012 Paralympics, London

Ryan Chalmers, 2012 Paralympics, London

The idea of a journey across the country to raise awareness was a natural extension of his training for the Paralympics and everything he had been doing up until that point in his life. According to Ryan, training for this journey was relatively close to training for the Paralympics, “There is a lot of mental work with 75% of the battle being mental and 25% physical. I felt recovered from the games and felt prepared for the Push Across America. I worked in the roller room and did some lifting to increase my pushing capacity, and did some 30 milers outside. Due to the racing chair design, there is a lot of pressure and pain on my legs. Now that I have 500 miles or more under my belt, my shoulders are sore but I am happy with what we have done so far.”

Ryan Chalmers pushes Across America and into The Land of Lincoln

Ryan Chalmers pushes Across America and into The Land of Lincoln

During the past week, Ryan passed the halfway point as he pushed across Kansas and Missouri and is currently crossing Illinois with a stop on his home turf of Champaign on Wednesday where he will be reunited with some of his training partners, friends and faculty at the University of Illinois. According to Ryan, the reaction of the public throughout his trek has greatly helped him dig deep and stay focused on the task at hand, ” We are getting great responses on Facebook and twitter which provide great morale. Our purpose is to raise awareness for people with disabilities and it looks like we are accomplishing that based on the responses we are getting which is phenomenal. On the road, we are seeing people clapping and hearing people honking. We were worried about backing up traffic behind us but people have been waving and smiling as they pass. It definitely helps you to get through the hard times in a day.”

When asked what keeps him motivated during the rough times, Ryan reflected for a moment and stated, “Thinking about the reason I started the journey in the first place, I’m really doing it for the organization and to raise awareness. It’s great to know that those things are being accomplished. When I’m going really slow or there’s a huge head wind or rain or something like that, you just stop and think of why you started this journey in the first place. And then your mind stops wandering and you are OK for the day.”

In the end, the message that Ryan is imparting to those willing and able to listen is this, “Never give up, stay focused. Find what you are passionate about, set a goal for yourself and just go and get it. That’s what is so great about the Push Across America campaign all long the way. Yes it is difficult. There are long days, 12 hour days, but I’m passionate about what I am doing. I get to put my passion for wheel chair racing and the organization together and do something great.”

Thomas Paine long ago said that we have it in our powers to begin the world over again. And while I may only partially agree, I believe that sometimes, very special people have the power in their hands to spread a message and touch the hearts and minds of others. Ryan Chalmers is one of those as he spreads his message one spin of his wheels, one day, one month, one state and one journey at a time. He’s not going to retreat, he’s not going to surrender, and he’s going to keep pushing until it’s understood ‘from California to the New York islands.’ Keep on pushing Ryan Chalmers, America is listening.

Further information is available on the below links for both Push Across America and Stay-Focused. As you read above, he enjoys all the support the team can get including cheering along the way, so you can monitor his progress on the map in their website and plan to come down to see him in person if he comes close to your town. You can also follow Ryan on his journey through Facebook and twitter.

Push Across America


Ryan Chalmers pushes past the ghost of Mark Twain, Hannibal, Mo

Ryan Chalmers pushes past the ghost of Mark Twain, Hannibal, Mo

For Kenny Jones, MHS Class of 1960

For Kenny and Leagene Jones, Centralia, Illinois

Mattoon High School class of 1960 group shot, Bob Hilligoss 60th birthday party, 2002, Godfrey, Il

Mattoon High School class of 1960 group shot, Bob Hilligoss 60th birthday party, 2002, Godfrey, Il


“I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back- up the hill- to my grave. But first: wait! One more look. Good-by, Good-by, world. Good-by, Grover’s Corners…Mama and Papa. Good-by to clocks ticking…and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new-ironed dresses and hot baths…and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you’re too wonderful for anybody to realize you.” character of Emily Webb speaking in Thornton Wilder‘s Our Town.


