It is with great sadness that I report the death of my friend, Jim MacLaren. Jim died in his sleep on Tuesday, August 31, 2010, at the age of forty-seven. Rendered a quadriplegic after two terrible vehicular accidents, Jim went on to inspire countless people with his upbeat attitude in the face of unimaginable adversity.
Just five weeks ago, Jim gave me a call to tell me he was finally feeling better after three grueling years of bladder infections that sent him to the hospital time and time again. Click here to read that post and hear a four-minute audio update from Jim.
I had interviewed Jim for my book, Sixty Seconds: One Moment Changes Everything, after hearing him interviewed on Jim Rome‘s sports-talk radio and TV shows. In the course of working with him on his story, we became friends. I visited him at his home in Santa Fe two years ago and was hoping to someday fly out to Pennsylvania to see him again. Jim had moved there last fall to be closer to his sister, Jennifer, and her family.
If you’re unfamiliar with Jim, here is his bio from my book:
MacLaren, a motivational speaker and author, has triumphed over two horrific accidents that would have destroyed a lesser man. At twenty-two, he was a Yale All-American athlete and aspiring actor when his motorcycle was broadsided by a New York City bus. Dead on arrival, he woke up after an eight-day coma to find his left leg amputated below the knee. Inspired by a book about triathlons, he became the fastest one-legged endurance athlete on the planet, routinely finishing ahead of most able-bodied athletes. Eight years later, a van plowed into him during a race, rendering him a quadriplegic.
Above is a ten-minute video narrated by Kiefer Sutherland that introduced Jim at the 2005 ESPY Awards, where he was presented an award by Oprah Winfrey.
Jim’s second accident inspired the formation of the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF).
As the San Diego Triathlon Challenge website states:
Bob Babbitt, Jeffrey Essakow and Rick Kozlowski, three of [Jim’s] many friends from the sport of triathlon, created a triathlon in San Diego after the accident to buy Jim a vehicle that he could drive with his hands. The goal was to raise $25,000 and they ended up raising $48,000 through the first ever San Diego Triathlon Challenge. “At that event,” remembers Babbitt, “a number of other amputee athletes came up to us to thank us for what we did for Jim, but to also let us know that there were so many other athletes out there that needed help. Insurance would cover a walking leg, but anything having to do with sport was considered a luxury item.”
From Jim’s second tragedy, the Challenged Athletes Foundation was born and in the 17 years since, CAF has raised over $28 million to help disabled athletes stay in the game of life by providing grants to help purchase the equipment they need to stay in the game of life through sport.
“CAF is Jimmy’s legacy,” continues Babbitt. “I’m proud to say that, through the athletes that we help every day, his impact will live on forever.”
In honor of Jim, I am reprinting his entire story from my book to give you the opportunity to see the man he was. His courage was indomitable and his spirit was unconquerable. God bless you, Jim. You are finally free to once again run like the wind.
I was having an early-morning cup of coffee on Saturday, June 5, 1993, the day before a major triathlon in Mission Viejo, California. I was sitting on my girlfriend’s porch in Boulder, Colorado, reflecting on a pretty heady book I was reading, The Secret Doctrine by H.P. Blavatsky. Although I was up on a porch, covered by trees, I could hear families walking to breakfast with their children on the street below. It was such a beautiful, pristine summer day. I was gazing at the trees and the huge rock faces in the distance and looking back over the eight years since I had lost my leg. I remember thinking, Wow, I’ve really reinvented myself. I’m a professional triathlete. ESPN is following me in the race tomorrow, and I’m traveling around the world racing and doing motivational talks. And it hit me. I thought, Wow, I’m back in it. I’m back in life.
Out of nowhere, I started crying. My girlfriend and training partner came out on the porch with a cup of coffee, saw me crying, and asked, “What’s the matter?” I smiled through tears and said, “Nothing is the matter. I’m crying because I’m happy. Something amazing is about to happen to me. I can just feel it.”
Fast forward eighteen hours later. I wake up early, get to the race and again, I’m feeling wonderful because I’m being announced along with the top pros. The race starts. I finish the mile swim and hop on my bike. A couple miles into the bike ride on a closed course, I’m stretched out on my aerodynamic handlebars, just flying. I assumed the people watching were applauding until I realized they were screaming. I look over to my left, and coming right at me is the grill of a black van. I learned later that a traffic marshal had misjudged my speed approaching the intersection and had directed the van to cross the street.
Life in these moments really slows down. I remember thinking, Okay, if I pedal one click faster, I can beat this guy across the intersection. The last thing I remember hearing is people screaming and the driver hitting his accelerator instead of his brakes. He struck my back wheel, I was thrown from my bike, flew headfirst into a signpost, and broke my neck.
