With one decision, Little Rock cyclist dropped the hammer on disability.
this is the story of a bicycle racer and the catastrophe that led him to a national championship and a new life.
In 2010, Jason Macom was playing bicycle polo on a concrete court at MacArthur Park in Little Rock when he broke his ankle.
“Destroyed it” is a more apt description. While going after the ball behind the net, he pinned his foot against the court wall at an odd angle, and his tibia, one of two bones in the lower leg, crashed through the peanut-shaped talus bone in his right ankle.
“It was one of those moments where I was like, ‘That’s no good,’” Macom recalls on a Friday afternoon in December at The Meteor cafe and bike shop in Little Rock during a break from training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo.
The 36-year-old Little Rock cyclist had been a professional BMX racer, a USA Cycling Race Category 2 road racer and had begun racing on the track. Wrecks and injuries were part of the territory.
“They all know me in radiology,” he says with a smile. “I’ve survived a lot of crashes and accidents, and I’ve been to the hospital a bunch of times. I thought, ‘OK. I’ll wear a walking cast and I’ll be fine in three months.’”
It would actually be much longer before he was fine.
Macom spent his first 16 years in Vinita, Okla., and has two younger sisters and a brother. In junior high, he pedaled a 12-mile route every day after school delivering the Vinita Daily Journal.
“That was my first pro bike-riding gig,” he says with chuckle. “I got a lot of fitness, and I loved riding my bike.”
His parents had been divorced
for as long as he could remember, and when he was 16 he moved to Little Rock to be with his father. A bass-playing fan of punk rock and ska, Macom also was looking for friends.
“Little Rock is a big town, and I thought I could maybe meet other people that were more like me. In a small town in northeast Oklahoma, a lot of people are into football and basketball. If you’re not into that you’re in this other little bucket of people, and it’s not a very diverse bucket.”
He attended Little Rock Central High School and played in a band. After graduation, he attended barber college and rode his BMX bike. He married his wife, Alisha, when she was 19 and he was 20. Alisha, who works for GenWealth Financial Advisors, bought him his first fullface helmet when he started racing BMX.
“She was like, ‘You’re gonna kill yourself,’” Macom says.
In 2004 he turned professional, but a gnarly crash and the resulting concussion, along with the impending birth of their daughter, Cadence, gave him second thoughts about a career in BMX.
To scratch his bike-racing itch, Macom turned to the road with a plan to eventually race on the track. He’d been seduced by track racing as a youngster in Oklahoma, pretending that the cul-de-sac he lived on was his own velodrome and speeding around it on his bike.
Track racing also fit with his BMX background. Both disciplines reward fast-twitch strength and power.
He was working for Orbea, the Spanish bike maker whose U.S. headquarters are in North Little Rock.
Starting as a Cat. 5, the lowest level of amateur road racing, Macom progressed to Cat. 2 in just two years and was a member of the Fort Smith-based Mercy Health Systems team. Through some of his teammates, he started visiting an indoor track called the Superdrome in Dallas in 2006.
Of course, the tracks are completely different from road racing. An indoor velodrome is generally 850- to over 1,600-feet long, and its banked turns can hit 45 degrees. A rider needs to reach at least 18 mph just to stay upright, Macom says. Speeds of 40 mph or more are common in racing.
Track racers also use brakeless, single-speed bikes built for no other purpose than to go as fast as the person pedaling can make them go.
For three years, Macom trained and traveled to track races — Arkansas has no velodromes. There were a few crashes and no huge results to speak of, but he was having fun.
Then came the friendly bike polo match — such an innocuous thing — and his obliterated ankle.
With the threat of vascular necrosis — a loss of blood supply to the bone — doctors wanted to fuse the bones in Macom’s ankle to prevent them from becoming necrotic, but Macom wasn’t too thrilled with the prospects. Fusing the bones would limit the movement of his foot.
“It basically just becomes a foot on the end of your leg that doesn’t work,” he says.
He went through several surgeries, including a lastditch, sub-talar fusion that failed because his bone was collapsing from the inside. Through it all, he remained in constant pain, walking with a limp and gaining weight. At one point, he carried 275 pounds on his 5-foot, 6-inch frame.
“It was the hardest time of my life,” says Macom, who now weighs 165 pounds. “I was drinking a lot, trying to self-anesthetize. I was in a lot of pain. But my family and support system was super, super good. Alisha told me I had to do something that was a real fix to move forward.”
Macom, who admits that asking for help doesn’t come easily to him, sought advice from his friend Jeff Glasbrenner, the Little Rock wheelchair basketball player, triathlete and climber who climbed Mount Everest in 2016. Glasbrenner lost his right leg below the knee in a farming accident when he was 8.
