When his brothers began riding motorcycles, 7-year-old Todd Macke wanted one too. Despite being deaf and limited by cerebral palsy and spinal scoliosis, he knew he could ride.
"My legs weren't strong enough to hold up a two-wheel cycle or walk, so my father gave me a three-wheeler for my birthday and adapted it so I could ride with them," recalls Macke, now 36, of Decatur, Ill. (pop. 81,860).
The all-terrain vehicle (ATV) improved Macke's coordination, and an operation on his Achilles' tendons straightened his feet and strengthened his legs so he could walk. His stronger legs made riding easier, and soon he was racing-and beating-his brothers.
Today, Macke races ATVs competitively, and his inspirational story and efforts are helping others realize that riding isn't just for the able-bodied.
Macke founded Ability Riders of Tomorrow (ART) last year to encourage people with disabilities to test their boundaries, and to provide equipment and financial assistance to disabled ATV riders and racers.
"There aren't any people with disabilities in the reality shows like Survivor or in extreme sports," Macke says. "I'm racing to broaden the horizons of the disabled community, and help others see that disabled people can do a lot of the things that able-bodied people can."
Last November, Macke received donations for every lap he completed in the Maxxis' 12 Hours of ATV America, an extreme endurance race in Greenville, Texas. He surprised himself, his competitors and sponsors with his fifth-place finish. The effort raised $2,000 for ART, which he used to purchase safety gear and ATV equipment, and to pay racing and travel expenses for riders such as Ben Brown, 21, of Weston, Nova Scotia.
"Todd invited me to go to the Redbud ATV National (in Buchannan, Mich.), but I just couldn't afford it," says Brown, who was paralyzed from the chest down in a 2006 ATV accident. "He said he would make sure I would get there. Thanks to him I had my best racing experience."
For Macke, a married father of two children, success is not about winning; it's about trying.
"I knew I couldn't play sports as well as my classmates, but I still would play baseball, football, kickball, anything," he says. "Even now, I will run in a 5K race just to help others learn not to let someone define who they are, and to not let anyone or anything keep them from success."
Macke spreads his motivational message in presentations at schools, encouraging students to do their best and recognize the potential in everyone. In November, Macke spoke at Maroa (Ill.) High School, where he entertained students with stories of his own triumphs and struggles, and shared videos of his racing victories.
"Through his accomplishments, he has shown us that we can overcome our simple problems," says senior Kaitlyn Starbody, 17. "There really is nothing we can't do if we put our minds to it."
Whether he's racing, helping another ATV enthusiast or speaking to students, Macke is opening doors for the disabled and providing inspiration for everyone. "Life is what you make it," he says.
For more information, contact Macke at MySpace/todd_macke.