The spark behind Riekes Center

Serious football injury leads to a new way to inspire athletes, artists

By Barbara Wood

Special to the Almanac

The Riekes Center for Human Enhancement is a place of many contrasts, eclectic, busy, and full of surprises -- much like the man who founded it, Gary Riekes.

For starters, Mr. Riekes has always excelled at both music and athletics. By the age of 10 he was playing paying gigs in the Dixie Gaters, who played pop, ragtime and swing. Young Gary played the saxophone and clarinet, and sang. He played football and basketball in high school, and was a wide receiver at Stanford University, despite being only 5 feet 9 inches and weighing 140 pounds.

Growing up with a mother who was a professional violinist and a father who played college football, Mr. Riekes says he felt he had "every advantage possible and a tremendous amount of love."

Then he was injured playing football at Stanford. Although he was in pain, Mr. Riekes told his coaches he was not. That denial and an initial misdiagnosis worsened the injury. Unsuccessful surgeries followed, and Mr. Riekes' parents sent him to rehabilitate in a spinal cord injury unit.

He hated it so much, he convinced his fraternity brothers to break him out. Then Mr. Riekes, against everyone's advice, went to Canada for experimental surgery, which went badly wrong.

He spent most of the next decade in a fetal position or in a pool. "In water I was well," he says.

He stayed busy. Mr. Riekes began using his athletic knowledge to train friends from his bed, and he ran Soundpiper Music, which recorded children's music. Soon he was training professional athletes.

Young people got involved when some of the students packaging Soundpiper's recordings asked if he would train them. Instead Mr. Riekes taught them how to supervise themselves.

He ran both businesses from his home on Fernside Avenue in Woodside. "This program evolved around me," he says. While recovering from injury Mr. Riekes had athletes try music. Students looking to pay their tuition cared for his garden, the germ of the nature program. Then, former students returned after studying landscape architecture, film, and photography, and began to teach others.

"Most of the things they were doing were because I couldn't do it myself," Mr. Riekes says. "I felt I was helping them; they felt they were helping me."

When Mr. Riekes was finally back on his feet, he spent more than four years coaching in the World Football League, assisting Mouse Davis, who Mr. Riekes says invented the run-and-shoot offense.

Then former students began urging Mr. Riekes to move to bigger quarters. He sold his house and moved the business to unincorporated Menlo Park. Part of the original program is literally still there in the current Riekes Center on Edison Way. Students step through the Fernside home's relocated front door to get to the workout area. The center is meant, he says, to be "a place where everyone feels welcome and comfortable."

Mr. Riekes does public relations, curriculum design, and fundraising for the center. But he also spends 15 hours a week working with students. "I like coaching and teaching," he says. "I'm not willing to give that up."

The Riekes Center is located at 3455 Edison Way in unincorporated Menlo Park. Barbara Wood is a freelance writer, photographer and gardener from Woodside.

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