COLUMBIA — Nancy Russell gazes out the window at a picnic table in her front yard, recalling a time when her then-teenaged son Sam Russell and his best friend would flip and jump off the table on their trick bikes.
Sam Russell no longer rides a trick bike. A mountain bike accident three years ago left him paralyzed from the chest down. But Nancy Russell will soon be able to see her son on a bike again
Registration begins at 9 a.m. Wednesday at Walt's Bicycle and Fitness at 1217 Rogers Street in Columbia. Call (573) 442-6759 for details.
NASCAR driver Carl Edwards, the friend Sam Russell rode trick bikes with in junior high, is part of the reason. Three years ago, Edwards helped start the annual Ride with Carl for Sam, which helps raise money to assist with Sam Russell's recovery. This year's ride next Wednesday will be special. It will be the first time Sam Russell will ride a bike alongside Edwards since Sam Russell was injured.
"Sam called me last year and said, ‘Mom, I have a challenge for you. If you ride next year, then I will too,’” Nancy Russell recalls. A shoulder injury prevented her from riding this year, but she said she’d ride next year for sure.
Sam Russell is still keeping his end of the deal, and will ride using his upper body on a unique hand-cycle bike engineered by his uncle Walt Johnson-Gerard, the original owner of Walt’s Bicycle Shop.
The bike features three wheels, two in the back and one in front that is powered by hand cranks and steers the bike. A single brake is located on the front wheel, and Sam Russell sits upright with his legs extended just above the ground. He has been training on his bike since the end of last summer.
“It was awesome figuring out that I can do these things again, especially since biking was such a big part of my life,” Sam Russell said.
“It’s so wonderful to see Sam riding again,” Nancy Russell said. “We’ve been a bicycling family for as long as I can remember.”
The 10-mile bike ride on the MKT Trail starts with registration at 9 a.m. at Walt’s Bicycle Shop and ends in McBaine. A $50 donation is suggested for the ride participants to go toward the Sam Russell Helmet Safety Foundation, which was started by his friends and family.
“Our goal is to use the money for therapy to keep Sam’s legs, muscles, nerves and bones in good physical condition for his paralyzed state. It also goes towards equipment for a home gym,” Nancy Russell said.
Sam Russell said that not only does the money go toward therapy, but also to “so many little things that makes life a little easier.”
Sam Russell’s accident is the result of a trail ride he took for exercise in June 2007 during his lunch break at Trek Bikes in Waterloo, Wis. He came to an unfamiliar jump that catapulted him off his bike, causing him to hit a tree head on. The 30-mph impact instantly shut down his lower body, but it was his helmet that saved his life.
The original ride started three years ago shortly after his accident. Edwards had stepped in trying to figure out ways to help.
“It’s wonderful to have people like Carl and others who are so eager to help,” Sam Russell said. “It’s great to have that support system.”
The two Columbia natives have been friends since they were in kindergarten and still remain close, according to Nancy Russell.
“They had similar interests, which included being outdoors and biking,” she said. “They lived in the same neighborhood and would just bike to each other’s houses. Even though they eventually went to different high schools, it didn’t matter because they would still bike together outside of school.”
John Corn, a Columbia cycling enthusiast, developed an idea to start a fundraiser and teamed up with Edwards and Nancy Russell to launch the first Ride with Carl for Sam, an event where the public can ride bikes alongside Edwards all while helping out his longtime friend.
“Our goal was to get enough enthusiasm from the community about bicycle rides with an idol. Carl isn’t a cycling hero, but he is a cyclist. The rest just fell into place,” Corn said. “We wanted to see how much money we could raise to benefit Sam.”
Corn didn’t even know Sam Russell personally when he organized the first ride, but it was “the sort of camaraderie with people who are around bikes and have bikes in their blood” that inspired him to help give back.
Corn said the first ride drew in riders from as far as Minnesota.
“It was a complete group effort and was amazing what this group put together,” Nancy Russell said. “John was somebody with a big heart and great ideas.”
Additionally, Nancy Russell began presenting helmet safety demonstrations for fifth graders in Columbia Public Schools, using Sam’s story with Edwards behind it as a way to help the children understand the importance of helmet safety. She eventually became known at schools as the “helmet lady.” She says the demonstrations are her “way of paying it forward.”
“I’m not a role model for the kids, but these guys (Sam and Carl) are,” Nancy Russell said.
Sam Russell said he “can’t wait” for the upcoming ride and said it’ll be “nice to be on bicycle wheels again.”
Corn said the path for Sam Russell to be self-reliant has been gradual so far, so it will be great to see him and Edwards riding side-by-side again.
“The accident helped me realize what things in life are really important,” Sam Russell said. “You can’t get caught up in day-to-day stuff. It’s really about the big picture.”