Ryen Reed and Ryann Mason have been defying odds since they were born. Less than 2% of people named "Ryan" (or some variation of it) are female. Both women possess genetic disabilities with prevalences ranging from just 0.02% to 0.3%, and not only are they adaptive athletes (comprising a small portion of the 7% of disabled women that involve themselves in sports), but they are also part of the LGBTQ+ community, an identity that less than 8% of Americans share. And, to top it all off, they're dating each other ... and do Spartan races.
Coming to Terms With Barriers to Athletics
Reed was born with cerebral palsy, which is a congenital group of disorders that affect a person's bodily movement and muscle coordination, and hip dysplasia, a condition that can cause the hip joint to dislocate more readily than others'. And while Mason wasn't diagnosed with her disability until the age of 16, she was born with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a hereditary disorder that weakens the body's connective tissue — namely collagen — causing the joints to painfully dislocate and the skin to bruise easily, among other life-altering complications.
Reed never wanted to be treated differently from the other kids while growing up.
"So my parents stuck to that and acted like nothing was wrong, until I had to have a surgery or something," Reed said.
The Riverside, Calif. native grew up playing softball and was an extremely active kid who always wanted to be outside playing with the neighborhood kids. But Reed especially liked being on her BMX bike.
Mason, on the other hand, jokes that she was never a proper athlete until she was in a wheelchair, with much of her teenage and college years consumed by band and ballet (so much so that she dreamed of moving to New York City and pursuing a career on Broadway). But as her mobility began to dwindle in her early 20s, the Virginia native was forced to rethink that reality.
"I just thought, 'This whole fitness thing is not for me,'" she said. "But it wasn't until I started using a wheelchair that I realized that my disdain for sports wasn't necessarily because I wasn't good at them. It was because my legs didn't work."
There was, of course, another pivotal experience in both women's lives aside from living with a disability: coming to terms with their sexuality. While both Mason and Reed have self-proclaimed "hippy" parents, and described their coming-out process as relatively easy, neither of their lives have been without struggle. Their sexuality, depending on the circumstances, fluctuated between the least and the greatest of their challenges.
"The gay thing was kind of on the back burner — or at least not the first thing you notice — for me in my wheelchair," Mason said. "But being together on social media, this is definitely the most pushback we've gotten. We've received death threats, the whole nine yards. For us, to have had such an easy coming-out process compared to a lot of people — and then to all of a sudden get these people on the internet calling us slurs — has been ... fascinating."
The Choice Between Making a Living and Living Authentically
In 2013, Reed (who had been out since 2010) began training and riding for AIDS/LifeCycle, a 545-mile, seven-day charity ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles that aims to raise awareness about, destigmatize, and fund the medical care, testing, and prevention of HIV/AIDS. Then, the cyclist discovered the Paralympics.
"I always wanted to go to the Olympics, but because of my disability I wasn't able to," she said. "I had no idea that the Paralympics even existed until I volunteered at the Special Olympics, and it was like a dream come true."
But despite overcoming physical barriers to chasing her dream, Reed's personal life unexpectedly began to pose complications. In 2016, her cycling team at the time had a rule that while traveling, female athletes could not share a hotel room with male athletes unless they were married. At the time, Reed's best friend was serving as team support, and the two were typically roommates on away trips.
"One of my teammates at the time got upset, saying, 'This isn't fair because Ryen's gay and she has women stay in her room,'" Reed explained. "They went through this whole process and said they were getting a lawyer to make a rule that I couldn't share the same room as a female, even though she was my best friend. Basically, I couldn't share a room with anybody."
After that situation — and despite having already been out to friends and family for over six years — Reed closeted herself again, fearing that she'd miss out on athletic sponsorships because of her identity and the ordeal surrounding it.
"I basically didn't share that part of my life with anybody anymore," she said.
The cyclist did receive an invitation to live and train at the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo. in 2017, where she began vigorously preparing for the Paralympic Games in para-cycling. However, a part of her was hidden. When asked how she was able to take back confidence and pride in her identity and live authentically once again, Reed's response was simple.
"I met Ryann," she said.
Taking Legs Out of the Equation
Once she took her legs out of the equation, began really getting accustomed to life in a wheelchair, and finalized a very difficult divorce, Mason discovered an interest in athletics like never before. She joined a wheelchair basketball team, began lifting weights, and even tried her hand at wheelchair tennis.
"But then I wanted to try everything," she said.
And she did. Mason was crowned Ms. Wheelchair Virginia 2020, earning her not only a substantial social media following (which she uses to advocate for disability awareness and visibility), but an inbox full of Facebook messages to boot. One of those messages came from Reed, sparking an incredibly close connection that led to the two trekking over 2,400 miles to finally meet in person in January 2021.
"One day I woke up to a friend request on Facebook and I was like, hold on — is that a female Ryen who is also disabled?" Mason joked.
An Entirely New Kind of Community
Also in Mason's inbox awaited a message from a "big burly dude in a kilt with a beard." That "dude" was Zackary Paben, the founder of More Heart Than Scars, a nonprofit organization that assists disabled individuals — from quadriplegics to those with visual impairments and mental health diagnoses and trauma — in overcoming incredible feats such as hiking the Appalachian Trail and completing obstacle course races.
"At this point, I am the thinnest and most sickly that I have ever been, I haven't lifted weights in like two months, and he's like, 'Hey, do you want to do a Spartan race?'" she said. "I was like, 'Hey, you're insane.' But I gave him a chance, got to know the team, and ended up just absolutely falling in love with it."
More Heart Than Scars provides equipment such as off-road wheelchairs, and even kayaks, to pull and assist some of its racers when necessary. But Mason surprised herself at her first race in Charlotte, NC, which Reed attended as a spectator.
"My first race, I did not expect to be able to do anything, but I ended up not skipping a single obstacle," Mason said. "I was obsessed, and scheduled my next one immediately."
Mason's next race (and the next one) would be done alongside Reed, who, despite having personnel ready to assist her, took off running after the Rolling Mud and attacked the Slip Wall head-on, pulling herself up the entire wall using only her arms.
"Everyone's always super cautious, but I am one of those people who just wants to do it myself and accomplish it," Reed said. "I don't let it intimidate me, because I just picture it as a big kid's playground."
Despite the obvious physical factors that make competing in Spartan races additionally challenging for both athletes, Mason agrees that while trying a race may be intimidating at first, allowing fear to be a deterrent from conquering it is the last thing one should do, especially for anyone searching for acceptance within a community.
"You need to attend a race, to see how happy everyone is after they cross the finish line, to see the incredible support and the other athletes that stick around to watch and cheer each other on going over the A-Frame," Mason said. "And to realize just how welcoming this community is."
Living an Uncompromising, Unapologetic Life
After many years of working as a nurse in Roanoke, Va., Mason is relocating to San Diego with Reed. Mason will have the opportunity to receive more advanced medical care, Reed will be closer to her teammates, and both athletes will finally get a chance to break into the West Coast OCR scene.
And as Reed returns from the Elzach 2022 UCI Para-cycling Road World Cup to await location announcements for several additional cycling races and World Cups, one thing is for certain: None of these women's identities will hold them back from chasing their dreams.
"I realized that I can't keep living behind closed doors and I just need to live for myself," Reed said. "If people don't want to sponsor me or support me, then I'll always figure out a way to do it on my own.
"But it ended up being way better," she added, smiling.