05/07/2013 02:58 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Tao of Cross Country

An old farmer's only horse runs away. His neighbors tell him they're sorry he's suffered "such bad luck." "We'll see," the farmer replies. The next day the horse returns -- along with three wild horses. "How wonderful," the neighbors say. "We'll see," the old man says. The following day, the farmer's son gets thrown trying to ride one of the wild horses and breaks his legs. The neighbors say they're sorry for his misfortune; the farmer says, "We'll see." A day later, a warlord arrives at the village to draft all able-bodied young men to go to war. Because the son is disabled, he is spared. The neighbors congratulate the farmer on his good fortune. "We'll see," he says. -- Taoist fable

Ryan Chalmers was born with spina bifida and has used a wheelchair all his life. He doesn't see this as "bad luck" -- he feels blessed with an athletic body that, with hard work, has helped him win a slew of sports competitions since age eight and propelled him to a spot on the U.S. team at the 2012 London Paralympics.

These days, Ryan, 24, can be found steering his racing chair somewhere between Los Angeles and Manhattan, the beginning and end points of his Push Across America, a 71-day cross-country odyssey sponsored by the non-profit group Stay-Focused.

Roger Muller founded and runs Stay-Focused, which helps young people with disabilities primarily by teaching them to SCUBA dive and experience the physical freedom and pleasure of gliding through the deep water. He was my best friend in junior high; the only kid in town who wasn't Jewish, had divorced parents and spent his early years in Switzerland cross-country skiing to school. I'm still not clear how he got home.

Roger, who has mentored and coached Ryan since they met at a track meet in 2005, has cross-country in his blood. His older brother Bobby was a champion high school cross-country runner who served as Roger's inspiration and, well, big brother.

When Bobby graduated the Vietnam War was raging, and most of his classmates opted for draft deferments, which permitted them to protest the war from the confines of college campuses. Bobby chose Marine combat and, six months in, was shot through the chest and nearly killed while riding on top of a tank, rendering him wheelchair-bound for life.

Wheelchair-bound but hardly inactive. After a prolonged, excruciating rehab, Bobby founded and ran Vietnam Veterans of America (VVA), which, with enormous financial, moral and musical support from Bruce Springsteen, became the most important vets' rights organization in the country. (In his spare time, Bobby co-founded the International Campaign to Ban Land Mines and shared in that group's 1997 Nobel Peace Prize.)

Bobby and Bruce became good friends. Says Bobby about Springsteen's scorching 1984 anti-Vietnam War anthem "Born In The U.S.A," "In the '80s ABC did a special feature on me. They interviewed Bruce and asked if I was 'the cool rockin' daddy' Bruce had in mind when he wrote the song. Bruce chuckled and said, 'Yep, that's right. He sure is.'"

Thanks to the Bobby-Roger-Ryan-Bruce connection, Sirius XM's E Street Radio channel asked Boss fans to suggest a theme song for Ryan's journey. As Bobby's song is "Born in The USA," Ryan's is "No Surrender." Ryan now calls in to the station every Friday morning with a progress report.

There's much to celebrate in the accomplishments and intertwining relationships of Ryan, Roger, Bobby and Bruce. But this no "triumph of the human spirit over adversity" fairy tale. Roger must compete with thousands of other worthy non-profits to keep Stay-Focused afloat; at 67, Bobby is in poor health after decades of pain and medical complications; and Ryan's long, strange trip sometimes seems like an endless advertisement for climate change starring fierce sandstorms, torrential rains, vicious winds, scorching deserts and freezing mountains.

How will it all turn out? We'll see.