MacLaren’s ‘gift’: Persevering through paralysis

To bathe the inspirational Jim MacLaren entirely in sunlight would be to deny his journey out of the darkness.

If life was indeed fair to MacLaren, this Hollywood handsome Yale graduate, ex-defensive lineman and drama student, would have been sun-kissed literally on the silver screen, figuratively in Broadway lights.

But life, in the physical sense, has not been kind to MacLaren. At the age of 22 in 1986, while riding his motorcycle in New York City, he was struck by a bus, throwing him yards away onto the pavement headfirst, where he slid on his chest some 90 feet away, rupturing his lungs, spleen, liver, breaking all his ribs and causing the loss of his left leg below the knee.

Police chalked the outline of his body on the sidewalk, thinking him dead.

Nearly eight years later, while competing in the biking portion of the Orange County Performing Arts Triathlon in Mission Viejo, Calif., a traffic marshal waved a driver across an intersection to do a U-turn on a closed course.

“I heard people who I thought were cheering, but then I realized they were screaming,” said MacLaren of the people watching the accident unfold. “Everything happened in a split second, but I thought maybe if I pedal a click faster, the grill of this black van that I see to my left won’t hit me. Well, he hits me, and I go headfirst into a sign post. I wake up in the ambulance, and I know my legs don’t move and my arms are strapped in.”

He is later told by a doctor that he’s a complete C-5, C-6 quadriplegic and will never have feeling again from the chest down.

It is only with tortured logic that the tragedies of Jim MacLaren define him as a champion of the human spirit.

The tragedy is “a gift,” he has said — though one must be looking at the world from a unique perch to see it that way.

MacLaren, who will share the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs in Hollywood Wednesday night — along with dear friend, and fellow amputee Emmanuel Ofosu Yeboah of Ghana — has had to reinvent himself twice, first after the accident in New York, when he awoke from a week-long coma.

He has a first conscious recollection of looking down on the gurney, seeing his lower left missing and thinking in the abstract: “cool,” before falling back to sleep. But the next day, when the doctors and his parents and friends came to see him, “that’s when the machine called the mind starts going and fear sets in,” MacLaren said. “I’m thinking, OK, the bus wrecked my jaw. Am I going to be able to be an actor? Is my speech going to be affected? Are women going to be attracted to me. I’ve got two-legged doctors telling me I’m going to be fine with a Prosthesis. How do I know that’s going to be true.”

Fear eventually turned to anger and peaked a year into the recovery process while he was a student at the Yale School of Drama.

“I lifted up my sheet one morning, looked down at my left leg and thought ‘Whoa, this is me for the rest of my life.’”

He left school on a bender, leaving behind responsibility and returning to reproach. But with the compassionate help of former department head Earl Gister, a victim of throat cancer, MacLaren began putting his life back in order, physically and emotionally. He started swimming for therapy and riding his bicycle to class.

“I figured maybe I’ll see how far I can go on my bike,” MacLaren said. “I know this sounds silly, but the whole thing about endurance sports that I didn’t understand as a team athlete is that when you bike 25 miles out, you have to bike 25 miles back. You don’t get to take a bus home. So I started pushing myself. And one day I walked into the Yale Co-op and picked up a book on triathlons.”

The book was written by a man whose aspirations of becoming an Olympic marathoner were dashed by a chronic ankle injury that could handle no more than 20 miles of roadwork per week. The author, Mark Sisson, subsequently outlined his training as a triathlete, involving swimming and cycling in addition to running.

“I thought, wait a minute, this guy’s like me, except I have an artificial leg,” MacLaren said. “So what I did is tons of biking and tons of swimming and then grit my way through a 16-20-mile run a week and get all bloody.

When I was an amputee training full time as a triathlete, I would feel guilty if I didn’t get up and do the 20-mile run I was supposed to do. I got to be a pro athlete against two legged guys. I was like a kid in a candy store.”

He was fast, he was an inspiration, and he graduated to marathons and the most grueling competition of all, the Ironman, which includes 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of biking and 26.2 miles of running.

He also discovered a spirituality through books of the mind and mythology which served him well — first in his role as a motivational speaker of increasing stature and demand, but even more so as a source of inner strength following his second brush with death.

He read books like Joseph Campbell’s “The Fire in the Mind,” and “A Passion of the Western Mind” by Richard Tarnus, who he later studied under while earning a second Masters/PhD in Mythological Studies and Depth Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute.

One almost gets the feeling from listening to MacLaren that the ill-fated events of June 1993 in Mission Viejo, Calif., were not entirely at fate’s beck and call.

He remembers sitting on the porch of his home in Boulder, Colo., the day before the Orange County Triathlon, reading a book on spirituality and looking out at the picturesque Colorado Flatirons, huge rock formations in Rocky Mountain National Park.

“That’s when I had an epiphany,” MacLaren, 42, said. “I thought, it’s seven years later and I’ve reinvented my life. I’m using my philosophies in my motivational speaking. I’m the fastest man in the world on one leg and I’m only competing against able-bodied athletes. And I started crying.

