Jim MacLaren – at one time the world’s fastest amputee triathlete – passed away on August 31, 2010 at the age of 47. His life was short but amazingly impactful. The Challenged Athletes Foundation is Jimmy’s legacy. I‘m proud to say that, through the athletes we help every day, his impact will live on forever.
It was a summer day in 2005, I walked to the back of his rented home in La Jolla, California, and Jim MacLaren took me through his typical workout. I imagined that it is quite a bit different from what he did as a 300-pound football player at Yale before he was hit by a New York City bus in 1985, thrown 90 feet in the air and declared dead on arrival. He recovered from that accident, losing his leg below the knee and basically pulverizing his ribs and internal organs.
So what did MacLaren do? He didn’t hang out feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he became the Babe Ruth of amputee athletes, running a 3:16 marathon and finishing the Ironman in Hawaii in 10:42. That is, of course, with the level of prosthetic available in the late 1980s – which is like comparing that era’s Ford Pinto to a 2005 Ferrari.
Unbelievably, in June 1993, MacLaren was hit again, this time by a van during a triathlon in Orange County while on the bike. MacLaren was propelled headfirst into a pole and became a quadriplegic. The doctors told him he would never regain much in the way of motor function below the chest and that he would always need a support person with him to help with his daily activities,
The San Diego Triathlon Challenge was created in 1993 as a fund raiser specifically for MacLaren. The goal was to raise $25,000 to buy him a vehicle that he could drive with his hands so that he would have some semblance of independence. That first event raised $49,000. Since then, the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) – established in 1997 – has raised nearly $55 million dollars to help disabled athletes buy the equipment they need to stay in the game of life through sport.
“I wasn’t sure I could do it again,” MacLaren admits, thinking back to the dark days after his second accident. “I felt so lifeless at first. People had to lift and carry and push me in wheelchairs. I couldn’t really do anything on my own. But eventually my personality and humor came back. Is it fair that this happened to me again? Of course not, but life isn’t about being fair. It’s about moving on.”
With a little bit of help, he got out of his motorized chair and walked – yes, walked – along the sidewalk to his exercise room. Once there, MacLaren lowered himself onto a stationary recumbent bike, strapped his feet in and started pedaling – on his own. Next was another walking trip (again guided by his buddy and personal assistant, Scott) out the front of the house, down the driveway and then back up the driveway.
For MacLaren that day, the effort he put out climbing the driveway was equivalent to struggling up Heartbreak Hill in Boston or Pay ‘n Save Hill in Kona nine miles into the lronman marathon.
You could see the effort – and the joy – in his face. He was breathing hard as he crested the grade. He stopped momentarily and turned around to take in the view of what must seem to him like the summit of Mt. Everest. He looked at me and smiled, politely not mentioning the alligator tears that were streaming down both my cheeks.
Then he turned and headed to the backyard where he stood up out of his chair, towering over me at about six-feet, four-inches, and grasped two stretch cords to work his arms. From there, it was a short hike to the pool where he walked on his own in waist-deep water. One lap, two laps, three laps … I couldn’t believe what I witnessed. You’ll never move again from the chest down? Sorry, doc. You don’t really know Jim MacLaren, do you?
Here’s a guy who is a quadriplegic – who is also missing his lower leg, by the way – who was walking laps in a freezing cold pool while bemoaning the fact that his beloved hockey was on strike … like this was no big deal … like I just didn’t witness a medical miracle.
MacLaren has been challenged more than anyone we will ever know, but he continues to ignore the doctors who tell him that he can’t possibly do what I watched him do. Why? Because while MacLaren’s body may have been shattered twice, his spirit is unbreakable.
We honored Jim at our Competitor Magazine Endurance Sports Awards in February of 1994 just eight months after he was paralyzed and eight months before the first San Diego Triathlon Challenge that we created to raise money to buy Jimmy a van with hand controls to help give him back some of the independence he lost in his second accident. In this speech, Jim captures much of what was so special about him, including his magnetic personality and his unbreakable spirit. As Jim said that night: “Behind every tragedy is a gift.” We found this awesome piece of history on an old VHS tape. Enjoy!
Unbreakable Spirit appears in my book: Never a Bad Day