Ryler Gould doesn't remember much about the day his life changed.
He was only 4, after all, and the memory of nearly losing his right foot in a horrific accident might be one he simply blocked out. Or, perhaps it's something that has just faded over time. The positive memories that have resulted from that life-altering moment, however, continue to pile up for the Newburgh Free Academy junior, the latest of which introduced him to a national audience.
Gould, now 17, captured the 400M hurdle championship at last month's Penn Relays, a victory that was stunning in and of itself. When you consider Gould's journey, though, the 52.55 seconds it took him to get around the track seem almost like an afterthought when compared to the road he traveled simply to get to Philadelphia. It's a tale of courage and determination that sets him apart from those against whom he competed.
Words like miraculous, extraordinary and wondrous have all been used to describe how Gould has flourished after getting his right foot caught in a lawn mower as a small child (left). Though surgery saved his foot, the ensuing lengthy recovery he endured coupled with the fact that his foot had not grown properly following the accident -- it began to curve and the toes were overlapping --left Gould in constant pain and in need of additional surgery.
Gould had to have reconstructive surgery when he was 11 to correct the issue and it was then that his doctors told him he might not walk again and if he did it would almost certainly be with a limp.
"I always had a strong passion for running," Gould said. "And when the doctors told me I might not walk again I decided if I can walk again, I'm going to run. It was a struggle to learn how to walk again and be normal again. I had to go through a lot.
"The [first] doctor told me that if I didn't have a sneaker on, if it had been a flip flop or no shoes my foot would have come off for sure. It was a crazy experience. My memory of it happening is very faint. After it all happened I just blacked out. After I had my surgery when I was 11, I remember all that."
Gould, who began running on NFA's varsity team as a seventh grader, didn't begin to walk normally again until he was in sixth grade. He then began to run and from there it was just a matter of time before he was participating in sports. He played basketball, baseball, football, soccer and, of course, ran track.
His passion for running was evident on each field of play, whether he was sprinting up and down the soccer field, running the bases with abandon while playing baseball or running with the football. Track, however, always provided him the most joy so when the opportunity arose to run, he didn't hesitate.
Gould also didn't wallow in self-pity, not after the accident and not after his second round of surgery.
"I see the surgery as a way to thank God because it was his will telling me to push stronger," Gould said. "It was a sign to stay strong and be focused. If I put my mind to it, I could do what I wanted to do. I just had to push harder and harder and that got me to where I am now.
"It wasn't just [physical] therapy, either. I had help from everyone. My coaches, my friends, my family. They all did their part. Without them, I don't know where I would be."
Where Gould is now is on the cusp of becoming one of the most dominant prep runners in New York if not the whole northeast. He set the state sophomore record [53:04] for the 400 hurdles last year in the state championships and has his sights set on setting the mark for juniors this year. Next year, well, he wants to establish a new overall state mark as well. The current junior record is 51.5, set by Northport's Brian Conolly in 1981 while Mount Vernon's Rai Benjamin holds the state standard [49.97 in 2015].
"I think he's already in that [elite] class," said NFA coach Malcolm Burks said. "He's a true junior and he's running times that a lot of seniors have run. I'll say I'm not surprised [about Penn] but anything can happen in the 400 hurdles. If you miscalculate one hurdle, you are a step behind. The week before, though, he ran in the New York Relays and won in 53:44 in not so good weather.
"I knew he was ready to drop to 52. I thought it might be enough to happen at Penn. You have to have a plan and you have to have a long-range plan. It's not something that happens overnight. That time he ran at Penn started last year and led up to where we are today and where we should be by the end of the season. We're looking at 49 his senior year and chasing the state record." Benjamin, now running professional, recently ran the second fastest time ever attained in the event, at 47.02, and will be chasing the World Record this Summer.
Gould wants to keep running in college while he's possibly studying graphic design. He doesn't know where that will be just yet but it's likely he will have a bevy of schools from which to choose. For now, he says he just wants to stay focused on the tasks at hand -- continue to do well academically [he's an A student] and continue to run well.
And in the process, continue to move away from one bad memory as he creates a whole host of good ones.