“Obstacles always trying to stop me
Trying to block me
But I’m stop free”
The performer cruises onto the stage in a powered wheelchair, pushing his hand against the joystick just enough to steer. His legs hang useless, ankles contorted. But when music and the beat get going, Ryan “Wheelz” Schmidt becomes an unconstrained rapper, conquering his physical limitations as he draws the audience in with vivid, honest lyrics that paint a captivating story of hope and inspiration—a story Wheelz hopes will change the world and the way people think.
The Obstacle: Duchenne
Twenty-one-year-old Ryan lives with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (Duchenne). It affects one in 3,600 boys worldwide. The disease is fatal, with no cure. It creeps into every muscle, eventually affecting the heart and breathing muscles, causing an early death. Life expectancy is just twenty-five.
“I was diagnosed with Duchenne at age four,” Ryan says. He was just like every other little boy, running and playing. But soon he began losing muscle strength. When Ryan was seven, he began stumbling, tripping, and falling. “Once, when I fell, my arm went between some bars in the cafeteria at school, breaking my arm. That’s when I went into a wheelchair full time,” Ryan explains. “That’s when I realized it was real.”
The Bridge: Music
“I’m never negative. Negative won’t get you anywhere,” Ryan declares. He lives life with joy and purpose. “When I was a little boy, I wanted to be a basketball player, but my situation changed, and I had to find something else.” So he poured all of his passion into music. He created a stage name, “Wheelz,” wrote some rap songs, immersed himself in all things hip-hop and rap, and talked to everyone he could, searching for a record producer, never giving up.
Eventually, he found producer Tim Bailey, who convinced him to start over with his material. “We spent hours. I taught him more about writing and rhyming. I was hard on him because I cared, and Ryan kept coming back,” Tim says.
Ryan also met ’Twon Fuller, a rapper who happened to be in the home healthcare field. ’Twon and Ryan hit it off immediately. “Wheelz was writing songs about things he couldn’t and wouldn’t do, like smoking and driving cars. I asked him, ‘Why don’t you write about your real life?’” says ’Twon. Since then, Ryan and ’Twon collaborated on two albums and a new music video of a song they wrote together, “Searching.” Ryan’s father, also a musician, lends his expertise, bringing father and son closer than ever. “I just had to find the right people to help me in the music business,” Ryan acknowledges.
“Ryan worked his butt off, and I’m so proud of him. He’s phenomenal,” Tim confirms.
Now an accomplished hip-hop artist, Ryan stays busy performing, speaking, and serving at several Muscular Dystrophy Association fundraisers, including the Sun City MDA golf charity. He’s met a lot of interesting people, including University of Texas head football coach Mack Brown, NFL player Vince Young, and several San Antonio Spurs players. He’s performed on a local TV station, KXAN, and Nancy Grace even talked on her show about Ryan as an inspirational rap artist.
Along with his other appearances and charity work, Ryan puts together an annual benefit called Ryan’s Day, held locally in October. Ryan performs, along with other area rap artists. All of the proceeds go to Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the treatment, quality of life, and long-term outlook for anyone affected by Duchenne—and, ultimately, to find a cure. “A cure is coming. I feel it,” Ryan says.
The Reality of Duchenne
Leslie Schmidt, Ryan’s mom, talks about how Duchenne affects families. “It’s heartbreaking for the parents, realizing the sadness and grim reality,” she explains, “but they have to realize it’s happening to their sons, and they have to be there for them.” When the doctors delivered Ryan’s diagnosis, Leslie asked God what she did to deserve it, but eventually she realized being negative and angry was pointless. “In the end, none of that matters. What matters is that you help each other through it,” Leslie says.
A few years ago, Ryan lost his best friend, Christopher, to the disease at twenty-three. But Duchenne struck the same family again—Christopher’s younger brother, Cody. Ryan mentors Cody. “We just hang out and talk about video games and girls—stuff like that,” Ryan says with a grin. His advice is to “focus on what you can do and not on what you can’t do.” His mom says, “He teaches others, because he’s living with Duchenne and showing them it’s not the end of the world.”
Inspiration and Attitude
Part of Ryan’s musical inspiration comes from the late rapper Tupac Shakur. “He wrote about his own life, and I saw how he was changing the world by writing about stuff he didn’t have—real life experiences and how he got through them—how to find better days,” Ryan says. He wants his music to raise awareness, help find a cure, and change the world.
“I’m rapping for my life,” Ryan says. “I’m happy all the time. I wouldn’t change it for anything. God is showing me a better way, so I’ve got to accept it.”
Obviously, Ryan has limitations, needing help on a daily basis with eating, dressing, and bathing, but he never focuses on that. “My message to the world? Live life to the fullest. Don’t worry about anything negative. Always think about the positive things in life. Don’t let limitations hold you back,” Ryan says.
The future, whatever it may hold, looks bright for this young artist. He’s writing songs, developing ideas for more videos and projects, and planning the fourth annual Ryan’s Day. He’s also forming a nonprofit, Inspiration on Wheelz, to help local boys with Duchenne get preventative care, durable equipment, and education, and to raise awareness and funds for Duchenne research.
Ryan says he’s not afraid of dying. “I just know everything’s going to be all right. If you have God in your life, there ain’t nothing to fear. Life ain’t promised. The only thing promised to you is death,” Ryan says. He’ll continue to make his mark on this world until that day comes. “I believe there is more to life after this. I think it’s going to be like paradise. I’m going to be up there, bothering Christopher and playing basketball. We won’t be needing any wheelchairs,” he says.
For more information on Ryan “Wheelz” Schmidt, please visit his web page, www.wheelzband.com.
View “Searching,” by Dremana Productions, on YouTube.