Article and photos by Lindsay Calleran
YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y. — It’s early Friday morning in a packed spin class when the instructor, 21-year-old Ryan Dowd leaps onto a bike, sporting a giant henna tattoo of a diamond on his bicep. With a flick of his finger, Whitney Houston is screaming, “I’m Every Woman,” and they’re off.
“Are you ready? It’s only a bike!” he yells to men and women of all ages. “Fight it!”
Here, it’s only a bike. For Dowd, the real fight came 11 years ago when he was diagnosed with chronic renal failure, the final stage of kidney disease. Only a successful transplant could save his life.
His parents had taken him for a blood test after they noticed a tic in his eye. The next morning a doctor called with the shocking results. Dowd was only 10 years old. “I thought it was a huge misunderstanding,” he says. Doctors spent the next year and a half preparing his body for a transplant. After nearly a dozen surgical procedures, and 50 to 60 pills a day, Dowd learned his own mother was a perfect match.
On Aug. 6, 2003, Ryan, 12, underwent a kidney transplant. Ten to 25 percent of patients reject the new organ within the first 60 days, but a year later Dowd was able to celebrate his first anniversary with a slice of a kidney-shaped cake.
These days, it’s hard to imagine any of that as the music in the studio at Club Fit in Yorktown Heights, in Westchester County, transitions into Ricky Martin’s “Here We Go.” Dowd sings along. Long-time member Debbie Santavicca says she loves his style. “He gives you the most energy,” she says. “Others are very systematic. His classes are fun, good vibes. He’s different.”
“Different” is a word Dowd is used to. After the transplant, he returned to middle school feeling he had little in common with classmates. Those who had sent get-well cards now felt like strangers. “I didn’t speak to anyone,” he says. “I kept very much to myself. I had no friends.” Seeking comfort, Dowd relied on what he calls, “food escapism,” leading to rapid weight gain.
“The steroids change your body,” he says, “but they don’t make you gain a hundred pounds like I did.” A “healthy” snack for Ryan was a bag of romaine lettuce, a bottle of dressing, a box of croutons and a block of mozzarella cheese.
Suddenly Dowd at 15 years old weighed 225. He didn’t even notice until he saw a photograph of himself with his taller, slender brother. Wearing matching shirts, Ryan assumed they looked like twins – but the photo revealed a harsh truth. “I was gargantuan,” he says, “I didn’t know I looked like that. I just started bawling.”
Ryan desperately wanted to lose weight. He’d look at physically fit peers for inspiration. “That’d be good. I want that,'” he recalls saying — and he was determined to get there, but only by using shortcuts. “I’d run five or six miles a day and only eat something in the morning to sustain me.”
At 18, Dowd confidently left for college 50 pounds lighter but soon learned that looks weren’t enough. Having spent his pubescent years either in a hospital bed or in front of a mirror, Dowd had never developed a strong sense of self and quickly fell into a daily routine of trying to fit in. “It was ‘Groundhog Day,'” he says. “I wanted something to make sense,” but it never did.
After two semesters, Dowd bought a one-way ticket home. “I went to school rosy-cheeked,” he says. “I left chain-smoking, rail thin. Everyone said, ‘you look great now.'” But the result of Dowd’s over-exercising and under-eating while at school impressed everyone but himself. He was fixed on finding an identity based on positives — something that at 19 years old, he had still never known.
He began with a job as a receptionist at Club Fit. There, he was surrounded by instructors, trainers – and spin class. “I had taken it once when I was 225 pounds,” he says of indoor cycling. “I sat on the bike, approximately 16 seconds later I got off, got a tuna salad from the café and went home. I hated it.” But his first class as an adult was thrilling. Dowd left with the first clear vision he’d ever had: He wanted to be an instructor.
Dowd committed to taking two spinning classes a day, in addition to training by himself. Donna Berta, general manager of Club Fit and former spin instructor, said, “I remember him practicing. You’d look and he’d have his iPod in. He was serious about it.” Dowd soon received certification from an independent cycling center and applied for the position.
His timing was good. A long-time favorite spinning instructor resigned to pursue his own business, leaving behind a following desperately looking for someone to take his place. Very few believed that person was Ryan Dowd.
A 10-year club member, Paul Lonce, says he scoffed when he first heard that Dowd was being considered. “He had big shoes to fill, you know?” Lonce says. “I was saying, ‘him?'” But the gym was willing to give Dowd a shot — or at least an evaluation class.
The soundtrack? “Love Lockdown,” by Kanye West. The thumping hip-hop music may have been loud, but it was Dowd who commanded the attention that day. “It was amazing,” Berta said. “We felt he was strong enough to take over the class, even with the lack of experience. He can do it.”
Eighteen months later, Dowd’s class is filled with men and women, 17 to 70s, with a line outside the door, everyone looking up at Ryan, waiting for direction, encouragement and a chance to leave that class feeling like they worked hard for themselves.
Lonce voluntarily eats his own words. The man who once asked, “That kid?” now tries to catch his breath after class. “All you know when you get in there on that bike,” he says, “is that you’re gonna get the snot kicked out of you!”
Dowd is no longer the bed-ridden child, the insecure teen or the college freshman with a broken spirit, but he will always be a transplant recipient, awaiting the day when he’ll need another organ donation. “There’s no reason why I should be able to do this,” Dowd says.” “I can control my actions, but I’ll never be able to control how long my kidney keeps functioning.”
According to the National Kidney Federation, the average life span for a donated kidney from a living relative is 10 to 15 years. Dowd celebrated his ninth anniversary last Aug. 6, teaching three classes that day.
At first, his goal “was just to prove to myself that I could accomplish this dream, despite what I had been through, that I could break that cycle.” He stops, giggles for a moment.
“It’s true, I’ve broken three bikes in there.”