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Amy Donaldson
Kyrie Nelson, Magna, 11, gets a quick start in the special needs race at Saturday's 7th Annual Strider Cup World Championships. She was disappointed to finish sixth but vowed she'll be back next year.
This is all about the process of learning to ride in the right steps and never contradicting what you’re learning. So they learn the proper balance and steer techniques that are identical to when you move onto pedal bikes. …And what happens is with that success, all that stuff you kind of that was out of reach or filed away, you say, OK, we just broke through what they told us was going to be the barrier, so now we don’t know how far we can take this. —Ryan McFarland

Kyrie Nelson’s cheeks were flush from the heat and wet with her tears.

She didn’t try to hide her disappointment after finishing sixth in the special needs race in the 7th Annual Strider Cup World Championships Saturday at the Gallivan Center.

The 11-year-old Magna girl was determined the day would end with a victory.

“It’s really fun,” she said after racing, simultaneously smiling and wiping away tears. “I like to do races. I was so close, so close.”

She consoled herself in her mother’s arms with a cathartic cry, as the races continued for the more than 380 children who participated in various age and ability events.

Her father, Tyler Nelson, was obviously concerned about her disappointment, but then he pointed out that it is also part of the reason they’re grateful the bike racing event includes a special needs race.

“It teaches them both ups and downs,” he said. “That’s just the way life goes sometimes. It teaches them to win gracefully and lose gracefully, as well. It teaches them about life.”

Whether Kyrie wins or loses, the chance for her to line up at a race and compete like any other athlete is something that her family values. Sure, competition can be a cruel teacher.

But it can also reveal truths to a person that might otherwise stay hidden.

Ryan McFarland, who started the company in 2007 because he felt training wheels made learning to ride a bike even harder, said he initially resisted making larger bikes until he heard from special needs parents. Once they began selling larger bikes, he said they felt there needed to be a race for those special needs athletes for all the same reasons parents encourage racing in other children.

The parents of these children, he said, “were all basically told, your child is never going to be able to ride a bike. That’s just a developmental benchmark that a lot of times therapists and doctors use to give parents perspective.”

Sometimes, what happens though, is that parents hear about physical limitations and see “all of those other milestones and goals and hopes and dreams” as out of reach for their children.

“What we see is these kids succeeding on Strider bikes, and a high percentage of them even moving on to pedal bikes,” he said. “This is all about the process of learning to ride in the right steps and never contradicting what you’re learning. So they learn the proper balance and steer techniques that are identical to when you move onto pedal bikes. …And what happens is with that success, all that stuff you kind of that was out of reach or filed away, you say, OK, we just broke through what they told us was going to be the barrier, so now we don’t know how far we can take this.”

That concept is exactly why Alex Fox got involved in with the Special Olympics six years ago. Three years ago Striders approached the Special Olympics in Utah about donating some bicycles and staging a special needs race as part of its circuit.

Fox had created ‘Jimmy’s Jaguars’ to honor his late father, and the group of Special Olympians competed in a variety of sports throughout the year. Even though he moved to Boise, Idaho, he returned for the race and helped find a local coach in Rashelle Brown, who lives in Draper.

“It’s a confidence booster,” Fox said. “The confidence, the camaraderie…They get to compete, they get to practice, they get to interact with other kids who have special needs.”

While the young athletes get to experience what their sisters, brothers and friends often take for granted, their parents also form friendships with people who understand the unique issues facing the children and the families.

“A lot of times it’s like a giant therapy session when we get together,” Fox said.

Race organizers work hard to focus on the positive aspects of competition, starting with how it pushes one to challenge perceived barriers.

“You can see that even in the cul de sac,” McFarland said. “You see three little kids out there and two of them are jumping off the curb, and pretty soon the third one jumps off the curb too. That’s your peers pushing you to be stronger, better and faster than you were the day before.”

Still, he said there is a balance with children’s competition that they try to maintain with all of the races but especially the special needs event.

“We want to make sure the spirit of this stays right,” McFarland said. “We’re here to celebrate every kid. We don’t know the battles they’re facing. …Every kid leaves here with a sense of accomplishment.”

He admits that as he watched the races he could “barely hold it together.”

And then emotion prevents him from talking for a minute.

“I can just see,” he said, fighting tears, “the challenges they face. They’re incomprehensible to me.”

But in a way, that’s every racer in any category. McFarland points out something that I’ve witnessed hundreds of times in covering sports for 19 years.

We don’t know the challenges someone else faces.

When a racer stands in a start gate or speeds across a finish line, we don’t know what struggle pushed or pulled them to that performance.

What hardships did they face? How did they use them as fuel or a learning experience? And how can that help them in the challenges they’ll face far from the field of play?

“There are a lot of allegories you can tie between life and sports,” Tyler Nelson said, glancing at his daughters. “Learning those things here helps you deal with them out in the real world.”

And there is no better tool to use when trying to turn barriers into building blocks than self-confidence. And over and over Saturday parents and coaches said that’s really the prize being won by these young competitors.

McFarland said building confidence is akin to smart financial planning — start early for a better result.

“It’s like saving money,” McFarland said. “A little confidence invested early is life changing.”