Wrestling, riding, fighting, rolling—this young athlete uses strength and ferocity instead of legs
on December 1, 2010
For Solomon Tyson, there is nothing special about today. Solomon stretches, letting go a huge yawn. He is sitting at the start of a 25-mile bicycle course through the West Dry Creek wine valley, in Sonoma County. He’s texting on his cell phone.
Solomon pulls the hood of his black sweatshirt over his head and stuffs his hands into the sweatshirt’s pocket. It is 10 am on Saturday morning and 50 degrees.
Five foot eight, and weighing over 250 lbs, Solomon is big.
“I’m looking at this kid,” said Trooper Johnson, one of Solomon’s coaches, recalling the first time he saw Solomon, “and I just am like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ That’s a national championship right there. Just as a coach you get excited. Here’s this huge kid that’s going to be massive. He’s going to be a superstar.”
Here’s what Johnson, also the youth sports coordinator at the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program, sees whenever he looks at Solomon: a basketball player. A sled hockey player. A cyclist.
Solomon’s dark brown eyes are filled with an ever-present intensity. He has a way of staring without flinching at the target of his focus. Solomon’s muscles shift smoothly under his dark brown skin, as he constantly stretches his arms behind his head. He also runs his hands across the buzzed black hair on the top of his head. His large mouth and gapped front teeth command attention whenever he speaks.
What Johnson doesn’t see any more, because he’s grown so used to it, is Solomon’s wheelchair.
Now 19 years old and living in Oakland, Solomon was born with cerebral palsy, commonly shortened to CP. CP is caused when the motor control areas of the brain are damaged. CP caused Solomon’s right foot to turn inward, and it weakens his muscles, damaging his reflexes and coordination. He can walk, but when he does he limps, favoring his left leg. When he’s in his wheelchair, Solomon sits, slumped over. He fidgets, his back hurting, when he has spent too long in one position.
And he’s a serious athlete.
A former wrestler, Solomon grew bored with the sport fast; it was too easy, and he seemed to pin everybody he competed against. A former Jiu Jitsu student, he grew bored with that sport; also too easy. Solomon’s currently trying mixed martial arts, a full-contact sport that combines both martial arts and non-martial arts styles of fighting. He likes that. His goal is to be a competitive amateur mixed martial arts fighter by the time he’s 22.
Solomon’s in his black wheelchair this morning, in the parking lot of a Geyserville winery, waiting for the Revolution to start.
The Revolution is a bike-a-thon raising money for the Bay Area Outreach and Recreation Program (BORP), an organization specializing in sports for disabled children. Headquartered in Berkeley, the program serves all of northern California.
Hanging off of the back of Solomon’s wheelchair is a tiny backpack. The backpack hangs open and the top drags on the ground. The edge is ragged and looks as if a dog had attacked it, which Solomon says is exactly what happened. His pitbull chewed the backpack to the point of ruin.
“I treat that dog like my son and look what I get,” Solomon says.
His wheelchair shakes as shivers ripple through Solomon’s body. Along with his sweatshirt, he is wearing a Bob Marley T-shirt, baggy jeans and black tennis shoes.
“You are not going to catch me out here in tight shorts or tight shirt,” Solomon says.
Solomon is riding an adaptive hand cycle along the 25-mile course he has decided to ride this year. This is Solomon’s first cycle race; he’ll be riding along with 69 other people, 15 also riding adaptive cycles, over a course that was “specifically designed with hand cycling in mind,” said Greg Milano, BORP’s cycling program coordinator. The course circles through valleys covered in vineyards. Hills, which are especially difficult for handcyclers, only pop up a few times throughout the ride. Solomon’s first time riding an adaptive cycle – or any type of cycle – was last summer.
Handcycles are not to be confused with racing wheelchairs. Wheelchairs are simpler to steer, and handle turns with greater ease. But a rider’s balance suffers from a wheelchair’s higher center of gravity. Recumbent handcycles are low-slung and designed for serious cycling; they’re aerodynamic, and able to reach much higher speeds. Solomon’s is bright orange, borrowed from BORP’s Adaptive Cycling Center, with a reclining seat.
Solomon looks relaxed, leaning back in this seat, his arms dangling by his side and his fingertips sweeping the pavement. His cycle is solely powered by his arms, which are massive after years of propelling himself and his wheelchair through life.