“He was living with pain, so I told him you need one of these,” Glasbrenner says, referring to a prosthetic leg.
Macom made a list of things he wanted to do that he couldn’t with his ankle in its bad state. They included “dancing with my wife, mowing the yard, getting groceries, play sports with my daughter.” Bike racing was also on the list.
Finally, while sitting on a stack of wood pallets at Orbea’s Maumelle warehouse in 2015, he called his doctor to request an amputation.
On the morning of the surgery, he says, “I was scared to death, but I was more excited about the future.”
How did he feel afterward? Did life with a belowthe-knee prosthetic become instantly better? Welllll …
“I contacted Jeff right away and said, ‘Dude, I’ve made a mistake and it’s your fault,’” he says.
Macom’s first prosthetic was a painful fit, and the cauterized nerve endings in his stump were the source of a world of hurt. It felt like crawling around in an attic and constantly hitting your shin on the edge of a board.
“When you first lose your leg, there’s a growing process,” Glasbrenner says. “It’s not easy and it’s not fun. The first go-around he didn’t have a very good prosthetic fit, and I told him that he needed to move on. It’s hard. It’s not like we can go to Walmart and get going. It takes a lot of work and a long time to develop that rapport with the prosthetist.”
Macom contacted prosthetist Francois Van Der Watt, who had worked with South African amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius, and who has a practice in Greenwood. “I drove to Fort Smith and we chatted for four hours,” Macom says. “I had a zillion questions, and he answered everything I had questions about. That was the start.”
A lifelong mechanic and tinkerer, Macom also tweaked his new artificial limb himself, using parts from Glasbrenner’s old prosthetics and pieces he made with help from area machine shops. To ride his bike, he did away with the foot at the end of a regular prosthetic and replaced it with parts of cycling shoes he cut up, attaching a cleat that he could then use to clip into a pedal.
His first ride, about five miles on Rebsamen Park Road with Alisha following in the car, “felt awesome. In the moment I was so wrapped up with what could I do to make it better. At the same time, I was out of my mind stoked to be past the whole ‘I made a mistake’ feeling.”
His first race as an amputee was in February 2016 in Los Angeles, where he clocked a 5:41 in the 4K pursuit. That summer, he barely missed making the U.S. Paralympic track team.
In 2017, he qualified for world championships in Los Angeles and placed fourth in the kilo, a one kilometer allout sprint against the clock.
“I’m terrified of that race,” Macom says. “It hurts so bad. You hurt yourself really bad to do that race properly.”
After he tried a new coach and training regimen, his results faded in early 2018. He reached out to Sarah Hammer, the multiple Olympic track cycling medalist and U.S. Paralympics Cycling head coach, to see if there was a place for him at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.
There was, she said, and he moved in Oct. 1, training seven days a week in the gym and on the bike.
He has help from sponsors like The Meteor, Felt Bicycles, The Big Dam Bridge Foundation, Dave Grundfest Co. and others, but the expenses mount up. And being away from Alisha and Cadence is difficult, he says. Missing them, though, keeps him from slacking off.
“I don’t take it lightly at all. It adds to the motivation, you know,” he says. “I’m 100 percent committed to every single effort, every meal, every recovery session, every bedtime, every bit of research or equipment change.”
His approach to racing has changed greatly since his able-bodied days, when he simply trained and hoped good results would follow.
“I’m much stronger mentally,” he says. “I’m a lot more determined and analytical. I started dissecting everything. You can do all the training in the world but if it’s not structured, it’s probably not going to matter.”
He used the same methodical approach on treatment to his ankle.
“I wanted to know what the doctors were saying, what they were talking about, and I wanted to push them.”
On Dec. 8, racing in the C4 division, he won his first Paralympics national championship in the individual pursuit in Los Angeles with a time of 4:54. The next day he won silver in the dreaded kilo and bronze in the massstart scratch race.
“It was a good weekend,” he says, smiling at the understatement.
He returned to Colorado earlier this month to prepare for the U.S. Open on Feb. 2 in Los Angeles, and hopefully a berth on the roster to represent the United States at the Para-Cycling Track World Championships in Apeldoorn, the Netherlands, in March. After that, Macom will have his eyes on other goals, including the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
Glasbrenner feels his friend will do fine.
“He has done a complete 180,” he says. “He’s come out of his shell and he’s being a mentor. He is realizing dreams that he thought were over long ago.”
An aerodynamic position is crucial in track racing.
Jason Macom is pictured with the prosthetic leg he wears when walking (left) and the customized one he uses when on the bike.
Little Rock’s Jason Macom works out on indoor rollers. Macom recently won a paracycling national championship in the pursuit track event.
Jason Macom shows off the gold medal he won Dec. 8 at the Paralympics Track Cycling National Championships in Los Angeles.