Civilian Airman, paralympian lives to race
By Staff Sgt. Nicholas Rau, 460th Space Wing Public Affairs
/ Published March 14, 2014
BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- He readies at the starting line.
The crowd roars, their deafening cheers fill the Olympic stadium. As the starting gun is raised, the sea of voices goes deathly silent in anticipation. The muscles in his arm tense as he takes a final breath to try and calm his nerves. His hands grip tightly to his racing chair. So many moments in his life have lead up to these nail-biting seconds. His chest slowly rises and falls as he zeroes in his focus on the race before him. He may not win this race, but he is dead set to not let his disability beat him.
Tyler Byers, Team Buckley civilian Airman and two-time Paralympic Games competitor, was born with sacral agenesis, a birth disorder that caused his spine to not form properly at birth. But Byers does not give into the hardships brought on by his condition.
"My parents told me that it wasn't until I was 8 or 9 years old that I realized I had a disability and that I was different from everybody," the 31-year-old racer explained. "My parents didn't treat me any different than my brothers. They made me do chores, and they held me accountable for my actions."
This accountability wasn't the only thing Byers' parents tried to teach him. Tim Byers, his father, believed it was critically important for Byers to get as normal of a childhood with his brothers as possible.
"We believed that fostering an environment of independence would aid him far more than doing the things for him that he could do for himself," Byers' dad said. "I wanted to give him a 'can-do' attitude, were you can accomplish anything you set your sights on. Tyler took this and really never looked back."
With the examples instilled in him by his parents and a "glass half full" attitude, Byers took his racing wheelchair and talents on the road to University of Arizona on a four-year scholarship.
It was in college that the possibility of becoming an Olympian was first realized. After training day in and day out at UA, Byers launched himself onto the global stage at the Athens games in 2004.
He competed in four separate races, and while the experience of his first Paralympics Games was amazing, Byers admitted that the size and pressure of the event got to him. He did not place in the events in which he competed, but he received some valuable insight for future games -- something he would use in Beijing four years later.
In the 2008 Paralympic games, Byers earned a place to compete in the semifinals against the world's best in his events. He competed in the 800-meter, 1,500-meter, 5,000-meter and marathon races. Though he never medaled at the event, he said that the experience would be something he would never forget.
Five years removed from his last Paralympic Games, Byers still finds time for top-level wheelchair racing. In November 2013, he completed the New York City Marathon, placing inside the top 20. He is still able to get out and train in the high-altitude of the Rocky Mountains for about six events each year, but he admits he cannot train the way he did when he had a younger man's body. However, his motivation still burns as deep.
"I grew up competing with my brothers, whether it be at board games or the little basketball hoop set up in our basement. I remember crawling around and trying to shoot around them and they would stuff me without mercy," Byers joked. "I love competing. Even though I have been racing for more than 22 years, my competitive drive hasn't dimmed.
"It's hard to explain where that drive comes from, but I feel it," Byers said. "I love being fit and I love being in shape. After the NYC Marathon I told my coworkers that I was taking a month off -- I lasted two weeks before I was back out there."
That internal drive may lead him to the championship podium in the future, but he believes he is already a winner at home. Byers is a husband of 10 years and a father of a little boy and baby girl who love to watch their daddy race, he added.
"My wife has always been supportive of me racing, and now my kids are getting into it," Byers said. "My son likes to sit out in front of our house and watch me do laps around the neighborhood. When I have to go away for a race he cries because he wants to see me race."
Setting the example for his children isn't the only thing Byers represents; he is also an inspiration for others with disabilities. His mother, Ann Byers, has seen it her entire life.
"It has never ceased to amaze me how having a child with special needs can really shape a person's life," Ann Byers said. "It made me go in a direction I never would have and has been the greatest of gifts a parent could have. I have learned so much through Tyler and owe him more than I can say. I am not the only one who feels that way -- he has touched so many in his 30 years, and there's never been a day that I was not proud that he was my son," she added.
For Byers, he just sees it as being himself because he isn't racing to be an example.
"The disability has taught me the value of teamwork and dedication and shown me empathy for people when they come up short because I have come up short," Byers said. "I have seen a lot of people who have bounced back from horrific injuries to find new meaning in life. Some people don't find the fortitude to go on, but it's the people that realize that they do things differently now and can enjoy life -- those are the ones that make it through."
As a triathlete, snow-skier, and paralympian, Byers has proven he is determined to get the most out of life. Like many other disabled athletes, he now lives the mantra that he shares with his competitors; "Man, I love being disabled, because I get all these opportunities."