By Kristen Gowdy
Ryan Gambrell never saw himself as a challenged athlete. When he was approached at youth karate tournaments, asked if he felt he was at a disadvantage, he never knew what to say.
“I wouldn’t even know what they were talking about,” Gambrell said. “I thought maybe it was because I lived in San Diego and I had to fly to competitions. I was like ‘Umm, I guess I’m a little tired.’ They would look at me funny because I was answering a different question.”
And despite standing at just 4’2”, Gambrell made a name for himself in the karate realm. He won his first national championship at age 14, simultaneously discovering a passion for competition. He followed that by making the U.S. National Team several years later, traveling the globe to compete against the most accomplished athletes in the world. Karate wasn’t in the Olympic Games — it still isn’t, though it may be introduced in the 2020 Tokyo Games — but if it was, Gambrell likely would’ve been in contention for an Olympic berth.
It was for this reason that Gambrell realized he wouldn’t be able to support himself financially through martial arts — funding is scarce for non-Olympic sports. So, when he was in college, he stopped karate to work on strengthening his professional resume.
“I came back from a competition and I had an interview for an internship and I had done really well at the competition and in the interview, they were like ‘So, what relevant work experience do you have?’ and I was like ‘Well, let me tell you I just got back from Europe and I’m on the U.S. national team,’” Gambrell remembers, laughing. “And she was like ‘Great. But what relevant work experience do you have?’ and I was like ‘Wow, that was a really short interview.’”
While he left the national team, Gambrell never strayed from his active lifestyle. He continued to do yoga, surf, golf and hike, among other sports. Upon his graduation, he got a marketing job with a non-profit in San Diego, and found a passion for photography on the side.
But he never lost the competitive edge that had sparked as a result of his success in karate. So in 2012, when several members of the Challenged Athlete Foundation approached him about competing in one of the organization’s triathlons, Gambrell jumped at the opportunity to pursue a sport in which he never thought he’d participate.
“If you had told me 10 years ago when I was doing karate that I would do a triathlon, I would’ve thought you were crazy,” he said. “That’s opened up a lot of opportunities for me.”
Arguably the most important of these is that Gambrell realized there was a whole new world of athletics available to him.
That was the first time he saw himself as a challenged athlete. And it spurred him to opportunities that he’d never thought he’d have. Because now, Gambrell isn’t just an athlete, though he has rediscovered his love of competition. He has become a motivator, a source of inspiration for those around him.
And it has made all the difference.
“It was never really a transition from competing against able-bodied athletes to challenged athletes. When I was doing karate, I didn’t even know that there was challenged athletes divisions. I couldn’t even tell you if there were those divisions at that time, at least in martial arts,” he said. “I started looking into challenged athletics and it just opened up all sorts of possibilities that I didn’t consider before.”
Never Held Back
Born with dwarfism, Gambrell lives with its side effects, namely the accompanying spinal stenosis, which is common among those with dwarfism. According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, spinal stenosis is a “narrowing of spaces in the spine that results in pressure on the spinal cord and/or nerve roots.” Surgery is often required to alleviate its symptoms.
But Gambrell realized early on in life that back surgery would likely mean reduced mobility. Yes, it would relieve some of the pain and numbness he often feels in his back when he pushes himself physically, but it would also limit his ability to participate in sports. It was a risk he wasn’t willing to take, and he refused surgery.
Instead, he found karate, a sport that minimized his symptoms, which usually flare up when he runs or walks for long distances. He started the sport when he was 4 years old, quickly rising through the national ranks.
Years after leaving the sport, when he met the Challenged Athlete Foundation representatives who invited him to compete in a triathlon, he was wary of the opportunity. It was only natural. Gambrell could swim well — it comes with the territory of his lifelong passion for surfing — and he was a decent biker, but running was a whole different story.
But Gambrell has never been one to back down from any athletic challenge. So he started slow, jogging for short increments of time and building his lower body strength slowly.
