BUXTON, Maine — In the world of competitive sports, it's rare to see athletes sitting still, only moving their fingers. But swift fingers and honed mental concentration are exactly how competitors excel in one of the fastest-growing sports in the world.
Ryan Grieves is a fourth-grade teacher at Dyer Elementary School in South Portland. To break up the days she sometimes flies a mini-drone that fits in her palm around the classroom.
She tells her students about how drones are built, programmed, and flown. It comes quite naturally because it's Ryan's passion. Her students think her drones are "cool," but few, if any, realize that their teacher is a world-class drone racer.
After school most days you can find Ryan in the comfort of a lawn chair or on her couch with goggles on her face and her remote control in hand. She's practicing for the upcoming World Games in which she will compete with drone racers from across the world. Her drone can reach speeds upwards of 90 miles an hour as it races around an obstacle course set up in her backyard.
"Ryan Lessard is one of the finest pilots in the country and maybe around the world," David Roberts of Drone Sports Inc. said. Roberts has spearheaded the effort to get the sport of drone racing to the 2022 World Games in Birmingham, Alabama, where for the first time the competitive sport will be showcased. Thirty-two pilots from 24 different countries will compete and Ryan Lessard, along with Evan Turner, will represent the United States.
It's not only a chance for Ryan to show off the skills she's been working on for several years. It will also shine a light on the sport itself. The World Games features sports like parkour, paragliding, and sumo wrestling. Thirty-four of the sports at the World Games, which are held every four years, are not contested in the Olympics and each one is reviewed by the International Olympic Committee for consideration to be in the next Olympics.
While it's unlikely that drone racing will be featured in the Olympics anytime soon, Ryan is excited and nervous to compete. In this male-dominated sport, Ryan has stuck out as an emerging female that can rival many of her male counterparts, including her husband who also races.
"She's been faster than me for some time. I get close but sometimes when I get ahead of her in the middle of the race she makes sure to get ahead of me and beat me," Matthew Grieves said.
Ryan and her husband host races in New England and want to see the hobby and sport grow, especially among women.
"I loved to see more women fly. There are so few of us. I want to show them, young girls and women, that it's not just a sport for boys and men," Ryan said.
Ryan used to play video games and believes that may have helped her be a good drone pilot. She said flying is an adrenaline rush she simply can't get enough of. When her flights are grounded, often because batteries are dead or a crash has occurred, Ryan works to build and repair the drone. The type of drones that Ryan flies can't be bought in any store. She builds, repairs, and even programs them which takes a lot of time and money. Luckily for Ryan, drone sponsors send her free gear.
"We have a motto in drone racing: build, fly, crash, repeat," Ryan said.
Most people wouldn't be familiar with her pilot name, Mako Reactra, but its a name that in the world of competitive drone racing is now well-known.
For Ryan, the sport has opened doors she never dreamed about and she wants to share it with others.