His first ramp confronted him in elementary school, he says. “There were ramps, but no elevator,” Solomon remembers. “So going up to the second floor was like a steep huge hill. Just all the way up the hill. Nobody else is nearby. Just you and the hill.”
He grew up in San Francisco’s Visitacion Valley, with his mother, Madonna Billups, and his sister, Dominique. His father had left the family. Solomon struggled to finish his education. He’s matter-of-fact when he tells stories of being bullied as a child.
“I’ve been dragged across the yard before, from there to there,” Solomon said one afternoon at the James Kenney Recreation Center in Berkeley, gesturing from the entrance of the center, where his wheelchair was parked, to the far end of the basketball court outside. “I’ve been socked in the eye. I’ve been picked on, teased, bullied. I’ve had that kind of moment. Honestly, I don’t know if they thought I was a normal kid or they just didn’t care.”
Solomon used crutches and a walker to get around, as he remembers it, when he first began attending school. He didn’t need a wheelchair yet. CP is not a progressive disease; the brain damage will not worsen, but the symptoms of CP can increase in severity as a person ages. A child’s bones and muscles change and adjust to their growing body, but when growth stops, those bones and muscles stop as well. It’s at this point that many symptoms of CP, related to bones and muscles, intensify.
It wasn’t until Solomon’s right foot started to turn in that he began to need more substantial help when it came to mobility. Solomon had surgery to correct the problem, but after over six months of recovery time in bed, Solomon tripped and fell, re-injuring his foot.
“That same day I was able to get out of bed, the first day I actually got out of the house, it happened,” Solomon said. “It didn’t hurt at all. It was fine at that moment, but it was never the same after that point. So then it put me in this.” Solomon looked down at his wheelchair, resting his hands on top of both wheels.
Now Solomon is largely confined to a wheelchair. Coming to terms with his disability and need for accommodations took Solomon a long time.
“It’s kind of not cool,” Solomon said quietly. He meant the wheelchair. “It kind of sucks,” he said. Then, he snapped his head up and sat up straight. “I’m over it,” he said loudly. “I’ve gotten adjusted over the years. When you’re younger it’s really hard. But once you get older, you get used to it.”
He switched high schools three times before finding a good fit in Oakland’s Sojourner Truth Independent Study High School, where he earned his high school degree.
He loved sports, too—watching them, not playing. Throughout high school, Solomon would sit at home in his wheelchair and watch continuous NBA games and Ultimate Fighting Championship matches on TV.
Then in the fall of 2009, Keba Konte, a local artist and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu competitor, volunteered at Literacy for Environmental Justice (LEJ), a group promoting health and ecological awareness in San Francisco. Konte led a group of high school kids on a project that used photography, collage, and mixed media. Konte’s group project was entitled Gentrification and was part of a collaboration between LEJ and community arts project, Welcome To The NeighborHOOD.
Then Konte heard a voice—one of the high-schoolers, it seemed—talking wrestling. “Terminology that only the kind of people in mixed martial arts would know,” Konte said. “I looked over and saw this kid in a wheelchair talking about this wrestling stuff.”
Konte studied Solomon, wondering. He saw that Solomon was obviously a big strong guy. “The beauty of wrestling is it’s really not done standing up,” Konte said. “It’s down on the ground, so it made sense for his skill set. So Konte asked Solomon—despite the wheelchair—if he wanted to train.
“He came to the house, picked me up, took me [to Oakland Tech],” Solomon said. “We wrestled, lifted weights. It would just be me and him. I can honestly say if it wasn’t for him I’d probably be doing something different.”
Konte said that even on his first day on the mats, Solomon entered the ring with “the courage of a lion. He was out there challenging anyone,” Konte said. “He had no fear about getting on the mat and mixing it up with anyone.”
Wrestling matches are primarily fought on the floor. The size and strength of Solomon’s upper body is so great that his legs, when wrestling, are unnecessary. Using only his arms and the full weight of his body, Solomon found that he could pin down an opponent easily. “People tell me I couldn’t fight mixed martial arts from being in this chair,” Solomon said. “They think it’s not possible. People think I’m crazy for wanting to fight. I don’t know why, but they do. I do plan to make a lot of people who think I can’t fight, very wrong. That’s my main motivation. Negativity.”
