Willie Stewart hopes one day his job as a spokesperson for the Challenged Athletes Foundation becomes irrelevant. Until then, he’ll keep competing in ultramarathons like the Leadville Race Series.
The 55-year-old Boisean nicknamed “One-Arm Willie” will attempt to run 100 miles non-stop in less than 30 hours Saturday along the high-altitude, extreme mountain terrain of the Rocky Mountains in Leadville, Colo., in an effort to change the perception and acceptance of those with physical challenges.
“Our society tends to isolate people who can’t keep up or do swim team because they are different. We need to integrate that society — and that’s what I am involved in with Challenged Athletes Foundation,” Stewart said. “I don’t want to see anyone left out. I want to see equal opportunity, equal access to all kinds of things. When we see other people going through trials and tribulations that take them to the highest level, even if it’s just swimming across the pool one time, we can be motivated by that. We can all become better.”
Stewart has already completed the first four races of the 282.4-mile series, which includes the Leadville Trail Marathon (June 16), Silver Rush 50-mile mountain bike (July 8), Leadville Trail 100-mile mountain bike (Aug. 12) and Leadville 10-kilometer run (Aug. 13).
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But Stewart would not be who he is today if not for a horrific accident while working on a construction site in Washington, D.C., in 1980.
Fifteen stories up inside the cooling tower of the Watergate complex — yes, that Watergate — a rope got tied around Stewart and sucked into a large fan.
“I didn’t know that my hand was missing until I saw it. I just thought I broke my arm, broke my hip and broke my ribs and shoulder, broke everything,” Stewart said. “I thought there was something really gross sticking out of that glove in front of me, and it was the rest of my arm. I did pick it up, and I threw that out of the hole, and I came out of the fan area and I got cut some more. I laid on the ground, thought I’d pass out, but I didn’t.”
Stewart ended up signaling a crane operator to take him down. Because of rush hour traffic, Stewart’s brother tried driving along the sidewalk to get him to the hospital. Meanwhile, emergency personnel were running inside the building, unaware that Stewart had made it down by himself.
With traffic stalled, Stewart jumped out of his brother’s truck and ran down the middle of New Hampshire Avenue to a hospital about a mile down the road.
As he collapsed at the front door to the hospital, his dad scooped him up.
“My father and I had been separated a little bit because of some things that happened four years prior. I always felt my father didn’t love me, but he was called by my brother to go to the hospital,” Stewart said. “... I was falling into the door, my father caught me. I was red, I had long blond hair, and it’s very emotional. I don’t talk about it that much, but my father grabbed me, and it was a great moment in my life. Sometimes it takes a tragedy to really discover who you are.”
Stewart describes that day as the end of one life and the beginning of another. He was no longer an undefeated Virginia state wrestling champion with a room full of trophies. He was now “One-Arm Willie.”
“I don’t even know who that guy is anymore. That was the two-handed Willie, and he kind of died one day,” Stewart said. “One-handed Willie I think is a better guy.”
Stewart spent the next several years uncomfortable in his own skin. He didn’t like the way he looked, and he didn’t know how to create an identity outside of who he had been.
He felt isolated and alone.
“I felt like the worst time in my life was when I was most isolated. With some encouragement from others, I sat, I remember, at the front of a 5k race when I was 20 or 21, and I didn’t want anyone to see me because I didn’t like how I looked,” Stewart said. “But I did it. I did the 5k, and I was awful, but I did it, and I think that’s where it starts. ... That made me feel good. It made me feel good because I was with everyone else. I didn’t care what place I came in.”
That 5k changed the way Stewart viewed himself and the way he viewed others. He knew he wanted to help others like him with physical challenges find a way to be active.
In the mid-1980s, Stewart became an adaptive ski instructor in Breckenridge, Colo.
It’s there that he met Jim MacLaren, the founder of the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
“I didn’t like people pitying people. I wanted people to encourage people, but don’t feel sorry for them, give them the tools necessary for them to succeed,” Stewart said. “Sometimes that took a lot of money to buy those tools, and I felt like I could be that person to raise the money to create opportunity.”
Since 1994, the Challenged Athletes Foundation has raised more than $80 million to fulfill more than 15,000 funding requests from people with physical challenges in all 50 states and dozens of countries.
Stewart begins the Leadville 100-mile trail run at 3 a.m. Saturday. He’ll run for 30 hours straight with the sole focus of creating opportunities for others like him.
He’ll keep doing it until it’s no longer necessary.
“You always want to be something better than you were. That’s my goal,” Stewart said. “Challenged Athletes Foundation changed the way I think that people with disabilities were seen and perceived and what was possible. All we all want to believe in is that we can do more than we think.”