They were known throughout Wyoming as the Rider twins. Inseparable, indivisible, indomitable. Nichole and Jennifer, Nicki and Jen, identical but never interchangeable.
They herded cattle on the family’s ranch, then raced to the barn on horseback. In winter, cross-country ski outings turned into competitions, as did water skiing in the summer. They awoke at 5:30 a.m. to jump rope, do pushups and go for a three-mile run — and the last one back to the log cabin they helped their father build would be sure to win the next morning.
During track season, the townspeople of Douglas, Wyoming, could set their clocks by the sight of Jennifer handing the baton to Nichole for the anchor leg; they broke a state record in the two-mile relay in a spring snowstorm.
During basketball season, when winds sweeping down from the Laramie Peak foothills plunged temperatures to 30 below, everyone went to the Douglas High gym, where they could count on the Rider twins to lead the Bearcats to the state tournament. They were like a team unto themselves, Jennifer at point guard zipping telepathic passes to Nichole streaking down the left side. Opponents’ scorekeepers who couldn’t tell the girls apart occasionally credited Jennifer for baskets by Nichole, and vice versa.
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They were always together, intertwined like strands of DNA.
Until Nov. 25, 1995, when Nichole broke her neck in an auto accident. She was in the passenger seat when her boyfriend fell asleep at the wheel. She yelled, “Hit the brakes!” before the Ford pickup flipped one and a half times. It took 2 1/2 hours for paramedics to extract her as she hung suspended by a seatbelt, her neck bent at a gruesome angle toward her left shoulder.
Jennifer, guard for the University of Wyoming Cowgirls, was at a game in Montana when she and Nichole’s teammates were told Nichole was in critical condition and paralyzed from the neck down. The Rider twins would never play basketball together again.
But, for the first time in 20 years, for the first time since their athletic partnership was severed, the 41-year-old sisters will compete together again. In Sunday’s Miami Half Marathon, Jennifer will push Nichole in a jogger chair for 13.1 miles to the downtown finish line.
Jennifer is taking a long weekend away from her job tending 1,100 cattle on a ranch in McFadden, Wyoming, to reunite with Nichole, who lives in Delray Beach and works for a medical billing business. They’ll be joined by Wyoming friend Janeen Jones, who trains with Jennifer.
Nichole could probably do the half marathon solo in her handcycle. She’s an extremely fit sailor, kayaker and table tennis player. Initially given a 5 percent chance of walking again, she recovered enough movement in her legs and arms to learn to walk with two canes, although she uses a wheelchair to get around more efficiently. They are racing together to raise awareness of the Thumbs-Up International foundation of Miamian Kerry Gruson, a disabled athlete whom Nichole met while sailing with Magnus Liljedahl’s Team Paradise in Coconut Grove. Gruson seeks to pair able-bodied and adaptive athletes in swimming, biking and running events.
Sunday’s race won’t be like the glory days, when Nichole was usually faster. But it will be like always, one twin motivating the other to go, go, go.
“She always thought I was better than her, and I always thought she was better than me,” Nichole said. “That’s the gift of being a twin — you want the best for your sibling. You share without a second thought because you shared a womb.”
When asked to compare their athletic accomplishments, Jennifer says Nichole was superior, even though Jennifer had a more distinguished college career. Academically, the straight-A students were neck-and-neck.
“You want more for your twin than for yourself,” Jennifer said. “I just thought that was normal.”
Their selfless duality was instinctive. When Nichole chose jersey No. 32 and Jennifer chose No. 23, it never occurred to them that it was a cute gimmick.
“I liked Magic Johnson, she liked Michael Jordan,” Nichole said.
They and their younger brother were raised by tough-minded parents in a tough landscape. John and Paula Rider published the Douglas Budget for the town of 4,000, and the girls were expected to stuff newspapers. They earned money from their Twin Power Lawn Service in the summer. They took care of the dogs that accompanied their father on duck hunts. Their mother, a former rodeo champion, taught them how to wrestle cows when it was branding time.
Their grandfather, George Carmin, took the girls out to mend fences as his multiple sclerosis worsened. An ex-athlete and coach, he taught them how to play basketball on a gravel driveway and how to hit golf balls toward the mountains on moonlit nights.
“We grew up on an 8,000-acre playground,” Nichole said, laughing at the memory of a fort they built in a cottonwood tree over the creek that flowed through the ranch.