By Ryan Hilligoss, May 18th, 2013

I have never been much of a social person due to my inherent shyness, personality and own faults. But throughout my life, I have been fortunate to be blessed with extended friends of my family. Friends of my brothers and father and mother have been my friends by default, more so than on my own merits. But I have been lucky to have gotten to know a lot of people over time through my parents including their own social circles, fellow teachers and ex students of my father and some of their high school friends. It is a testament to their generation that I have known so many decent, kind and generous people who went out of their way to treat me as an equal and to take the time and effort to get to know me. So my thoughts and concerns turn to the family of my father’s classmate Kenny Jones, Mattoon High School class of 1960, who passed away last week, preceded by his beautiful and kind wife, Leagene King Jones the prior year. Many of those classmates from 53 years ago maintain special friendships that have carried over the many years. I was reminded of Stephen Kings words at the end of Stand By Me, after the narrator’s childhood friend had been killed, when he wrote, “Some people come in and out of our lives like busboys in a restaurant. And even though I hadn’t seen Chris in ten years, I will miss him forever. I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?”

Out of the class of 1960, I have been fortunate to spend time and get to know  a cast of characters and world-class personalities such as John David and Sarah Reed, Gene and Joan Clark, Hank and Luellen Weaver and Kenny and Leagene Jones, all fine people, each and every one. Kenny was a mountain of a man who had excelled at sports from a young age including basketball and football, and golf later in life. When someone I know passes away, I try to find a key moment in memory that I can use as a starting point to bring back other memories, and the one I have for Kenny is a snap shot of who he was a person in every way. I once read that someone’s character can be defined as their actions when no one else is watching. It’s easy to do the right things when other people are looking because that is what you are supposed to do in life based on social norms. But what people do in the quiet, personal moments are the true definition because it speaks to who they truly are.

Ryan Hilligoss and Kenny Jones, Robert Wadlow Golf Course, Alton, Illinois 2007

Ryan Hilligoss and Kenny Jones, Robert Wadlow Golf Course, Alton, Illinois 2007

I was lucky enough to play a round of golf with Kenny, my father and another friend years ago at a golf outing at Rolling Hills golf course in Godfrey, Illinois. Kenny was a tremendous golfer who, with his tall, heavy, muscular frame, could hit a ball a country mile and do it with a smile on his face at the knowledge he had hit a perfect ball. Perfection is not something most of us come into contact on a regular basis, but Kenny was a perfect golfer that day and we enjoyed ourselves immensely with a lot of laughs throughout the day. And he was humble enough to give me kind words when I hit my prototypical bad shot on every hole and tell me to keep playing and not worry about it, saying things like, “You are ten times better than your dad. Look at him, he’s terrible.” All this was his way of deftly taking the pressure off of me and allowing me to just enjoy the day.

On the 8th hole, with just us three teammates watching, I witnessed a real athlete at work. I saw Kenny hit a perfect shot, the best one I have seen in person. We were about 30 yards off the green to the right. Playing in a best ball format, the three others of us hit our shots, badly I must say but par for us, as Kenny watched on to see how the ball bounced and rolled, with his hand resting on a club head in his bag. Being the best of the group, he was always the last to hit. And after watching us, Kenny calmly stepped up to his ball with a pitching wedge, took one small practice swing, lined up his feet and swung in a perfect arc. The ball landed softly on the green ten feet from the hole on a perfect line and rolled slowly to its destination and stopped at the bottom of the cup…clink clink. As the rest of us cheered in amazement, Kenny quietly smiled, shook his head, and said, “Well I guess that’s my one good shot for today.” Having heard stories all my life of Kenny’s various athletic achievements from his youth, I knew that he was just being humble and self-effacing as he had done this countless times in his life and that I had been lucky enough to see it and hold it in my memory.

