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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Riding a thin line for Ryden

    Bill Ryden, the head coach of the Arizona women’s gymnastics team, has had a passion for riding and a craving for an adrenaline rush all his life.

    In the early 1970s motocross was a foreign, yet exciting sport that started to sweep through the nation. At age 6, Ryden fell in love with the sport that would shape the rest of his life.

    “”I’ve been riding now for 42 years,”” Ryden said. “”I grew up in Northglenn, Colorado, where everyone was big into organized off-road racing, far more anyway than Arizona is, so it was easy to get into.””

    He was always an athletic person, but by the time high school came around team sports didn’t cut it for him anymore.

    Ryden began racing motocross in 1973 and admits, “”The satisfaction of riding was always far more than winning a basketball game or whatever.””

    “”I had already done every other sport. I had played on the school football and basketball teams, and been an all-star on the baseball team,”” Ryden said. “”I knew what the team sports were all about, but its something totally different when you’re alone and totally in control of yourself.

    “”It’s a completely different animal. It’s not a game,”” he added. “”It’s actually true competition and you win or lose.””

    Jim Elzea, a life-long friend of Ryden, holds testimony to Ryden’s character.

    “”Bill is always competitive, and he always has been,”” Elzea said during a phone interview on Tuesday.

    Elzea and Ryden have ridden together since they were 13 years old, and still go out when they have the time.

    “”I think we signed up to race on exactly the same day,”” said Elzea. “”Our faceplates were numbers 307 and 308.””

    Ryden continued to race throughout high school, and it did not surprise Elzea, or anyone else for that matter, when Ryden made the switch to gymnastics.

    “”Playing with a ball is just kids’ games,”” said Ryden about his decision to start racing, “”I wanted something more intense.””

    In many ways, gymnastics offered Ryden many of the same thrills as riding and taught him the essence of a true mental competition.

    “”In gymnastics, there’s that same feeling of flying and being in control of your own fate type of thing,”” Ryden said. “”Gymnastics taught me a lot about competing, though. The reason I got away from racing was because of the pressure.

    “”I was at the point where I was competing against guys who were 20 or 21, and I was like 15. I was just out there trying to have fun and never really considered the whole mental game at the time,”” he added. “”Gymnastics truly made me mentally tough because there aren’t a whole lot of second chances in our sport. You can get hurt really fast, so you have to be on top of it mentally.””

    The world of extreme sports is often brutally criticized for a lack of understanding. Many people don’t realize the true level of confidence, training and heart necessary to succeed. As Ryden pointed out, mistakes in these sports wreak immense consequences and the athletes involved are more than aware of these perils. The fragile line of danger and preparedness of the individual is on a level by itself.

    “”The necessary motor skills are just incredible, as well as the mental aspects, because being wrong has a high price,”” Ryden said. “”Being wrong in team sports … pssh.””

    “”What are you going to do, walk back to the dugout after you strike out three times? Oh yeah, that’s tough. That’s scary,”” he added with a smirk. “”When you may wind up in an ambulance, the pressure is just a little more intense.””

    Riding has had obvious effects on Ryden’s solid mentality and character, but the sport took its toll on Ryden’s body as well. Even with all the safety precautions such as helmets and chest protectors – as well as sheer experience – danger is always imminent in extreme sports.

    “”I’ve almost died three times,”” Ryden admitted. “”Not even to exaggerate or whatever, I’ve had a doctor tell me three times, ‘You’re lucky to be alive.’ Twice with motorcycling, once with gymnastics.””

    “”When I was 13, I crashed into a gully and the crossbar of the bike hit my chest, breaking my sternum into two, and literally bruised my heart,”” he explained. “”Jim Elzea actually went and called the ambulance.””

    Ryden jokes that he can remember watching the heart monitor in the hospital jump around, and wondering when – or if – it would flatline.

    The second accident was a bit scarier for Ryden. During his gymnastics career, he cracked his trachea during a routine on the high bar, and the doctors were afraid it would collapse.

    Up until this point in Ryden’s life, even with the first two unfortunate events, life was always an adventure. The third and most recent accident, however, was a true eye-opener for him.

    “”Memorial day 2001, I had another riding accident up near Payson that to this day I can’t recall exactly what happened,”” Ryden said. “”I even had on full gear, you know. But apparently I collided with another cyclist going around a blind corner and the opposing bar clipped my face.

    “”Jim, my same friend, unfortunately for him, did not have cell service in the desert and had to ride back toward the trailhead to call in air evacuation from up in Flagstaff,”” he explained. “”The end result was an induced coma, lots of plastic surgery and like 11 titanium plates that are still in my face. This one was absolutely brutal.””

    The accident was also traumatic for Elzea.

    “”I didn’t know if he’d be dead or alive when I got back,”” he said bluntly.

    Having always been a man not intimidated by injury or even death, Ryden made some very lasting realizations throughout the time following the incident. Assistant coach John Court was one of the few people who Ryden got in touch with besides Elzea after the accident.

    “”It’s strange how all these life lessons work,”” Court said. “”But I think the silver lining Ryden took out of the accident was that it gave him a truer sense of faith in the people around him. I think it showed him that the people around him really do have his back.””

    “”That’s the first time I ever felt guilty, and really realized that being dangerous can effect more than just yourself,”” Ryden said of his most recent accident. “”I am responsible to my family, the girls and the program; and I never really thought about all that before.””

    The accident in Payson also shed light on just how many lives Ryden had impacted after he received numerous calls from concerned individuals.

    “”Apparently I arose from the dead,”” Ryden said with a chuckle. “”Other schools were even using the crash to recruit against us, telling people, ‘You don’t want to go to Arizona, the coach died on a motorcycle.'””

    Whether it’s at home or at the gym, these events have all played out in Ryden’s life for the better, and gained a stronger appreciation for his team.

    “”Call it hypocritical, I ride motorcycles,”” he said, “”but the second I see one of (the gymnasts) on the back of a bike I’m the first one ripping them a new one.””

    Despite the freak accidents, his passion for riding and the realm of the extreme has prevailed.

    That being said, don’t be surprised to see this coach selling his tricked out KTM 300EXC any time soon. He and Elzea still tear it up whenever they get the chance.

    “”I’m getting a little old to be dragging my knee 100 miles per hour,”” Ryden joked. “”But after all, it’s not about how long you live, but how you’ve lived.””

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