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Hell On Wheels
William Nack
January 10, 2000
Former wheelchair racer TED ERNST will spend his life in jail because he traded the thrill of sport for the thrill of crime
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January 10, 2000

Hell On Wheels

Former wheelchair racer TED ERNST will spend his life in jail because he traded the thrill of sport for the thrill of crime

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Through it all he was the quintessential regular guy. "The nicest guy in the world," says his chief competitor and closest friend in racing, Nathan Pendell of Sabina, Ohio, whom Ernst visited for two weeks in 1995. "Really religious. He read the Bible every night. We went to the mall; we played Nintendo. He did the greatest card tricks. And we watched a lot of movies: Lethal Weapon and Beverly Hills Cop. He was into cop movies."

For years Ernst never put a wheel wrong. He fought to make his own way in the world. "After his accident Ted became totally independent of his father and me in one year," says his mother, Debby.

"Ted was more of a presence in a wheelchair than anyone who was standing on two good legs," says Marc Wilson, general manager of the International Newspaper Network (INN) in Bigfork, where Ernst went to work as a computer programmer after he finished high school, in 1996. He was everywhere around town, tipping back and spinning wheelies, giving slide shows and talks about his racing exploits to Elks and Shriners, and sensitizing classrooms of students to the difficulties of living in a chair. He never stopped. He was the president of the freshman and sophomore classes at school. He was the president of the 4-H club. He raised and trained a hog every year, always named Spot, for the Northwest Montana Fair in Kalispell. He was a regular at the annual Big Wheels Basketball Tournament at Flathead High to benefit the Special Friends Advocacy Program for the disabled.

"Watching Ted play basketball in a wheelchair was unbelievable," says Gay Moddrell of the Advocacy Program. "He'd go full-bore down the court and stop on a millimeter and turn and go the other way. Speed and control. An awesome athlete. He was always in control."

Never more so than when he was with Jesse, a learning-disabled child, slow in school, whose healthy legs had allowed him to serve his brother and thereby assuage the guilt he felt over Ted's accident. "I think I broke the limb that Ted stepped on when he broke his back," Jesse told his father. The two boys had always been inseparable—hiking the woods, fishing the lakes, climbing the trees—and Ted's paralysis only drew them closer.

"We would spend hours in the woods," says Ted, "blazing trails with little hatchets, me in my wheelchair. When I'd get stuck, he'd help me. If we were selling raffle tickets for school, we'd ride together and I'd hang on to his bicycle seat. We were best buds. We even told each other that 'we're like connected, man!' Jesse was my biggest therapist. That kid helped me through the most difficult time in my life."

Never were they more of a team than in 1997, when the inviolate geometry of Ted's world—as circumscribed by home and religion, by training and racing, and by his Olympic dream—vanished as quietly as the hum of his wheels on Riverside Road. He had his job at INN, a company that put community newspapers on the Internet, and he was making money. He buried himself in his computer work, and his racing life went into a state of drift. "He was chilling instead of really getting down in training," Pendell says, "unsure of what he wanted to do."

Wilson recalls Ernst telling him that a doctor had recently advised that the stresses of full-bore training and racing were causing his body to age twice as fast as normal. Ernst was not only wincing over an aching back, but he was also suffering from a severe case of carpal tunnel syndrome, the result of pumping furiously on his racing wheels day after day and of spending increasingly long hours programming computers and fingering his way through the Internet.

His last race as a junior—the 400-meter final in Mesa that July—represented a kind of symbolic farewell to the sport. Before the race he suggested to Pendell that they do something everybody would remember. The boys had first met at the junior nationals in 1990, and they had been battling each other ever since. What Pendell remembers most vividly about Ernst is how willing he was to lead a race so that others could draft behind him. "He was always the first one to go to the front and make a draft," Pendell says. "If he saw anyone dying in a headwind, he would hammer up there and say, 'Get behind me!' "

So now they were about to hammer for the last time as juniors. "How about if we finish in a tie and shake hands at the finish?" Ernst said. It would be, Pendell agreed, a fitting end to their friendly rivalry.

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