As we go through life, people leave us and they, being singular, incredible people each and every one of them, cannot be replaced as much as we might try. So we remember their voices, their hands, their laugh, their stories and jokes and all of the memories and shared experiences over the years with fondness. We miss them but we take strength from their memory and rejoice. When the American folk singer and artist Woody Guthrie passed away after years of battling a terrible disease, his family had him cremated and spread his ashes in the ocean surrounding Coney Island which was one of Woody’s favorite places to  swim and relax with his family and friends. The family all gathered on that day, spread his ashes to great wide sea, and then went to Nathan’s Hotdogs for lunch which was one of Woody’s favorite places to dine. When asked why, his wife simply stated that is what Woody would have done if he was there himself. I will carry a lot of memories of Kenny and Leagene with me throughout my life. And I will remember them as kind, decent people who did their best for their family and their friends and left the world a better place for having lived. I will remember Kenny as someone who enjoyed a simple game of golf and every time I play myself, I’ll think of him hitting that perfect chip shot. The perfect shot made in the calm and quiet of a beautiful day with only a few on hand to witness the moment. A microcosm of his life. Thank you Kenny Jones and Leagene Jones, god bless you.

 Coda: Remember Me

 Do not stand at my grave and weep, I am not there I do not sleep

I am a thousand winds that blow, I am the diamond’s glitter on snow

I am the sunlight on ripened grain, I am the gentle autumn’s rain

When you awake in the morning’s hush,

I am the soft uplifting rush, Of quiet birds in circled flight

I am the soft stars that shine at night

Do not stand at my grave and cry, I am not there I did not die

Robert Hilligoss and Kenny Jones, 2002, Godfrey, Illinois

Robert Hilligoss and Kenny Jones, 2002, Godfrey, Illinois

Hank Says, or, All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in China

(Editor’s note:  At the age of 70, and in a state of semi-retirement, my father Robert Lee Hilligoss, the original Humboldt, Illinois Tiger, traveled to China for a total of 30 days, with his fellow Mattoon High School alum and  friend, Henry Weaver.  On the way to O’Hare airport prior to departing America for points eat, Bob confessed to being as nervous as he was on his first day of school with Ms. Emily in her one room school-house in Coles County Illinois. Upon his return to America 30 days later, he said that much like Chuck Berry, he was so glad to be right back here in the USA. The following are brief excerpts from the upcoming one man monologue, much like Spalding Gray, sure to be coming to a theatrical venue near you. Check for local listings.)

The Humboldt Tiger goes to the land of the Flying Tigers

By Robert Lee Hilligoss (But we call him B.O.B)

What’s For Dinner? The Ballad of the Uneasy Eater

The food was different from the Chinese cuisine that I get at my local Chinese eatery, the China Star. Most of the food was very good. Some was very foreign to my taste. I found very little to be unacceptable. The one thing that I ate, which I wished I had passed on, was chicken feet. I discovered what my friend Hank had spent a year talking about was the noodles in soup, with meat, to be a delight to eat. Even though I could not manage the art of using chop sticks, there are spoons to be had, but forks are rare. Dumplings with meat or vegetables were delicious.
Surprisingly I was offered very little rice. Fish was good, but bony. They had one dish that reminded me of Buffalo Hot Wings, but they used unbreaded pork. Drinks, water, tea, Coke(with ginger) were always served, hot. I never
saw ice once in China until I boarded flight 850 to return to the states. The first request that I had for stewardess was a diet Coke with plenty of ice.

The Ways of the World : Trains, Planes and….taxis??

Travel by train, taxi or bus, I found to be comparable to train and bus travel in America. The best way to travel between major cities is by far to take a plane. The cost is very reasonable, an hour and 15 minute flight cost about 600 Yuan or $96, the planes are modern and the service staff is very good.

