In the past decade XTERRA has both literally and figuratively left its mark on Ryan DeCook.
It all started in 2002 when the 22-year-old Rochester, Michigan native who had recently graduated from Michigan State University discovered XTERRA at the Stony Creek off-road tri just down the road from his hometown.
DeCook entered that first race with some credentials – he had swam his freshman year at Troy High School and went on to run cross country and track for the Spartans – but he was brand new to mountain biking.
“Showed up with my GT bike with chromoly frame and platform pedals and fell all over the place, but I had a blast. It was so much fun I couldn’t sleep that night, just started dreaming of all the races I could do,” said DeCook, who ended up moving within a stone’s throw of those very same trails at Stony Creek Metro Park just so he could be close to the magic.
His dream turned into reality in 2003 with a full slate of XTERRA races - Dino, Torn Shirt, General Butler, East Champs, Nationals, and Worlds.
At Nationals (where he finished 3rd in the 20-24 division) DeCook learned that the sport was about more than just racing.
“I met Will Kelsay and a bunch of the guys in my age group and after the race somebody grabbed a few bottles of champagne and we all walked down to the beach at Lake Tahoe and started throwing the frisbee around and trading stories. I’ll never forget that day.”
He’ll also never forget that year because of “all the new scars I got.”
There was Richmond, where he was so beat-up that he won the award for “most battered” from the guys in the med tent, but that was trumped in Maui. He fell hard early and smashed his face and knees on the infamous lava rocks on the lower slopes of Haleakala. He fell again later and landed on his knees in the same spot. His bike took a beating too which resulted in DeCook having to survive “a shocking ride down the mountain on only one rim.”
“I hobbled through the run spitting out lava rock that was lodged in my tooth and gums and eventually finished, but not without some amazing scars including one in my gum that still has bits of lava rock in it. My dentist said I could keep it.”
In 2004 DeCook started to come into his own and was among the top age groupers in the nation. He faced his demons in Richmond to win the 20-24 division and entered Nationals as one of the favorites, and found some unlikely motivation from one of his race roommates.
“I was staying with Jamie Whitmore and Jan Rehula, the bronze medalist at the Sydney Olympics. He said he’d trade me his Olympic jersey if I won the 20-24 age group so I was super motivated,” explained DeCook. “Despite my best plans I ended up cramping halfway through the ride. Still thought I had a shot if I could just get to the run so I started bombing the downhill and did an endo, face hit the ground, broke my handle bars in half, it was bad.”
Not bad enough to keep him from carrying on, which he did, bruised and battered and with half a handlebar. Not surprisingly, the initial crash was followed by a few more and the XTERRA TV crew was there to capture it all. The footage made national news when it was featured on ESPN’s “Not top 10”.
At transition staff and medics tried to stop him but he refused and ended up finishing the race.
“I was pretty out of it though. It wasn’t until Barbara Peterson passed me on the run when I realized I probably wasn’t going to win my age group.”
In what will become a recurring theme, DeCook came back to Nationals in 2005 to take care of some unfinished business.
“Can’t let yourself be scared of this thing, I told myself.”
After a year filled with success that included his second straight North Central Regional Championship, DeCook won Nationals. For his efforts he was rewarded with his off-road professional racing license.
Enter 2006 and his first pro race at the XTERRA Saipan Championship in the Northern Marianas. DeCook was reeling in Olympian Olivier Marceau on the big when … he crashed.
“Not a big surprise,” smiled DeCook. “Hurt my quad though and I couldn’t flex my quad muscle.”
Again, he wasn’t deterred. Instead of calling it a day he grabbed a stick and limped his way through one of the toughest run courses on the World Tour.
“One of the most incredible places I've ever been,” said DeCook after race, explaining that his memories from the experience went far beyond having a tough race. “I was really intrigued to see the World War II relics and experience a place so rich in U.S. history. I enjoyed hearing stories of locals that lived through the war by hiding in caves deep in the jungle. Swimming around the tanks stuck in the sandy shallow waters was eerie and running through the caves sent a chill down my spine as I thought about the incredible struggle that defines the island.”
Over the next three years DeCook was a regular on the XTERRA U.S. Pro Series, learning tricks of the trade from the sports biggest stars and continually improving until the 2010 season rolled around and something happened – he was FAST.