The will of the twins was as strong as their muscles.
“They challenged and critiqued each other, and one would storm into the house mad, slamming the door, and within an hour they were best friends again,” former teammate Casey Wegenke said. “I hated when they guarded me because they were so tenacious and physically sturdy. While the rest of us were working out in the gym they were hauling hay bales and feed bags.”
Wegenke was with Jennifer when they got the news of Nichole’s accident. Nichole was sidelined from basketball while she recovered from two concussions and had been shopping in Fort Collins, Colorado, before she and her boyfriend — who was not injured in the crash — started the drive back to Laramie on notoriously dangerous Highway 287.
Jennifer wept all night but stopped by the time she and Wegenke arrived at the hospital. The twins’ mother had a family rule: No crying.
“I wanted to be her rock,” Jennifer said.
Once Nichole’s prognosis improved, she had surgery fusing her fourth, fifth and sixth cervical vertebrae with a hip graft and titanium plate. She was sent to the Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Denver for three months of therapy.
Jennifer finished the fall semester, then decided to leave the team and school to assist Nichole in Denver. She never played basketball again.
“Jen refused to look back,” Wegenke said. “Her love for the game dissolved when she realized her life had gone in a different direction and she needed to be with Nichole.”
At Craig’s third-floor spinal injury unit, the Rider twins strove toward a singular goal: to make Nichole independent. She had to re-learn how to bathe and feed herself first.
Jennifer, always the leader of the two, knew exactly how hard she could push Nichole through painful and frustrating rehab sessions. Nichole, always the comedian, knew how to make her sister laugh when Jennifer felt sad. It was like they were back on the court, sensing what the other needed to succeed.
“Nichole wore these hand braces and joked that she was Edward Scissorhands,” Wegenke said. “When they offered her an electric wheelchair, she said to give it to someone who needed it. She drew on her mental and physical strength as an athlete and that saved her.”
When Nichole came home and Jennifer returned to school to finish her degree, they were separated for the first time. It was a difficult period as their lives diverged.
“The accident eventually pulled us apart,” Nichole said. “I think it was harder on her than on me to look at a broken image of herself. She couldn’t make herself run for a full year because she felt survivor’s guilt.”
Jennifer married a rancher, had a son and sticks to the old regimen of 125 pushups per day. Nichole embraced sports as a disabled athlete. She couldn’t suppress a desire that had been tugging at her since age 18, when she wanted to go to college apart from her sister but her parents, fearing she’d get homesick, said no. Her desire was to split off by herself.
During a vacation in South Florida, Nichole decided to move here, where she could sail year-round, where her new thin body wouldn’t be battered by Wyoming’s winters at 7,200-foot altitude, where an identical twin could forge her own identity.
Turns out the mirror-image girls who spoke a private language as toddlers were meant to follow different roads, 2,000 miles apart.
“I’m from the Cowboy State, but I found home in the Sunshine State,” said Nichole, whose bright, bouncy personality seems suited to the climate.
Ultimately, dependency on a wheelchair is what gave her true independence. She believes her near-death experience was a rebirth.
“I’m actually thankful for my accident because it was like an awakening,” she said. “I have more self-confidence now than I ever had as an athlete. I discovered how to live in the moment instead of expending fruitless energy on worry. It’s like my life went from black and white to color.”
Nichole and Jennifer talk often, inhabit each other’s dreams. In the half marathon, Nichole will be the one telling Jennifer to push harder, as Jennifer told her sister 20 years ago when she was learning how to walk.
“I could be thinking, ‘Poor me, I wish I was running,’ but I’m just thinking how awesome it’s going to be,” Nichole said. “It’s a new challenge for the Rider twins.
“Give us a challenge, we find a way to win.”
Miami Marathon and Half Marathon
When/where: 6:15 a.m. start (6:05 for wheelchair) Sunday at AmericanAirlines Arena, 601 Biscayne Boulevard, Miami.
Who: 25,000 combined field.
Late registration: $175 marathon; $150 half at expo.
Health and Fitness Expo: noon to 7 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday at the Miami Beach Convention Center.
Noteworthy: Tropical 5K in Miami Beach is at 7:30 a.m. Saturday with Watson Island start and Nikki Beach finish (1 Washington Avenue) finish. Cost is $45 through race day.
For more information: Go to www.themiamimarathon.com