Paralympian Ryan Boyle with Joseph Zelson, a doctor who helped save Boyle's life years prior.
One month after making his Paralympic debut as a road cyclist last year in Rio, Ryan Boyle was at the Olympic and Paralympic Athlete Career Education (ACE) Summit in Virginia when he struck up a conversation with a man he’d never met. A man who directed Boyle to revisit someone from his past.
Before the two parted their ways, Boyle noticed the man’s ID badge: Dan Zelson.
“It was at breakfast in the hotel and we were just having small talk. It wasn’t until I had to go that I realized his last name: Zelson,” said Boyle, who won a silver medal in the time trial in Rio. “I immediately recognized the name.”
That’s because a doctor named Joseph Zelson played a pivotal role in saving Boyle’s life more than a decade earlier. As it turned out Dan Zelson — who was attending the ACE Summit as a board member of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation — is Joseph Zelson’s son.
Boyle Survives Horrific Accident
The story goes back to Columbus Day in 2003, when Boyle was a 9-year-old kid in Connecticut. He spent part of the weekend at a friend’s for a sleepover. On the morning of Columbus Day, the kids took turns riding a Big Wheel.
When Boyle got on and began riding, he lost control and slid backwards down the driveway. As he shot into the street, a passing pickup truck clipped him in the back of his head and dragged him approximately 55 feet.
“The back of my brain was crushed into my cerebellum and they had to perform emergency brain surgery,” Boyle said. “They didn’t give me a chance to survive. Even after surgery, the neurosurgeon told my parents that he performed the operation as if I would live, although he didn’t think I would. My parents never left my side when I was in a coma.”
He was in a coma for two months.
As things moved quickly that Columbus Day, Boyle’s mother, Nancy Boyle, called her son’s pediatrician — Joseph Zelson — in hopes he would somehow, some way, be at his office on a holiday.
Joseph Zelson began calling other local doctors to assemble a team to look after Ryan during his surgery and recovery. Although he wasn’t part of the surgery itself, Zelson played an important role in the process to help his young patient.
“I spent time with his parents in the waiting room while Ryan was having his surgery,” Zelson said. “They did not think he would survive the surgery.”
While in a coma, Boyle’s parents began researching rehabilitation hospitals — just in case Ryan ever came out of his coma. Or if he even survived at all.
Zelson described Boyle as a kid who lived life with reckless abandon, a kid who seemed invincible. So lying in a hospital bed unresponsive with a breathing tube took a toll on the family.
“It was truly devastating for them, but they were overwhelmingly supportive,” Ryan said.
Road To Recovery Begins
Boyle moved to a children’s hospital in Valhalla, New York. When he arrived, the only function he had was the ability to move his right index finger. He couldn’t speak, and he had problems with all other basic body functions — breathing, eating, talking, swallowing, walking. He had to start all over like a newborn child.
Boyle struggled at first in the rehab hospital. He had to learn to read, again. He had to learn everything, again.
“At first I didn’t know my alphabet and couldn’t add one plus one,” he said. “Speech was very difficult. I had to take a breath for every syllable I spoke.”
And within a month, Boyle was reading at a fourth-grade level, which caught him up to speed.
Once he got back into a routine of a normal life, he wanted to get back into athletics. Before the accident, he was an athlete who loved BMX and dirt bike racing.
Part of his therapy included swimming every day, and he became so proficient he joined the town’s swim team. He attended a Beyond Therapy program at Atlanta’s Shepherd Center. The program is activity-based and strenuously teaches adaptation of new skill sets for people with a variety of neurological orders.
“After that program I told my parents I wanted to further my progress,” Boyle said.
He swam for the local Shepherd Sharks and eventually met a coach who got him into cycling. That led to him moving to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, making the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team and winning a silver medal in the time trial at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, while also finishing fourth in the road race.
Education Summit Connection
By chance at the ACE Summit in October, he happened to meet Dan Zelson, the son of the doctor who played an integral part of keeping Ryan Boyle alive.