Negativity is what helps drive Solomon. “That’s why I like to fight,” Solomon said, remembering the bullying. Solomon has spent much of his life on the bottom, being pushed down by other kids and confined to a wheelchair. Now, Solomon is focused on being on top—which is exactly what good wrestling needs.
But pinning someone down to a mat can grow boring, especially when you are as big as Solomon.
“What now?” Solomon would say, referring to the moment of defeat on the wrestling mat. “It’s over.”
The thrill of the pin was no longer enough for Solomon. He moved on to Jiu Jitsu, only to face the same boredom.
Then Solomon discovered mixed martial arts, in which the opponent’s admission of defeat is called a submission. He’s training now in mixed martial arts. He loves forcing submissions. It took him a while, though, to find a gym that would take on a great big guy in a wheelchair. At the first gym he visited, Solomon “asked one dude how much it was [to train], and do you think I could do it?’” Solomon said. “And he was like, ‘Well . . .’” At the second gym, “They were cool, but they were just kind of rejectful,” Solomon said. “Kind of not willing.”
Finally he found a gym. It was Zhong Luo’s Dragon House in San Francisco’s Mission district. Solomon was inspired by the other disabled fighters who trained in the gym.
“There’ve been fighters who one side of his body was shut down,” Solomon said still astonished by the fighter he saw who suffered from full one-sided paralysis. “He still got in the ring.”
So Solomon did too.
“You find your strength,” Konte said about what wrestling can teach. “[Solomon] learned that with hard work you improve.”
Almost one year later, while he was shopping for a new wheelchair with his mother, Solomon was spotted by a BORP volunteer coach named Mickey Kay. Solomon was 17 then. When Kay asked him if he wanted to play, he didn’t hesitate to say yes; he had loved basketball for as long as he could remember.
“If I would have had BORP when I was [younger], I’d probably be different,” Solomon said. “Places like BORP, where there’s other people just like you, it eases life up a lot. I didn’t have that back then. I sure as hell wish I had that opportunity.”
He adjusted fast. During practice, Johnson ran a drill in which each player had to pull him and his braked wheelchair across the court.
“They really have to drag something,” Johnson said. “It’s really a workout.”
But then came Solomon.
“He is so strong,” Johnson said. “I grabbed hold of Solomon’s chair, and when he took off, he just about ripped my arm out of its socket.”
Kay tried to hold on, Johnson remembered, but that didn’t slow Solomon either. “Solomon just pulled him over and dragged him down the court, on his side,” Johnson said, and broke up laughing. “He has no idea how strong he is.”
Solomon aged out of the program when he turned 18, but he now uses his athletic talent to help others—assisting Johnson, coaching both the Bay Cruisers Prep and Bay Cruisers Varsity wheelchair basketball teams.
Johnson is amazed at the “leadership mentality” Solomon has developed while helping to coach the teams.
“I just like doing it,” Solomon said. “To help them do something, to show them there’s more than to just being in this chair. Show them a sport they love doing.” Solomon is actually one of the weaker wheelchair basketball players, because of the coordination problems caused by CP, but he’s just as determined to be great at the sport as he is with all others.
Johnson is intent on keeping Solomon involved in the BORP community. For the first time, Solomon has a group of people in his life he can rely on. “BORP is a very supportive program,” Solomon said. “You always have someone there. I’m not really used to having someone to go to if I need something, when it comes to school and what not, it helps. It’s a good thing.”
Solomon wants to be good, if not great, at everything he does, especially sports. He sets goals for himself and works hard to achieve them. His latest goal? To complete the 25-mile course at BORP’s Revolution bike-a-thon.
“Ready?” Michael Cross, BORP development associate, asks the group of riders poised at the start of the 25-mile Revolution course.
Strapped into his bike, sporting a bright blue and silver helmet, Solomon isn’t tense. It is his escort, Nadia Strasser, who can’t hide her nerves.
Strasser looks almost stunned, staring down at Solomon. Most adaptive cyclers, especially those biking on the road, are accompanied by an able-bodied escort rider who provides support and helps passing cars identify the location of the low, hard-to-see handcycles.
Strasser has been told only that Solomon is an inexperienced cycler. But now, meeting him for the first time, Strasser is surprised. He’s twice her size. Providing support may prove difficult.
