Father Pushes Non-Verbal Daughter, 24, in Wheelchair for 10 Half Marathons: 'She's Got So Much Joy'
Navy veteran James Ridgeway has always had a knack for running.
"You have to be in shape at least enough to pass your physical tests," he tells PEOPLE, referring to his military service. "I've always ran short races like 5Ks. I don't think I ever did a 10K."
Speaking at the Rock 'N' Roll Series' Half Marathon weekend in Las Vegas, where he helped celebrate 25 years of races, Ridgeway recalls returning home to Visalia, Calif., in 2019 after a deployment and going for a run with his son.
After their jog, Ridgeway says his 24-year-old daughter Gaby, who is non-verbal and uses a wheelchair to get around, was upset she didn't get to join in the fun with her dad.
"She can't put sentences together," says Ridgeway. "She has vocabulary words, but she'll tell you when she's upset. We would go out on the weekends and as soon as she hears somebody leave, she wants to know where you're going. We would come home from a run and she would be visibly irritated and we asked her, 'Are you mad?'"
"[She said] 'Yeah.' 'Why are you mad? Because we go running without you?' 'Yeah,' " Ridgeway recalls. "So I asked her, 'Do you want to run with us?' and she's like, 'Yeah!' I was like, "Oh, wow. How do I do that?' "
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Gaby was born with a rare genetic called Oculocerebrocutaneous (OCC) syndrome, which can effect the skin, eyes and brain, causing intellectual disabilities and seizures. Because of the condition, coordinating and regulating a wide range of functions in both her brain and body is challenge for Gaby, who only has vision in one eye.
She was also born with cerebral palsy and scoliosis, which affect her speech and mental development. Although she's able to stand for limited amounts of time, she cannot walk on her own.
Through Ainsley's Angels, an organization that focuses on inclusion for activities like biking and running, Ridgeway and his wife Lorena were able to get Gaby a wheelchair so she could participate in races with her dad — and in 2019 "Team Ridgeway" was formed.
"I've always wanted to do a half marathon and we were just testing the limits of how long she could [on runs and ] really enjoy it," Ridgeway says of increasing the distances he and Gaby did together. "We got a speaker, put that on the chair and that was it. She's a music lover, loves to dance, loves to scream her favorite song and that was the start of it."
"She loves to stand out," adds Lorena, who serves as the "pit crew" leader for Team Ridgeway and decorates Gaby's outfits and wheelchair. "She loves having her music. She'll do anything from pop, some rock. She does a little bit of hip hop."
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James quickly figured out how to train for races in all kinds of weather and terrain, adjusting accordingly to fit his daughter's needs.
"I train in the winter months without her," James says. "It's too cold. I try to do most of the training with [the wheelchair] because that's going to make it easier. If I train by myself, it's too easy to go faster, so I can't judge how my progress is."
"It's all for her. She loves it. That's all that matters," says the proud father.
Recently Team Ridgeway celebrated their 10th half-marathon in Las Vegas by running down the strip at night alongside 12,000 other runners. This race was extra nostalgic for the family, who used the trip as a homecoming moment while watching Gaby get out of her wheelchair for a special finish.
"We did pretty well," James says. "This is where she was born and raised."
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With some assistance from Hoyt Racing, a non-profit that supports people with disabilities at races, "we walked across the finish line," James says.
"I just basically hold her shoulders and she's screaming and the crowd's going wild and she's having a ball with her hands up," he recalls of ending the race in Las Vegas. "It's Amazing."
Although Team Ridgeway currently has no plans to do longer distances, they will take a short break before training begins for the next race this summer, Rock 'N' Roll Salt Lake.
This time, they'll be giving back to a charity Gaby discovered on her iPad.
"We're doing it for St. Jude's," Ridgeway says of what will be the team's eleventh half marathon in his wife's home state. "[Gaby] goes through [her iPad] and looks for babies, and I know she has a connection with that, so I asked her, 'Do you want to do it with St. Jude's for the babies?' She said, 'Yeah.' "