None of that I remember. I woke up in the ambulance, still in race mode, feeling the adrenaline. I was in the same state of mind I had been in eight years earlier. When I first woke up after getting hit by that bus and saw that my left leg was missing, I thought, Oh, okay, cool, your left leg’s gone. And I went back to sleep. When I woke up the day after that, that’s when my ego and brain started freaking out.
So when I came to in the ambulance, I knew right away that my legs didn’t work. But I remember thinking, Oh, maybe I’m just a paraplegic. Maybe I’ll be able to wheelchair race. And I could go beat Jim Knaub (who held all the wheelchair marathon records). Then I blacked out again.
The next thing I know, I’m in the hospital, outside the OR. A doctor is holding my hand. He tells me straight, “Look, you’re a C5-C6 quad, which means that you broke your neck right up around your ears, and you’re never going to move or feel again from the chest down for the rest of your life.” At that moment, there was some aspect of me that felt that if he never let go of my hand, that I’d be okay. But, of course, he had to let go because they wheeled me into the OR. That was the start of multiple surgeries and months of being in the ICU. Basically, the inferno had begun. It was hell. When a buddy from Yale came to see me, I rolled over, looked at him and said, “I don’t know if I can do this again.” Because I didn’t.
As I look back—it’s been fourteen years now—there aren’t a lot of days where I feel great physically. There are a lot of things that I’ve lost—my fiancée, much of my independence, the use of my left shoulder due to a failed rotator cuff surgery. But that’s life. I had a choice: I could lose myself to my body or learn to live beyond it. I found my strength by saying and believing that I am not my body. I am a man. I am alive, as alive as anybody who’s jamming a basketball or scoring a touchdown or hugging their child.
Even though both accidents were devastating at the time, I now view them as gifts and not tragedies. Granted, it might have been easier to say that eighteen months ago, because the last year and a half has been literally miserable. During trips to the hospital, I picked up mono, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and an antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which is a real trip. So I’ve been spending most every day getting up, going to the bathroom, and going back to bed. But even through those tough times, magic happens.
Even though I’m now considered an “incomplete quad” because I have full sensation and movement to varying degrees, I’m still in chronic pain 24/7. Mornings are the worst—I wake up and feel like wet cement plugged into the wall. If I were going to think, Okay, the rest of my day is going to go exactly how I feel right now, I’d never get up. But that’s not what I do. I start moving my legs a little bit, and my bed becomes an exercise mat. And when I’m up in my chair and sitting on the porch, it’s a hundred times better than the way I felt when I woke up.
I’ve learned to engage life on whatever level I can, whether it’s doing sit-ups in bed or calling friends during the three or four hours it takes for me to get ready in the morning. I’ve made a ritual out of it. Engaging life, feeling that life force surge through me, helps me recapture the sort of feeling I had in Boulder the day before that big race, that something amazing was going to happen to me. Well, something amazing did happen. Maybe not the way Merriam-Webster defines it, but yeah, something pretty amazing happened to me.
Granted, some days are harder than others. I was on an NPR radio show with my friend Bob Kerrey, the former U.S. senator from Nebraska who’s missing a leg. The radio host asked Bob if he considers the loss of his leg a gift, and Bob said, “Yeah, I believe it’s a gift, but some mornings it’s a gift I’d like to wake up without.” I feel the same way. There are times I don’t like the way my life went, but that doesn’t mean that I’m not in love with life.
So, yeah, even though the last eighteen months have been hell, I can still say, as objectively as possible, that I wouldn’t trade what happened to me. Having to admit to my own dependency and vulnerability actually made me more powerful. Why? It dawned on me that acknowledging your wounds and vulnerabilities, and becoming more conscious and knowledgeable about yourself actually makes you a stronger person. I’ve learned how to let people in who really love me, and say, “I’m hurting and I’m human and I need some help.” If I can look at my life truthfully and accept everything that’s happened to me, then I can believe that I’m always going to be okay. What I believe in obviously works, and it’s in my soul, because otherwise I would’ve tried to step over my balcony.
People often tell me things like, “You have such a strong will” or “You have such an amazing attitude,” but there’s just never been a thought in me about, Boy, if I was just the way I used to be, I wouldn’t be going through all this BS. It’s always been, Okay, here’s a new challenge; let me figure it out, let me face it. For me, the journey has always been about going deeper and becoming more of a human being. And, you know what, just once in awhile being okay with the fact that it’s fricking hard. It’s just hard, and it’s not fair. And when I say that, I’m saying that for everybody in the world. Somehow we were brought up to believe that life is fair, and that if we’re good, then it’s all going to always be good. But stuff happens. Is it fair what’s happened to me? No, of course not. So what? I still have to get up in the morning. It’s not about overcoming adversity, it’s about living with adversity.
There’s a myth from Finland that embracing depth psychology, or probing your own depths, is like setting out across a thousand-mile tundra by yourself. It’s not easy. It doesn’t always mean that you get the girl or that you get to walk, but maybe it gives you peace.
Click here to view all my posts about Jim MacLaren.
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