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A Tailgate Party Led Country Music Star Ryan Kinder to Ironman

"Like anyone that wants it badly enough, you don't find the time, you make the time,” he said of training while on tour.

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During Tennessee Titans football games, the cheerleading squad divides itself into four “line groups,” or formations that entertain fans at various corners of the field. In the parking lot, however, is “Line Five,” the nickname for the husbands and boyfriends who tailgate outside the stadium after dropping their significant others off at work. It was there that country music star Ryan Kinder met U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Kyle Wagley, sparking a friendship that would change the trajectory of his life.

“In [my wife] Heather’s first year of cheering, I came to the Line Five tailgate and Kyle was the first person to offer me a chair, a beer, and made me feel like part of the group,” recalls Kinder. “Those mornings tailgating with him and the guys are some wonderful memories.”

At those tailgate parties, Wagley often talked about his training for the Tour de Natchez Trace, a charity ride for cancer covering the 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway over four days from Mississippi to Nashville. Wagley completed the ride in 2016 after beating stomach cancer, and was training for a repeat when he learned the cancer had returned. Without thinking, Kinder offered to complete the ride in his stead.

“I had three months to prepare,” Kinder laughs. “I knew how to ride a bike, but I wasn’t an avid cyclist.” 

The cancer progressed quickly, and Wagley passed away before he could see his friend take on his first challenge as an endurance athlete. But Kinder was determined to follow through. While on this ride, he met another friend that would change his life—Wagley’s roommate during the 444, who was riding a strange kind of bike Kinder had never seen before.

“After talking to him for a while, since there’s a lot of time to talk on a ride that long, he told me it was a TT bike,” Kinder said. “He began telling me about Ironman, and how Kyle had talked about doing one someday. I vowed then and there to do as many as I could in Kyle’s honor, since he would never be able to finish one himself.”

Kinder grew up playing baseball and running track, but had never considered himself an athlete. The country music singer, songwriter, and guitarist had a busy recording and touring schedule—one that wasn’t exactly conducive to the hours of training required for an Ironman. But Kinder was determined.

“Like anyone that wants it badly enough, you don’t find the time, you make the time,” Kinder said. “I would guess most age-groupers have a full schedule during the week with their jobs, families, and everyday life. We all have the realization of ‘I am going to have to sacrifice some things to get to where I want to be with this endeavor.’ That sacrifice is different for everyone.”

For Kinder that meant waking up at 4:30 a.m. to get his workouts in, usually on a bike trainer on his tour bus. “That was and still is tough for me,” Kinder admits. “I’m not a morning person whatsoever.” He fit runs and swims in before gigs, and did tune-up races wherever he could. At Ironman Florida 2019, Kinder crossed the finish line on behalf of his friend.

Kinder will race for Wagley once more, this time at the Ironman World Championships in Kona. In addition to racing the rescheduled 2022 event on an Ironman Foundation Slot, Kinder’s charity will be hosting an initiative called Kahiau Together during race week. “Since the pandemic has hurt the island so much due to lack of tourism, we are going to help those in need,” Kinder said. The initiative will provide ready-made meals and grocery bundles to the most isolated and vulnerable keiki (youth) and kupuna (elderly) in the community.

For Kinder, there’s no better way to honor the friendship that changed his life. “Every finish line I’ve crossed, I have thought, ‘I wish Kyle could be here to do this with me,’” Kinder said. “He had an incredible work ethic, and was a beast of a cyclist.”