Free-wheeling: How a graduate kept going forward
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Slaven Gujic
GCU News Bureau
As Ryan Pinney lay on the gurney that was transporting him to a new life, he felt God’s peace.
After surviving 14 years of danger while serving as a boom operator in the Air Force, the former technical sergeant had been severely injured when he was thrown off his bicycle. His T12 vertebrae, located near the base of the spine, was shattered. His spirit most definitely was not.
“I told myself as soon as I got hurt, ‘God doesn’t give us anything we can’t handle,’” he said. “No joke, as I was on the gurney, before I was even in the hospital, that was laid on my heart. That was my comfort. OK, life has changed. I don’t know what it is, but life has changed.”
Saturday was a day to celebrate how he has met that change head on. Pinney received his Bachelor of Science in Sports Management degree at Grand Canyon University spring commencement, and to commemorate the moment he got his diploma, he rolled his wheelchair to the front of the stage and raised his arms skyward.
He may be paralyzed from the waist down, but he’s not taking this challenge sitting down.
In the weeks and months after the injury in 2012, however, Pinney needed time to process all this. He had started the GCU program, but that would have to wait.
“I just couldn’t do it,” he said. “I had to deal with life, figure out how to live a different life — the new regular, the new normal.”
GCU counselors tried to call him when he started missing classes, and when one finally reached his wife, Meagan, and was able to talk with him, there was understanding and support. The calls continued, but the emphasis remained on taking his time and making a decision on his terms.
“GCU never pushed me to do it — that’s what I liked about it — but they kept that little voice in the back of my head, saying, ‘We’re here when you’re ready,’” he said. “It was a good push.”
He returned to the GCU program last year and threw himself right back into the fray, frequently visiting with Dr. Randy Gibb, dean of the Colangelo College of Business, and the assistant deans.
Pinney also got support from the military, which sprang into action as soon as it learned of his injury.
“They’ve never left my side,” he said. “They helped me realize life’s not over. The mission might be ever, it might have ended too quickly for me, but it’s time to find another mission.”
They even provided the mission: They gave him a handcycle, which has three wheels and is propelled by using your arms instead of your legs. Just like that, he again was able to spin around his favorite neighborhood routes. He was hooked.
“It was my sanctuary. It was a place where I could be myself again and really think,” he said. “I would put on Pandora and find praising songs. I could put everything else off and focus on where I was and what was going on and God and what my purpose was.”
Pinney enjoyed it so much, he won a national championship in 2015 and competed in the U.S. Paralympics trials last year. His new goal: the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
The injury also has changed his career goal. Before this, his dream was to work in the Phoenix Suns’ front office, maybe even rise as high as general manager. Now, he’d like to build up paracycling events, starting with the Valley of the Sun Stage Race, to something that has the same stature in this country that it does in Europe and South Africa.
Pinney said the hardest adjustment for severely injured veterans is not the injury itself, it’s finding a new mission. After all those years of working on missions with fellow service members, now it’s more of a solo act.
But he talks about it with such grace, it makes you feel OK about something you could never imagine accepting.
“Sometimes life happens and life changes the direction,” he said. “It doesn’t take away the original dreams, but it gives you new purposes that change your dreams.
“If you want to compete, the avenue is there to compete. If you want to go to school, the avenue is there to go to school. It’s just realizing that there are other missions in life that you can work toward now.”
The first one was completed Saturday. There no doubt are more victories down the road, no matter what he has to do to get there.
Contact Rick Vacek at (602) 639-8203 or [email protected].