When Travis Ricks learned he had cancer in his right leg, he was a star football athlete in high school. Sports were his life.
Later, when he had to make the decision whether or not to amputate the leg because his treatment options were dwindling, he said, “Let’s cut it off. It’s time to move on.”
Yet, if he could do it all over again, keep his leg and be cancer-free, he wouldn’t change a thing. In losing his leg, he received something far greater: his relationship with his mother.
“My mom had me when she was 18, and I’m her only child,” Ricks explains. “She’s been married three times and has had trouble with the law and with staying sober. When I was diagnosed with cancer, she got out of rehab because I needed a parent. She’d sleep on the couch, the floor, a chair, while I was in the hospital and spent pretty much every hour with me. I personally believe if I hadn’t gotten cancer, my mom wouldn’t have been able to get clean. She didn’t have time to relapse because she was taking care of her son who was dying. I wouldn’t ask for my leg back, because I got my mom out of [the experience].”
Ricks’ mother managed to turn her life around and, in the process, his. When he made the decision to amputate, she began doing research and came across a blogger who’d written about the loss of his leg. Uncannily, the blogger had just moved to San Diego from Texas, and was living in Pacific Beach, just a few blocks from Ricks. The two met and soon Ricks was introduced to the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF).
“He got me involved and I started volunteering,” Ricks says. “My first grant that I received from CAF was for a running leg. Then one day, I walked in and they asked if I wanted a job because they needed someone to work the front desk.”
After 18 months, Ricks started traveling regularly for his work. Today, he has two titles: Senior Programs Manager, and Athletes Relations. The latter he came up with himself, finding it better describes his position in reaching out to challenged athletes.
“We help people with physical disabilities and we do it through a lot of ways. We give more grants for sports equipment than any other organization in the world. Locally, we do sports clinics, wheelchair yoga, wheelchair Zumba, adaptive self-defense, amputee yoga, and hand-cycle clinics. We have very dedicated people here who work all hours.”
CAF Director of Programs Carolyn Odom nominated Ricks for the Local Heroes Disability Awareness Month award. “Over the past seven years, Travis has worked his way up [at CAF],” Odom notes. “He developed Project N.Ex.T, a San Diego County program that pairs athletes who are newly injured with a similarly disabled mentor. He coordinates and attends our Amputee Mobility Clinics, eight clinics held around the U.S. every year that teach basic running skills to new amputees. He also ran a clinic last October for those injured in the Boston Marathon bombings. Travis also goes above and beyond his work duties on a weekly basis. He speaks at local schools, does regular hospital visits, and follow-up home visits to make sure that they are adjusting well post-amputation…. I have never had an employee so utterly devoted to his work.”
Ricks also travels to Oklahoma for the Endeavor Games, which he describes as a mini Paralympics. There, he meets families and introduces them to the services CAF provides. Ricks himself is a triathlete and for the last five years has done a lot of racing, winning a national champion in 2011. In fact, you could say he does not know what it means to have “spare time.”
“I have no down time,” he admits. “I’ve been head coach of my high school wrestling team for the last six years now. I’m the development coordinator for USA Triathlon, I’m on the national committee for Paratriathlon, and I’m on the U.S. team for Paralympic volleyball. It’s very interesting and fast-paced.”
For Ricks, being able to still engage in sports has made all the difference to his overall well-being, and he believes the same is true for all the athletes that rely on CAF.
“We believe that sports makes someone whole,” he says. “When you don’t have the ability to do sports, there’s something missing from your life. We’re naturally active. We want to go out and do things and when you take that ability away from someone, they’re missing something in their life. Being able to provide the ability to do that, through my work, is huge. I’ve watched people’s lives change. I’ve seen the smile on their face and how their whole demeanor changes.”
Ricks’ favorite part of his job is working with children and seeing them succeed. Over the summer he participated in an amputee youth camp and says he was “blown away” by their resilience. One little girl in particular has stolen his heart. He met Haven at the Endeavor games several years ago.
“Haven and I are besties,” he acknowledges in a voice overcome with pride. “Her’s is a special story. Born in Vietnam, her parents, who were married to other people, had an affair and had her, but because there are no divorce laws in that country, they decided the only way they could all be together was to commit family suicide. They took a grenade, held the baby in their lap and blew themselves up. But that actually blew the baby off their lap and mangled her feet, which had to be amputated. Haven now lives in Missouri and is 11. When I met her and her mom at the Endeavor Games, she wasn’t going to run. I convinced her to run and she won four gold medals that year. It made her super happy and I introduced her to CAF, where everybody loves her. We gave her one of our awards. A lot has happened because of our chance meeting.”
Before Ricks lost his leg he had planned to become a zoologist, ironically, because he didn’t really want to work with people. Clearly, that is no longer the case.
“Getting the job at CAF is probably one of the best things that ever happened to me because it is great to have a job that helps other people,” Ricks says. “I didn’t know I wanted to do that in my life until I started doing it here. For me it’s seeing other people succeed. The word ‘inspire’ gets thrown around a lot in the disabled community, but I get inspired watching other people, despite their disability, go out and become athletes. Everyone has the chance to do it, and if you have a positive outlook, you can succeed.”
“For all of the hard work Travis puts in,” says Odom, “he doesn’t do [it] for the kudos or for a pat on the back. He is a generous and giving person, and I would like him to know just how much he is appreciated. He has made such an incredible impact on people with physical disabilities, both on and off the court, because he is able to relate to them on such a deeply personal level. I cannot think of a more deserving choice for a Local Hero.”