Dan Zelson and his wife, Lisa, got involved with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Foundation about five years ago, and Zelson didn’t know about the ACE program at the time.
“During an annual board meeting, we were discussing ways to help athletes following the Games. I offered up a suggestion and found myself really getting involved,” Zelson said.“I believe when our athletes return home from the Games, they should have a job or education waiting for them, similar to GIs returning home from their service. They spend so many years committed to representing our country in sport, it’s the least we can do.”
Now, Zelson is part of a career and education working group within the foundation. The group meets regularly with the goal of raising financial support for the ACE program and expanding its services.
To prove his point, Zelson decided to hire an athlete himself. Zelson conducted his own experiment of hiring an Olympic medalist into his real estate and development firm. In 2014 he brought 2010 men’s figure skating gold medalist Evan Lysacek on board.
“Evan is an outstanding, driven athlete, and an amazing guy,” Zelson said. “His desire to learn the business was so strong that even though he had no prior experience, I decided to give it a go. His determination was as obvious in his commitment at the office as it was in the rink.”
Zelson said that Lysacek’s persistence paid off and he was making deals within two months.
The purpose of the ACE Summit, Zelson said, was to bring together athletes, career coaches and potential employers through seminars that covered a variety of topics from educational opportunities to interviewing skills.
“It’s a chance for the athletes to prepare for life after Olympics, whether business or education. We are able to help with networking, resume preparation, supplying business cards, reviewing and sharing contacts. Kind of like the G.I. Bill for the Army,” Zelson said.
Zelson added that the board reached out to companies and people from the corporate world to encourage them to hire or train athletes. To date over 60 companies have answered the call.
Meeting Back Up With His Doctor
The Boyle family eventually moved away from Connecticut, but they wrote letters to their old doctor, and friend, until finally the time slipped away. Five years passed before the Boyles came back into the retired doctor’s life.
One day after the meeting in Virginia, Dan Zelson said he noticed Boyle outside his office in Connecticut, of all places.
“I was headed out for coffee and when I looked out the window I saw a kid with a Mohawk on the corner, and I could not believe it, but it was him,” Zelson said. “I knew at this moment a higher being was telling me something, and that he needed to get back in touch with my father.”
Joseph Zelson said he received a call from his son, who began telling him of the encounter. Dan Zelson began describing the kid and this story, and the doctor interrupted him, “I know who you’re talking about — Ryan Boyle.”
Joseph Zelson said he called Ryan and his mother to invite them to his office for a day. They visited for a while, went to lunch and began a tour of their old hospitals and visited with some of the life-saving doctors they could find.
Zelson, who didn’t even know of his former patient’s recent athletic successes, said most of the nurses from the ICU were still working there, and that they all remembered their former patient.
The doctor then took the family to Yale New Haven Hospital to see if they could find Charles Duncan, the neurosurgeon who repaired Ryan’s brain and oversaw the beginning of recovery. The shared stories and took pictures together.
“Everything was just so spectacular,” Boyle said. “It was great for me to give back appreciation for what they’ve done for me, and I could see how happy Dr. Zelson was to see me doing so well.”
Making Strides For Tokyo 2020
Boyle recently had surgery to repair a torn ACL and LCL, he said. He’s back in Colorado Springs training for the upcoming season and now has the goal set for his next journey.
“I’m in my strengthening phase now. I’m trying to get back on the bike like I was before,” Boyle said. “I want to do an international race this year.”
Joseph Zelson said that Boyle’s drive and determination are unparalleled, and that he can see the athlete continuing to excel no matter what he does, whether it’s the motivational speeches he gives, the next book he’s writing or trying to better himself as an athlete.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if one day he’ll be able to ride a two-wheeled bike again,” Zelson said. “Nothing he does surprises me anymore. He’s just got something in him that motivates him.”
Boyle said he’s aiming for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games with hopes of improving on Rio.
“I’m definitely going for Tokyo,” he said. “I need to make my silver gold. I want to get two gold medals in Tokyo.”
Whatever happens with Boyle, he already has a silver lining.
Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.