Whether It’s On A Track Or A Deserted Island, Ryan Medrano’s Perseverance Remains Constant
by Al Daniel
The migraines didn’t know who they were messing with.
Burgeoning Para sprinter and jumper Ryan Medrano said the headaches struck “from the center of my brain out,” bringing unprecedented ferocity and blurring his eyesight amid his first run at the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships last month in Chula Vista, California.
But Medrano — who grew up in Savannah, Georgia and now lives in in El Paso, Texas — bears a Texas-sized tank of grit and optimism. To match that, the 25-year-old has an athletic repertoire, a circle of competitive friends and a family back home all feeding off each other’s successes.
And so Medrano, in his first national championships, battled through the pain and performed well enough to earn a berth to the World Para Athletics Championships set for July 8-17 in Paris.
For those who have followed Medrano’s journey, his perseverance in the face of the migraines comes as no surprise.
“I’ve done harder than this,” he said. “I’ve gone without sleep and without water and without food for several days.”
Precisely 12 months earlier, Medrano plowed through those hardships on season 43 of “Survivor.” At his girlfriend’s behest, he had applied for the reality competition show and scored a ticket to the Oceanian island of Fiji.
The experience plugged an outstanding void for the adventurous Medrano. In high school, his proficient wrestling earned him a chance to represent a U.S. national team in Hawaii, Australia and New Zealand, but a shoulder injury kept him stateside.
Nearly a decade later, never having tempered his competitive streak, he finally got to go global. Whatever came Medrano’s way, “Survivor” host Jeff Probst’s signature cue would just be a matter of fact.
“When you’re on national television and Jeff says, ‘Survivors ready!’ you have to be ready,” Medrano said.
He was prepared for that part, but not for the pleasant revelations from one of his peers. Unbeknownst to Medrano while filming over 26 days in May 2022, the show’s pool of 18 contestants included another elite athlete in U.S. Paralympic sprinter Noelle Lambert.
Lambert did not initially divulge her Team USA experience to the other castaways. But the way she vocally and physically expressed her competitive spirit caught the attention of Medrano. He said he had hoped to be on her team of six, and she said the same of him.
As it happened, they went to opposing squads — Medrano to Team Coco, Lambert to Team Visi — and did not meaningfully meet until Day 13. Throughout their stay, his athleticism, disability (cerebral palsy) and character awakened her inner Paralympic scout.
Team Coco decidedly outdueled Team Visi and the third group, Team Baka, for each of the season’s first three episodes. Team Coco was also the last to have any of its players voted off. Lambert attributed that early hot streak to Medrano’s boundless energy and selflessness.
“He was honestly the beast of his tribe,” she said.
Lambert watched Medrano ascend a 20-foot ramp and acrobatically hang on with his legs while lending literal helping hands to trailing teammates. The sight evoked Tarzan in her mind.
Between competitions, she saw him take a spear to the sea and make sure he fetched enough fish to nourish the entire cast of competitors. Once they were both out of the running for the individual million-dollar prize, she was poised to return a favor.
“I dodged nine bullets before I got voted off,” Medrano said proudly. “But it really did leave this fire inside of me that needed to be fed.”
Medrano and Lambert both surpassed the halfway mark of the attrition process, exiting back-to-back as the 10th and 11th eliminations. He was, however momentarily, unsure what his next competitive outlet would be.
“And then she comes in like a golden goose,” Medrano said of Lambert.
She did that because Medrano was exuding gold in his own way. Upon observing his physical prowess, hunger and team-first example, then hearing Medrano talk about his backstory and disability, Lambert said, “A lightbulb went off in my head.”
She pounced to tell him about the Paralympics and noticed his interest right away. Her pitch for the program was, in his words, “perfect.” For the next two-plus hours, they discussed the particulars and possibilities of Medrano becoming a Para track and field athlete.
Before leaving Fiji, Lambert approached Probst and said, “You’re going to see Ryan in the 2024 Paris Paralympics.”
In a way, Lambert and Medrano have taken the whole Fiji party of 18 to the track. All of their fellow “Survivor” castaways watched the two compete at nationals. Their messages motivate both runners, and Medrano’s do the same for Lambert, as do his actions.
Leading up to nationals, text alerts frequently functioned as Lambert’s alarm clock. As early as 6 a.m., Medrano relayed accounts of his morning workout.
“He was actually inspiring me,” she said.
Lambert provided an ideal competitive platform for Medrano after “Survivor.” It didn’t take long for Medrano to prove Lambert’s scouting instincts were correct.
“I want to be breaking some records when I go there,” Medrano said of the upcoming world championships. “I really just need to buckle down.”
At nationals he proved what that approach can yield. He won gold in the men’s long jump T38 with a jump of 5.76 meters. In addition, he placed third behind Jaydin Blackwell and four-time Paralympic medalist Nick Mayhugh in the 100-meter and 400-meter T38 races.
“My 400 was my best, and I hadn’t trained for it,” he said.
Yet he qualified for that plus the 100 and long jump at the world championships. That expedition, 14 months post-“Survivor,” follows a more universal life-changing milestone.
One week after nationals, his son was born, capping Medrano’s second straight momentous May.
“I’ve been blessed beyond my compare,” he said.
Likewise, Lambert’s confidence in her Fiji discovery grows beyond enumeration.
“He has so much left in the tank,” she said. “I know he’s going to represent Team USA…bring back some medals for his new baby boy.”
Al Daniel is a freelance features writer and contributor to USParaTrackAndField.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc. You can follow him on Twitter @WriterAlDaniel.