“I’m not a runner at all,” he said. “When I walk or run for long distances, I start experiencing pain or numbness in my legs, so that’s why karate was a really good sport. I started training though. I was into biking, I was into swimming, the running part wasn’t my favorite, but I would run as far as I could then walk a little ways.”
Something unprecedented happened when Gambrell started running more frequently. His symptoms began fading, until he could jog the entire running portion of the triathlon without stopping.
“When I started doing it more consistently, I also lost a lot of — not that I was heavy — but I lost more weight than I realized I was carrying,” he said. “The pain and numbness was getting less and less. It was really weird, because whether you’re a little person or average sized, everyone tells you running is the most degenerative sport for your body.”
But in a stroke of irony, Gambrell found that running was actually rebuilding his body. He competed in his first triathlon in 2012 and has done six more since.
Through the triathlons, he also became more involved with the Challenged Athlete Foundation, something he had known about nearly his whole life — his mother had once taken him to one of the organization’s events when he was a child — but had never connected with. Gambrell attends as many of CAF’s events as he can, and occasionally speaks on its behalf in San Diego.
A Bump in the Road
Electing not to have back surgery presents a sizable risk for Gambrell, who nearly saw his athletic career end when he injured his back about a year after his first triathlon.
“I just overdid it,” he said. “The back is the finicky thing where you wake up one morning and you go to tie your shoes and you hurt it.”
At the doctor’s office, Gambrell was asked about his recent athletic history. He had been rock climbing the day before, he said. Then the day before that, surfing. And earlier in the week, he had completed a triathlon.
“It was funny,” he said. “The doctor just looked at me like ‘You’re surprised you’re in my office?’”
But the injury was no laughing matter. Gambrell was sidelined for six months while he recovered. He wondered whether his luck had finally run out, whether he had pushed himself too far.
Without pausing to overthink this possibility, Gambrell started over. He would stand on the Mission Beach coastline, supported by his crutches, and walk as far as he could.
“If I could only do 10 yards, that was going to be my day,” he said. “It was similar to how I got started running.”
Eventually, Gambrell reached full mobility again. And he didn’t miss a beat. He continued to surf and train for triathlons. Except now, he stays active for more than just recreational purposes.
“I’m not a doctor or anything, but I can just tell you, living with this condition, my being in shape is directly correlated with my back pain,” he said. “That’s a good and bad motivation.”
Fortunately, he has his wife to keep him honest. Amanda also has dwarfism, and she and Gambrell often schedule their days to include plenty of physical activity.
“I just think it’s really good because we’re both on the same page,” Gambrell said. “We’re not uber-athletes, but we both try to eat well and have that same mindset. It makes life a lot easier when your running partner lives with you.”
Gambrell has also found another reason to stay involved in sports, particularly surfing, which has remained the constant throughout his entire athletic career.
When Little People of America, an organization to which Gambrell has belonged since he was born, held its conference in San Diego a few years ago, Gambrell volunteered to take a group of attendees surfing. He rented out a local surf company to supply him with boards, and gave a group of about 50 a basic surf lesson.
He never thought, though, that it would impact him as much as — if not more than — it did them. Because as soon as Gambrell saw the spark, the pure joy that surfing brought the people he was instructing, he was taken back to his first-ever national karate championship, when that same fire had been lit within him.
“Sports change people’s attitudes immediately,” he said. “I saw it in their eyes. It was like ‘Oh, this is awesome. What else can I do?’ Now, if you were to ask me my goal, it’s to encourage more of that.”
Gambrell has participated in several surf competitions as of late with the Western Surfing Association — he won their adaptive surfing division in a competition just last month — and with the Paralympic Games considering adding surfing to their slate of events, Gambrell could have a second chance at competing at the Olympic level. But for now, he isn’t focused on that. Instead, he has set his sights on helping others learn the sport. He has come to the realization that, compared to others with the same condition, he is one of the lucky ones.
“I got lucky because I can live through the complications, but some people don’t have that freedom,” he said. “Whether it’s me competing and someone sees it and is inspired, or putting on more events, I love doing that.”