Milano knows the course’s length will prove a challenge for Solomon, and estimates it will take him between three and five hours to finish.
“I know he’s strong enough, and he has shown some good sense and maturity out on the path,” Milano says. “It will be a hard ride, but I think he will rock it.”
But Solomon’s never faced a ride this long. He is used to shorter recreational rides out of BORP’s bike house in Berkeley.
Going into the Revolution, Solomon didn’t want to know about the course he was to face.
“If I know in advance I can back out,” Solomon says. “If I don’t know what I am getting into, I can’t back out. I just have to show up and start. This way I don’t have a choice.”
After he is lowered out of the bus and onto the pavement of the Geyserville winery parking lot, the first thing Solomon does is pick up a map for the 100-mile course that was also offered as part of the Revolution.
“The 100-miles didn’t seem that bad,” Solomon says. “All these routes are just long. It’s not like they are difficult. I’m up for it.”
But today, it’s just 25 miles. Rolling down the winery’s main road, flanked on both sides by parked cars, Solomon doesn’t even make it out the front gate before his bike breaks down. He has a flat tire.
A rider barrels around the corner, pedaling fast, a bike pump tucked under his arm. He screeches to a stop.
Solomon’s tire is easily fixed, but his steering is also loose. Facing Solomon, Strasser uses her legs to keep the front wheel of Solomon’s bike straight and steady as she leans over and tries to tighten the steering mechanism.
She’s done all she can. “Want to try it and see how it goes?” Strasser asks.
Solomon answers by suddenly taking off, whirring past Strasser. He leaves her standing on the side of the road. One of the things that’s still very hard for Solomon is accepting other people’s help.
In his wheelchair, Solomon takes BART or the bus to practices. He’s grown adept at public transportation. “I do everything by myself,” he said one day before the race. “It’s just how it is.”
He says his mother works 16 hour days, and isn’t isn’t able to help much. Solomon turns quiet when questions of family come up. “It’s a very touchy subject,” he said. “It’s just not a subject I like to get into a lot.”
He does tell this story: A few years back, Solomon and his mother were sitting in a doctor’s office waiting room. Solomon’s mother pointed to a man seated across from them. “You know who that is?” she asked.
“I sure the hell don’t,” Solomon replied. The man was Solomon’s father. He was there with Solomon’s half-brother, a boy from a different mother. Solomon had never seen his father or half-brother before.
“He wasn’t there when I was born,” Solomon said. ”The disability is what he couldn’t handle.”
Solomon has worked hard for the calm he now manages much of the time. He has been seeing a therapist for two years. “It’s helped a lot,” Solomon said. “I get mad over the littlest things. But now it’s better. I’m less angry. I know how to control it. I know how to just walk away and relax.”
But he still hates asking for help. “I just can’t do it,” Solomon said. “Kind of have to deal with pride thing. Pride is a very, very, very, hard thing to deal with.”
Finally, though, for this race, Solomon has put his pride aside. There is no finish line, no giant banner, no group of screaming fans, as Solomon rolls through his final mile and into the winery parking lot.
But Solomon does not ride for those things.
Volunteers, sitting behind two folding tables set up to create an information booth, ring a solo cowbell as each rider returns to the parking lot. Everyone milling around the area claps when they hear the cowbell start. They turn around and look to see if they know the finishing rider, but most there do not know Solomon.
REVOLUTION written in bold red letters across its front, Solomon’s new black baseball hat slips down over his eyes, a size too big.
The hat falls to the ground as Solomon leans back. He quickly swivels around and swoops the souvenir from the dusty ground.
“I just go for the ride,” Solomon says. “I don’t have a goal time. I’m not trying to beat anybody. I was looking forward to the challenge.”
Solomon is a kid with big goals. He’s in the process of applying to schools to study music production.
“Just live life how it should be lived, and then you can do almost anything you want to do,” Solomon says. “You can be anything you want to be. I know what I want to do. I know what I can do. There’s people that are believing in me. There’s people that don’t. Frankly, the whole entire world can be against me and I’m still going to do what I want to do.”
Lowering his voice to a barely audible whisper, Solomon continues, “That’s just me. That’s my mentality. That’s just how I am.”
Text by Abby Baird; video by Laith Agha.
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