What You Really Need to Know (If you know what I mean)

Prepare yourself for some surprises when it comes to bathroom facilities. There is a thing called an Asian toilet, most Chinese people understand the word toilet. The Asian toilet is basically a hole in the floor, some are metal, some are ceramic. Every hotel I stayed in had a western toilet, but the shower in most have no tub or stall. There is a
drain in the floor below the shower head, and when you take a shower, you flood your bathroom floor, your ceramic tile floor becomes extremely slick and dangerous. The hotels that I stayed in, and the Lemon Hotel in Yan’an
was very acceptable, do not offer a simple wash rag(face towel). You use a hand towel.

I Depended on the Kindness of Strangers; An ode to Blanche Dubois

The most impressive feature that I found in China is the people. They tried to be as helpful as possible. Two young women that Hank and I met in St. Louis in 2010 helped us greatly by drawing up a list of questions written in Chinese. I have save that paper, and it is worn out. Everytime we were having a difficult time due to language, out came the list. It bailed us out several times. If we were having trouble with giving a taxi cab driver directions, a crowd always formed, and people tried to help out.

The people that I met and grew to know were the teachers at Yan’an Shaanxi Middle School(High School). They were top-notch individuals, the kind of persons that would be good neighbors and friends. They are hard workers and are dedicated to their profession of teaching. The students were an exciting group of young people that I enjoyed speaking to, at every opportunity that availed itself. They asked enlightened questions, and tried their best to speak English that was understandable. They were fun and interesting.

In My Life; All Those I Met Along the Way

Walking upon the ancient Great Wall was my greatest thrill. I have to thank Mr. Gao, Mr. Li, Andrew, Mrs. Li U Feng, Paul Prang, Jenny, Michelle, Mrs. Tree, everyone I met at the school for making my 24 days in Yan’an worthwhile. But without the aid of Clair, Veronica, Amy and Michelle, we probably would not have made it out of the Beijing Airport.

Why China? Because Hank Says

After my return, while substitute teaching at New Berlin High School, a student asked as to why I would choose to travel to China. I probably surprised him when I answered safety. The simple fact that there are people in the world that want to see Americans dead because we are Americans, no other reason. I have not heard of one American dying in China as a result of terrorism. The Chinese government knows as to who is in their country and where they are to be found. You buy a ticket for air travel, you present your passport and it is copied. You buy a train ticket, you present your passport. You check into a hotel, you show, guess what—–your passport. They know who is in THEIR country and WHERE you are located. Unlike America, they want to know just who is in country and where they can be found. A high school student in Yan’an asked me as to why I would choose to visit his hometown of Yan’an. I answered that I wanted to see the “real China”, not the post card version for the average tourist. Some of the people of Yan’an saw their first white man with blue eyes, when they saw me for the first time I walked the streets of Yan’an, Shaanxi. There was plenty to see, it centered around the simple fact that Mao Zedong lived in the Yan’an area from 1937 to 1951


Bob flew back to Chicago in March and as we left the airport in Chicago on the way home, I cranked up some Chuck Berry music, as a welcome home and heard the pride of St.Louis, Charles M Berry sing these words:

I feel so good today

We just touched down on an international runway

Jet propelled from overseas right  back into the USA

Looking hard for a drive-in

Searching for a corner cafe

Where hamburgers sizzle on an open grille night and day

And the jukebox is jumping with records like Back in the USA

Uh huh huh, oh yeah…….

Editor’s note: My father, Robert Lee, retired in June of 2011 after teaching, off and on over a course of 47 years, for a total of 35 years in public school classrooms. He began in 1964 in tiny Westfield, Illinois, and then moved on to the metropoli of Divernon and Rochester before taking a 13 year sabbatical to work in the restaurant business before returning to the Divernon Dragons in 1990. During his career, he taught thousands in the classroom and hundreds more on the floor of the basketball gymnasium. He was a teacher and coach, but he taught his students and athletes much more than simply the dates of the Civil War or how to run a three-man weave. He taught them how to be better people. And he continues to teach as evidenced above.

Written by Ryan Hilligoss, March 2012