A Return Trip To Santiago Fuels The Passion In Ryan Pinney
by Paul D. Bowker
Ryan Pinney wore a different U.S. uniform the last time he was in Santiago, Chile, a capital city surrounded by the Andes mountains and Chilean Coast Range.
At the time, more than 10 years ago, he was an in-flight refueler for the Air Force and his unit was in Santiago for an air show and military training.
When the Parapan American Games begin Nov. 17 in Santiago, Pinney’s Air Force and Para-cycling worlds will finally unite.
“None of my Air Force trips ever connected to my cycling trips,” said Pinney, a handcyclist who will be making his Parapan Am Games debut. “This is the first city that actually has connected, where I’ve been to Santiago before in the Air Force. It’s just a weird, kind of cool, right on; I get to do something in a city I’ve been to before.”
The uniform clearly means something to Pinney, a 42-year-old Arizona native who found his new passion with the U.S. Para-cycling team following an injury in a BMX race that injured his spinal cord. At his 2021 Paralympic debut in Tokyo, Pinney won a bronze medal in the mixed team relay.
“One of the joys I get is wearing the uniform. Wearing the uniform for my country,” Pinney said. “Being able to put on my country’s uniform, maybe a little different than the military, is always gratifying to me. And then to be able to get accepted to do it on the biggest stage with the best competition is just another high.
“It was just so remarkable to me.”
Pinney, one of 15 American cyclists headed for Santiago, is looking at the Parapan Am Games in much the same way. He was not expecting to go. Since breaking his left shoulder in a relay in 2022, the path back to competition has been challenging.
That journey included a last-place finish in the time trial at the 2022 world championships, which he upgraded to a silver medal in the time trial at this year’s world championships in Glasgow, Scotland.
One day this fall, Pinney’s phone rang. The caller was Ian Lawless, director of U.S. Paralympics Cycling.
Lawless had a simple message about the Parapan Am Games: “Guess what? You’re going.”
“That kind of hit me as a shock,” Pinney said. “I was not expecting it.”
Suddenly, an offseason of slow-down training turned into intensive training.
“I want to represent my team,” Pinney said. “I want to represent my country, and I want to represent myself to the best of my ability, putting myself as high as I can on a podium. But at the same time, I look at this one as an opportunity to really plan out the rest of the year, help out my fellow teammates.”
Pinney’s recovery journey from shoulder surgery to winning his first world championships medal in a little more than one year’s time shows the focus of an Air Force man who was the boom operator in refueling operations that took place in mid-air, no matter the conditions.
“If you’re in a critical environment like a fuel emergency, or in combat, it doesn’t matter what is going on,” he said. “We could have two engines out. If the aircraft behind us says, ‘Hey, I’m in a fuel emergency,’ we’re doing everything we can to get them their gas.”
When Pinney had shoulder surgery just three days after injuring it in Germany, the conversation with his surgeon was pretty direct.
Pinney: “When can I get on the bike?”
Surgeon: “Dude, you just had surgery.”
Pinney: “So, like, take tomorrow off?”
Surgeon: “Dude, you just got out of surgery.”
Two months of rehabilitation at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, followed. Soon, Pinney was racing in the 2022 world championships in Canada, with his doctor standing by.
“It was the hardest time trial I’ve ever done in my life,” Pinney said. “The road race was the hardest ride I’ve ever done in my life. I was in so much pain. But I was not going to allow myself to stop. I was not going to allow myself to quit.”
He was the last finisher in the time trial, placing 17th, and the next-to-last finisher in the road race, placing 16th, but that wasn’t the point. It was the fact that he finished at all. And he is grateful for even being allowed to do it.
“I appreciate the team so much for allowing me to do that,” Pinney said. “It started me on my mental road to recovery and getting back out there and racing against the best again.”
The lesson was one he wanted his 4-year-old daughter, Addison, to see.
“I just want to be an example for her,” he said, “to show her that when you do have a goal, you give it everything you have. You go after it like a million dollars.”
Family strikes a big part of Pinney’s heart.
His dad passed away a couple of years prior to Pinney’s debut in the Paralympic Games, but they had talked about it. When Pinney reached that pinnacle in Tokyo, he remembers thinking to himself: “Dad, we did it.”
Meagan Pinney, Ryan’s wife, has played a large part in supporting his athletic endeavors. When Pinney was presented with his first handcycling bike by the Free Wheels Foundation in a surprise presentation on a runway at Camp Pendleton in California, Meagan kept the surprise a secret as she drove Ryan from Phoenix to the Marine base north of San Diego.
“It starts with her,” Ryan said. “She sees what I do every single day. She supports me, but I want to be able to support her in her endeavors with everything that she does, as well. She has been super supportive in this goal from day one.”
Paul D. Bowker has been writing about Olympic and Paralympic sports since 1996, when he was an assistant bureau chief in Atlanta. He is a freelance contributor to USParaCycling.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.