Profile of a Paralympian: What does it take to make the team in 2012?

For this week’s post, I wanted to provide an up close look at what it takes to make the Canadian Paralympic Team in 2012. I’ve been conducting a series of interviews with AthletesFirst readers and (to my surprise!) I’m finding out that many readers actually don’t have a direct connection to Paralympic sport — they stumbled across the blog by chance and decided to stick around because they found the discussions interesting — I’m glad they did! Anyway, I thought people might enjoy reading about one athlete’s journey to make the team headed to London and Stuart has a particularly compelling story. I think it also highlights just how high the standards are for the Canadian team (just in case anyone still thought it was ‘easy’ to make the Paralympic team). If you have any questions for Stuart please post them in the comment section where everyone can read them and he’ll reply. Don’t be shy! If any athletes out there want to share their stories about training/qualifying for London we’d love to hear those as well!

More than two decades of training and it’s all coming down to a few fractions of a second for Stuart McGregor. The three-time veteran of the Canadian Paralympic team has a time of 1:58.66 in the 800m but he needs a 1:57.98 to guarantee his spot at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. That’s the ‘elite’ time standard set by Athletics Canada for the Men’s T13 event (athletes with a visual impairment)  and with only 14 spots for men up for grabs (and only 6 spots for women!)  athletes are going to need to make those elite standards if they want to wear the maple leaf. (See which athletes have made the elite standards here.)

Stuart back on the podium at the 2011 Canadian Track and Field Championships.

The good news? Stuart’s done it before  at the 2000 Paralympic Games he ran a 1:56.62 to win a bronze in the 800m and, in 2004, he repeated the feat with a time of 1:56.93. He also won a silver medal in the 1500m in 1996 and he holds the Canadian records in the 400m, 800m and 1500m. But all those feats were before he was hit by a car in 2005 and his leg was shattered. It’s been a long long road back to peak form.

Stuart was out for run with fellow Paralympian Jason Dunkerley (read Jason’s blog WinningTrack) when, as he describes it, “It went from a pretty nice day to a very bad day very quickly. It was freezing cold and pouring rain and we were just running and trying to get to some shelter.” The pair were crossing a road when a large SUV came around the corner and hit them hard enough to send both runners flying  and total the car! Both runners were injured but Stuart took the brunt of the hit and the car bumper shattered his leg in 12 or 13 spots.

That was the start of a pretty dark time for Stuart. This was the injury that just wouldn’t heal  it took a total of 5 surgeries (including one to put a metal rod into his leg and another to take that same rod out), months on medication delivered by an intravenous drip to combat a bone infection and nearly a year on crutches. It was pretty depressing for an athlete who typically runs 50 to 70 miles a week. Stuart was bored, frustrated and desperate for even the least bit of physical activity. Thinking back to that time he recalls a friend stopping by his house and finding him lifting weights with the IV still hooked up, “I was doing bicep curls and bench press because the only thing that would make me even start to feel better was just doing the tiniest bits of exercise.”

But Stuart took those same skills that had served him so well as an athlete and applied them to his rehab. “Physio was one of the things I looked forward to because it was getting out of the house and seeing those small improvements  tiny little improvements. First it was a bit of range of motion back in my ankle, then in my knee and then just being able to move a little bit side to side and frontwards and backwards.”

It literally took years for Stuart to return to racing form  in 2008 when the team was being picked for Beijing he was still experiencing extreme pain and wasn’t able to compete. Eventually though, there was a turning point, a time when running didn’t hurt quite so much and he was able to start putting in the kind of miles and speed work required to be one of the top visually impaired runners in the world. By 2010, he was ready to make a comeback. But this time around he was doing it with all the experience and maturity that comes with being a veteran athlete. He’s learned what works and what doesn’t work for him and, with the support of his wife, he has created an optimal training environment. These days, Stuart works one day a week as a teacher at the Ottawa Christian School and spends four days at home with his two children  when they head off to school or take a nap that’s his window to train. “At home I’ve got a good little set up  I have a weight room and I have a treadmill. I love being home taking care of my kids and then having the freedom to run or do weights during the day.” As far as Stuart’s concerned this is far more productive training environment than what he had leading into previous Paralympic Games when he was balancing training with full-time studies and heading to his workouts already exhausted from a day at school. “This really is about the best environment I’ve ever had actually. I don’t know if I could be as good as I am right now or have comeback as far as I have come back if I didn’t have the support from my wife and this set-up.”

In addition to his family, Stuart’s long time coach Ray Elrick is the other key figure in his attempt to make the London squad. Stuart has been training with the Ottawa Lions under the direction of Ray since 1993. It’s a point of pride with him that he’s stuck with the same coach all this while, noting that some athletes are too quick to look elsewhere when the going gets tough. That being said, Stuart has learned over the years to take help where he can find it and he says he’s not shy about asking questions of other coaches or borrowing a method that seems to be working for another athlete. “Realizing who is out there and looking for different opinions  that’s one thing I have done a lot more of as a veteran athlete. Realizing who the good coaches are and what their expertise is and then just asking.”

Stuart admits that in many ways making this fourth Paralympic team will be his biggest challenge yet. “I’m so close to something. It’s something I probably took for granted before. I’ve always worked hard as an athlete but since my accident I’ve worked a 100 times harder and I’m not where I was at before but even to get where I am now is just incredible. But it sure would be nice to have that ‘elite’ standard.”