For Brandon Ryan, as an 8-year-old with spastic cerebral palsy, inspiration struck when he turned on the TV. He watched with wide eyes as the Power Rangers punched, kicked and flipped through the air. He wanted to be one, too.
So Ryan turned to martial arts.
“That became an outlet for me to escape the confines of my wheelchair every day,” said Ryan, now 31 and still practicing the sport.
His specialty is Brazilian jiujitsu, which is similar to wrestling for the uninitiated. In Brazilian jiujitsu, a smaller or physically weaker person can defend against an assailant by taking the fight to the ground. From there, he can redirect his opponent’s movements and use that strength against him or her.
“It really is an art that’s all about using leverage from your opponent rather than trying to be dominant with your own,” Ryan said.
Cerebral palsy is a neurological disorder that affects how you move; the part of the brain that controls muscle movements doesn’t communicate properly with the body.
Ryan, of Bellevue, puts it this way: “I know in my mind what I want my body to do ... (but) my body has a personality of its own.”
His form of cerebral palsy primarily affects the right side of his body and his legs. It’s difficult for him to balance, stand for more than two minutes or walk the length of a football field.
He uses crutches at home and to walk short distances. When running errands he uses a wheelchair. At Grace University in Omaha, where Ryan is studying psychology, he gets around with a scooter.
On the mat, Ryan said he doesn’t have to worry about his legs tiring — he can use his arm strength.
As a teen, Ryan occasionally taught classes at his dad’s martial arts studio. He hoped to one day teach those who are physically challenged. He wanted to show them they don’t have to confine themselves to the couch, that they’re capable of accomplishing more.
“Martial arts should be able to adapt to anyone’s needs,” Ryan said.
Now he teaches weekly self defense classes to students at Grace University. One has cerebral palsy, a new student is a double-amputee. Another has limited mobility in her shoulders, and others are able-bodied.
Ryan began competing in tournaments about four years ago and has won several gold and bronze medals.
When competing, he thinks of those who discouraged him growing up — people he said who “just don’t know any better.”
“I think of all the people in the world who told me I couldn’t amount to anything in my life,” he said. “That is basically my way of telling them, ‘Haha, you’re wrong.’
“It hurt for quite awhile but sooner or later, you have to realize that people ultimately don’t control you.”
Ryan has inspired others to push their limits, too.
In addition to martial arts, he trains at CrossFit Omaha in the summer to improve his strength and mobility. Last month, he entered his first team fitness competition at Offutt Air Force Base.
He stood up from his wheelchair to throw a medicine ball in the air, and he completed kettlebell swings, pull-ups and modified weight lifting. But it was when he ran as fast as he could using his crutches and pulling weight behind him in his final event that the crowd went crazy. Some spectators even cried as Ryan crossed the finish line.
“It gave me chills to watch someone never give up,” said Ashley Kruse of Omaha. “Often times in CrossFit we have the desire to quit during tough workouts. So to watch someone move past physical barriers and never give up is super inspiring. It proves there is no reason I can’t keep moving as well.”
Ryan credits his friends and family for much of his success.
“It’s meant far more than I can put into words... Without my family telling me that I can rise above the everyday mundane life experience, I don’t know where I would be in life,” Ryan said.
“The sky is the limit for me.”
Leia Mendoza contributed to this report.