ENNIS — Air Evac Lifeteam pilot Ryan Oppel of Ennis says he trains and competes to be a better person.

“I grew up around aviation and at 10 years old my dad made a deal with me. If I would mow the yards of the spec houses he built, he would take me to the airport and get me my first flying lesson,” Oppel said. “It didn’t take me but a second to agree to that deal.”

Oppel took that enthusiasm and got his pilot’s license in a plane when he was 17, but he didn’t stop there. He went on to become a helicopter pilot and flight instructor and then ventured on to achieve more as a triathlete, competing in bicycling, swimming and running events.

Oppel, who has been a pilot with Air Evac Lifeteam since 2006, said he had been a runner in high school but had always failed miserably at swim meets and team try- outs.

“I went to college out of high school and quit running,” he said. “Over time I realized that I wanted to feel better and have better stamina.”

Training for it all

“I was in my early 20s and felt much older and I didn’t need a doctor to tell me what I could see in the mirror, which was I needed to lose weight,” he said. “So I made the commitment and joined the local Y and got back to running and swimming. That was also when I got my dad’s old 10-speed bike out of the garage.

“Over time I got back to all three, lost weight and started feeling much better.”

Oppel told the story of one of the first times he rode the bike.

“I had decided to make this effort and thought the eight-mile ride to the gym, one way, would be good. Ride there, ride back and have a continuous workout. However, after about 15 minutes out on the ride, I turned around and beat myself up all the way. I couldn’t make it. I was angry and talking under my breath, ‘This is stupid! Why did I think I could do this?’ To this day my wife still laughs about it,” he said.

Now he is continuing to run, bike and swim and has participated in Sprint Triathlons.

“I joined the gym in August 2007 and did my first Sprint the following February,” Oppel said.

The Sprints are a shortened version of a triathlon like the Iron Man competitions, which is what most people are familiar with when talking about a triathlon.

“They usually start with a 200-meter swim, 15- to 20-mile bike ride and finish up with the 5K run,” he said. “Because the weather was cold, the swim was indoors at the end of the race, but when I got out, dried off and made the final sprint to the finish line, I realized I loved it.

“That’s when I really started looking to get involved. I started finding bike rides, races and activities I could enter. Some are just for fun and some are competitive, but either way I enjoy them,” he said.

Bike ride

Last year, Oppel and his uncle participated in a bike ride in Iowa that he said was best described as a “clean Woodstock on wheels.” The ride is called RAGBRAI, which is an acronym for Register’s Annual Great Bike Race Across Iowa.

“Some 30 years ago, some journalists from the Register in De Moines, Iowa, started this race and it has continued to grow and become a great social event for bikers in Iowa and across the globe,”

he said. “It’s a fun time and is a great boost for the small towns in Iowa too.

“Towns along the route have celebrations and line the streets with the high school band playing as riders come into their town,” he said. “It’s like a fair is coming to town and everyone wants to be there to greet them! It’s seven days across Iowa and a great local economy booster, not to mention a great bike ride.”

Run, Ryan, Run

One of the other events Oppel participates in is a Relay race held in Oregon, from Mt. Hood to the coast. It’s a 200-mile race and is usually completed in 20-30 hours.

“Last year was my first year to participate when my best friend from grade school decided to form a team and asked me to join. There are anywhere from eight-12 team members and each member runs five-10 miles and you end up on the coast. It’s a continuous race, so after almost 30 hours of one team member always running, others sleeping in the van and overall exhaustion, they have a nice party at the finish line. I’m excited to be participating again this year,” he said.

What’s it all mean?

“Well, it takes practice and persistence that’s for sure,” he said. “But the positives from biking, walking and overall exercise are more than just physical. I knew personally I was overweight and this was a great way to approach that issue. I was able to set small challenges for myself, each time trying more and more and was able to achieve them.

“When I started I couldn’t ride for 15 minutes without thinking I was going to pass out,” he said with a laugh. “When I started to graduate school and was back on a student’s budget, I was looking for ways to save my pennies and decided I could ride to class. It was about 30 miles each way, but it would take me two hours in the morning and then to return home, I would ride the Dallas trail system halfway home and then ride the rest.

“So I was saving money and also getting my daily exercise without really having to sacrifice anything,” he said. “I just had to learn to ride on the street, take the safety precautions and learn the route. After that it was a great plan.”

What’s it mean as a pilot?

As an EMS pilot, Oppel says it has benefitted him as well.

“Again, with the weight loss I just feel better,” he said. “But also working for Air Evac Lifeteam, who works to maintain a seven-minute response time from the moment the call comes in until we’re in the air, there’s not much to do on a 12-hour shift. After the paperwork is complete, there are only so many naps you can take, television you can watch and places to surf the web.”

With that in mind, Oppel takes his time and does laps around the tarmac at the airport.

“It’s about a fourth a mile so it’s like laps at a track. I also set my bike on a trainer, so the back wheel is off the ground and watch TV while I get my bike training in.”

He explained it is not only the physical fit feeling but the mental acuity he appreciates.

“Too many times with hours such as this at one location where you can’t leave, complacency will set in. Through exercise I’ve found ways to divert my time and make the transition to work mode easier,” he said.

“I’ve found that with exercise, I rest better and can make that 2 a.m. transition from sleep to flying much more easily and be better focused. I have a passion for EMS flying because I enjoy knowing I had a part in helping someone,” he said.

“EMS flying also forces a pilot to use all his experience and knowledge on every flight. Each flight and landing zone can be different. Every flight, even if you’re flying into a helipad you’re familiar with, can hold something new – new construction in the area, additional aircraft on the pad, lighting and wind changes. A pilot has to be 100 percent on for every flight and my physical activity helps me keep my mind sharper as well,” he said.

Since returning to Air Evac Lifeteam, Oppel says he appreciates the commitment to safety it continues to make.

“I believe safety has always been a priority for Air Evac Lifeteam and the addition of Night Vision Goggles is another step towards higher safety standards,” he said. “Overall my life and lifestyle have improved as I made exercising and healthy choices a priority.”

His wife of five years, Rachelle, is a registered dietician and works at Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas.

“She has been a big help, teaching me about what foods are healthy and the impact of non-healthy foods. Her expertise in this area has helped me learn why all those green and colorful vegetables are good for me and helped me learn to enjoy them,” Oppel said.

He and Rachelle live in Frisco, Texas, and he is a pilot with Air Evac Lifeteam in Ennis, Texas, which was established in July 2007 in cooperation with Ennis Regional Medical Center and East Texas Medical Center EMS. Air Evac Lifeteam is located at 3004 W. Ennis Ave.

Air Evac Lifeteam is a membership-supported air ambulance company that provides emergency care and rapid medical transport to rural communities throughout the central United States. The company operates 104 bases in 15 states and is accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems.

For more information about Air Evac Lifeteam and membership benefits, call 1-800-793-0100 or visit www.lifeteam.net.