“My training partner came out on the porch and asked, ‘What’s the matter?’ I said nothing’s the matter. I said something amazing is about to happen to me. I can just feel it.”
Eighteen hours later, he was in California being announced with all the top pros in the event and ESPN cameras following him for a story. He got out of the water, hopped onto his bike, and the next thing he knew, he was in the hospital with his hand being held by a doctor.

“I remember feeling … and I’m tearing up now as I talk about it … that if the guy didn’t let go of my hand, everything would be OK. I know that sounds childish, but I that’s what I was feeling.”

He woke up from surgery with a screw in the back of his head and a weight dangling to the floor so his head wouldn’t move. He was then put into what he calls “a medieval halo” to keep him perfectly still. No longer was anyone holding his hand and all of the old fears, coupled with the new ones, ever more intense, were coursing through his mind over the next days and weeks.

“I felt like I lost my personality,” MacLaren said. “I didn’t feel like I had a soul any more. I just felt like a body that they’re putting hands on and tubes in. I was afraid of the guy who came in every other weekend to shave my face with a single-edged razor. I was scared to death of him. I was afraid to cry because I couldn’t wipe my own tears and I might drown in them.”

MacLaren, an inspiration to so many disabled athletes around the world, needed to summon every ounce of strength in his core. He was moved to Craig Hospital, a renowned facility specializing in the treatment of spinal cord injury in Englewood, Colo., where he made what might seem like infinitesimal progress to an outsider, but to MacLaren and the medical community, it was nothing short of remarkable.

A leg moved perceptibly; not functionally, but enough to exercise. He got a little sensation back in his hip. A finger moved. Of course, in MacLaren’s world, every positive step from paralysis, every new sensation, brought new, undiscovered physical pain.

“I would get exhausted just by moving my finger an inch,” MacLaren said. “But if I paced myself, I could show it off to maybe three people in a day.”

Aided by massage/rehab therapist Scott Hibbs, who became MacLaren’s close friend and now personal assistant, the two spent countless hours in search of miniscule/momentous advances.

Within a year, he was out of Craig Hospital and back at home, proud of his independence and growing more sure of himself by the day.

And much like the first anniversary of his injury in New York, when he temporarily lost his way, this time the inner demons returned two years after his paralysis in California.

“It was two years of me getting better, being back in town, going out with my friends,” MacLaren said. “And suddenly things started moving, and I can get my own suppository in my butt in the morning to go to the bathroom. Man, I’m getting independent, I thought.

“At that point, I’m in all this pain, and I never used drugs before. But I tried (cocaine) and thought, ‘Whoa, pretty amazing stuff.’ I can still do speeches and I have no pain. But, of course, that stuff is like money, you just want more and more. I moved back to Hawaii and had everyone convinced I was going to write my life story and be independent. But basically I had an eight-month blackout period.”

His body eventually shut down with a septic bladder infection. His arms swelled. He was an addict in desperate need of help when his call went out to Hibbs in Colorado.

Come get me.

“I was afraid at the time that something tragic was going to happen,” Hibbs said. “To me that would be the ultimate tragedy. But that’s part of Jim. When you’re at your darkest point, you can still go within and accept the challenge and deal with the situation. Sometimes it gets pretty dark, as it did for Jim at the time. But he did not shy away from the challenge, at all.”

But MacLaren’s own personal bout with the devil wasn’t quite finished. Because he had not used cocaine in about 10 days, it never showed up in the blood tests in the Boulder hospital and he was back to being Jim MacLaren, everyone’s inspiration.

“I’ve got everybody fooled still, and I’m thinking that I’m going home and going to really dig my life,” MacLaren said.

Fortunately an astute social worker, whom MacLaren ditched on his first appointment, caught up with him and intuitively asked, “OK, what’s going on?”

MacLaren told her everything, and the next day he was on a flight to a rehab center in Tucson, Ariz.,

“I’ll tell you right now what happened,” MacLaren said. “I chose life and to engage people and to keep trying to find new levels of integrity within myself. My body was in such bad shape from not taking care of everything from catheters to just normal stuff … my body is what made me face the fact that, dude, you’ve got to make a choice here.”

He still lives in pain on a daily basis and says that not a day goes where the pain isn’t more intense than the previous day.

But as he told an audience at the Idea Health and Fitness convention in San Diego last year, “Yeah, this is incredibly unfair. So what? I mean, two accidents are incredibly unfair. So what? I still have to get up every morning.”

He gets out of bed, and in a word he likes to use, “engages.” Whether it’s the simple (for able-bodied people) acts of going to the bathroom, exercising, pulling himself into a standing position, talking on a phone or conducting business as a driving force for the Challenged Athlete Foundation or as a motivational speaker, he does what he needs to do — what he must do — for the physical, mental and spiritual health of Jim MacLaren.

“Look,” said MacLaren in a 2003 Newsletter for Wellness, “I have honestly come to believe that I needed these accidents in my life. Not in terms of paying dues or getting punished by God, but in terms of getting my attention and bringing me deeper inside myself to a place where I could find honesty and peace. Was it destined? Did I literally choose to have these awful things happen to me? No, not in so many words. But I do believe this — I believe I was born begging for experiences that would show me who I really am. And that’s what I’ve been given.”

And he’s turned that into giving.

Dave Solomon, the Register sports columnist

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