At the second race of the season in Waco, Texas DeCook finished fifth behind only Conrad Stoltz, Josiah Middaugh, Nico Lebrun, and Craig Evans. It was his best career finish, and put him in an elite class of XTERRA racers.
The very next weekend in Richmond DeCook was at again, and poised to make a statement.
“Josiah and I were riding together doing really well. I felt confident on his wheel and had never been in that position before. Ended up in a pack with Branden Rakita and when there was an opening I took it and went as fast as I could to break away,” explained DeCook.
“I remember that moment well,” said Rakita. “He was on fire and flew by Josiah and I so fast we just watched him go.”
Moments later disaster struck.
“Turning the corner and going on an uphill real quick my foot came out of the pedal and ended up dislocating my knee. When my foot came down it got stuck but the bike kept moving forward. By far the worse injury I’ve ever had. Tore my LCL and ACL ligaments, my hamstring needed reconstruction, and meniscus was also torn.”
Despite the agonizing pain, DeCook lay on the ground cheering for his friends as they rode by.
“That was ridiculous,” said XTERRA Pro Christine Jeffrey. “Here he was on the side of the trail with his leg pointed in the wrong direction and he’s yelling, ‘go Chris, go’. He was cheering for all of us. We had driven down together in his truck from Michigan, and the only thing he was concerned about was getting back to Rochester so he could get back to work the next day.”
“That was a huge setback for me. I really thought that was going to be a podium day for sure, without a doubt. After that I didn’t know if I was ever going to get back. There were days I just didn’t know.”
All those that know DeCook, however, knew that quitting wasn’t an option for the resilient young man.
It took three surgeries and two years but DeCook did get back. His return – which came at Oak Mountain State Park in Pelham, Alabama for the 2012 ITU Cross Triathlon World Championships – was an emotional one. Not only was it his first race back since that fateful day in Richmond, it marked the one-year anniversary to the day his father and mentor had passed away from cancer.
“There was a big void in my life. Not only was I not able to race and do the things I loved, but my best friend left me as well. It was challenging for me to move on from that point.”
Move on he did though and in Alabama, despite not having the best fitness level on the day, he said his father’s spirit carried him through. He finished 15th in a stacked, international pro field, and ended up within 8% of Stoltz’ winning time (to the second) that allowed him to maintain his pro card.
DeCook’s impact on the sport reaches far and wide. Last year when someone asked Chris Scott, a standout age grouper from the Midwest, who his favorite XTERRA pro was he noted that he loved seeing Stoltz’ and Evans battle it out, but what was really special to him was seeing Ryan DeCook return to racing.
The feeling is universal among the XTERRA Tribe, and when DeCook rolls into Oak Mountain State Park on Saturday trust there will be an army of friends waiting to welcome him to his first race of the 2013 season.
“The people of XTERRA are incredible, I have friends I’ll never forget,” said DeCook. “We’re family. It’s such a close knit group we check up on each other. After I got hurt Will came and hung out with me to see how I was doing. I’ve fished with Conrad on rivers in Utah, toured Spain with Vito Henestrosa and his family, stayed with Mark Leishman in New Zealand, and have been continually inspired by Jamie and her remarkable comeback from cancer.”
Two weeks ago at a local 5K race to benefit cancer and support a high school mate of his going through treatment now, DeCook clocked a 16:06 – his fastest 5K ever.
“Significant because two years ago I was having my second major knee reconstruction and the passing of my father. Special day thankful to be alive and healthy. Ryan Humphrey was so inspiring today and I'm so glad to have been part of his race,” posted DeCook to his Facebook page after the race.
XTERRA caught up with DeCook in his hometown this week to find a vibrant, healthy, and happy young man in a nice suit at a new job as a financial advisor at Edward Jones in the beautiful countryside near his hometown of Rochester.
When he’s not racing DeCook likes to ride his Ducati, fish and hunt. He can shoot a bow-and-arrow like nobody’s business and has a plethora of trophies to prove it.
“XTERRA is a lifestyle. It’s about being healthy, pushing boundaries to see where you can go, see who you are and what is important to you. Through the years I’ve made so many good friends and found out so much about myself that has transferred over into my life.”
While it is true XTERRA may have left his mark on DeCook, the Michigan kid has also most certainly left his mark on XTERRA.