GOLDENDALE, Wash. - To watch them ride, you wouldn't think they were different from any other guys who were out on the race course this past weekend competing for top honors.
But if you saw them get on or off their quads, you quickly realized there is something unique about this group of racers.
You see David Mast, Sean Malone, Jonny Aquino and Steven Pettit are all paraplegics.
The four men met up in Goldendale, Washington over the weekend to compete in a six-hour ATV (all-terrain vehicle) Team Race at Eddieville Motorsports Park, on a track that weaves its way around some of the many windmills you'll find in that part of the state.
The track, surrounded by green rolling hills and blue sky peeking through scattered clouds, was all very picturesque, even if it was windy and cold.
What brought this reporter there wasn't the scenery, though. I wanted to meet these men and get to know them a little - find out what motivates them to do what they do, how their injuries have impacted their lives and what kind of advice they have for others.
So I spent time with each of them (and their entourage of friends and family) track side during the race as they switched riders between relays. And everyone I talked to was pumped to be there.
"You have to have fun," said Chase Loomis, who was there supporting the all-paraplegic team and running the course as a track sweeper. "Life has a lot of risks - just take them. You don't want to be a hundred years old and done nothing."
Loomis was once a paraplegic himself after breaking his back while riding quads over a year ago. He was able to recover the use of his legs and can now walk.
"It's really all a mindset that keeps you down," he said. "I got lucky, of course, but for those who have lost their legs, don't give up on yourself. The worst thing you can do is just sit and not do anything. Once you go into that mindset, you kind of just give up on yourself."
The four men who competed over the weekend never gave up on themselves and their accomplishment at the race track on Sunday proves that. The team placed 1st in their class (beginner) and 4th overall.
From left to right - Jonny Aquino, David Mast, Sean Maloney and Steven Pettit (photo courtesy Debbie Taylor Mast).
The four of them come from different backgrounds, were injured in various ways and live miles apart. But of course there is the one thing that binds them. Here are their stories:
David Mast, 18, of Enumclaw, Wash.
David Mast was paralyzed two years ago when he was 16 years old.
"I had been riding dirt bikes since I was five years old and started racing when I was around 15," he said. "I raced for a year and got progressively better and better. The end of the racing season was over and I was just out riding with a couple of friends and I ended up crashing. I went over the handlebars and basically just bent in half."
The injury didn't keep him down for long.
"The first thing I asked when I got out of surgery and stuff was when can I ride again," he told us. "I think it was two or three months after I got out of the hospital and kind of got settled that I got the quad and slowly set it up so I could ride it. And I just went from there."
David's can-do attitude means he can do what he loves - going fast. He told us he believes in living life to the fullest no matter what and is willing to help anyone else out who might be struggling with moving on after a devastating injury.
"There are tons of people out there like myself," he said. "I'd be more than willing to help you get back at it. Even though you're paralyzed or injured or disabled, there is still a way you can do something you love."
It's that kind of attitude that makes his sister, Haley Mast, admire him so much.
"It's really inspiring because each day when I wake up, I don't want to do anything. But he gets up and he just goes - he does everything. And it really inspires me to try my hardest at stuff because if he can do it, I know I can," she said.
Sean Maloney, 19, of Seattle, Wash.
Sean Maloney broke his back last June while riding at a track in Riverdale, Wash.
"It was actually my warm up lap, so my first lap, and I came around the corner and just hit it at third gear wide open," he said. "As I came to the top of it, there was like a little pothole I didn't realize was there. And I kind of tried to skim across the top of it but my rear suspension got caught in the pothole and compressed and kind of shot me forward."
Sean said he tried to prevent the wreck but it was inevitable.
"I ended up landing on the front tire, a nose wheelie, and it threw me over the bars," he explained. "I went head first into the ground. I had a neck brace on and that saved me from breaking my neck. But I ended up breaking my back instead."
He spent months recuperating and dreaming of the day he could ride. "I just wanted to go fast again," he said. "There was no question in my mind. I had to do it."
So two months ago, he purchased a quad and started getting it set up. Sunday's race was the third time he had ridden the ATV and he was all smiles.
"Don't ever let your disability get you down," he said. "Don't ever believe you can't do anything. I've had plenty of people tell me I shouldn't or won't ever ride again and here I am today."
Sean's girlfriend, Jordyn Jarvis, has stood by her man through it all. We asked her what it was like when the injury first happened and she said it was crazy and shocking. But then came the realization that this was how their lives were going to be from there on out.
"After a month or so, it was like 'OK, this is happening and I've just got to figure out how to deal with it,'" she said.
And now that he's riding again, does that worry her at all? Perhaps a little, she said, but seeing her boyfriend get his life back is worth it. "I'm just happy that he's happy and doing what he wants to do," she told us.
Sean's mother, Terri Maloney, also worries about her son but wants to see him happy.
"It's a little bit scary but I'm really happy for him because he doesn't sit at home feeling sorry for himself," she said. "He's trying to resume as much of his life as he can."
"He's doing what he loves, so that's a comfort," Sean's father, John Maloney, said. "And he's so positive."
Terri said the support of others who have gone through the same type of thing is what helped her and her family make it through the difficult times. She hopes anyone else who faces the same experience will reach out to others.
"You need to reach out to parents of other spinal cord injured patients because they are really the only people who understand," she said. "When I talked to David's mom on the phone, we instantly connected and I knew that she would be a friend when I met her."
Jonny Aquino, 42, of Salem, Ore.
Jonny Aquino has been paralyzed since he was 13 years old. He was shot in the chest during a domestic violence incident but he hasn't let that stop him from enjoying life. And he hopes others with disabilities can learn from his example.
"Live," he said. "All you can do is just live. Whatever it is you love, just do it. If you want to do something different, try it."
"You don't have to ride bikes, just do something," he added. "Do something that you love and that you're passionate about. I've seen it in the past where people just give up and it's kind of disheartening. No matter what, don't give up."
We asked Jonny what it was like seeing the young men on his team, David and Sean, doing so well following their injuries.
"It makes my heart warm, you know," he said. "And they're awesome guys and they've got this never quit attitude. And that's what we try to represent - do what we love, never quit and keep going forward."
Steven Pettit, 48, of Cougar, Wash.
Steven Pettit's spinal cord was severed in 1986.
"I used to race three-wheelers professionally and up at Castle Rock one day I fell off and hit the wall," he said. "And that's when I broke my back. I figure it's just one of those things. I could have slipped in the bathtub and done the same thing."
Steven is highly independent and didn't waste any time getting back into racing. He said back then, there weren't many people like him who were doing what he was doing.
"When I first started racing, I was one of the first (paraplegics) on quads," he said. "Now there are lots of us out there."
The key, he said, is that technology has changed over the years, which allows disabled racers to adapt quads to their needs. And that lets them compete against anyone who is able bodied, and perhaps surprise other riders a little.
"All of my races, I'm right out there with all of the able bodies," he said. "And most everybody goes 'oh, it's nice you're out here trying.' Until after you beat half of them and then they say 'oh wow, how do you do that?' It's kind of neat that it opens up eyes."
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