Tales of courage from a champion Paralympian
By J. Chambless
Amanda McGrory (left) on the medal podium at the Rio Paralympics.
By John Chambless
For the Third Annual Inspirational Breakfast sponsored by the southern Chester County Chamber of Commerce, the keynote speaker, Amanda McGrory, could hardly have been more inspirational.
On the morning of May 4 in a crowded banquet room at Hartefeld National Golf Club, she succinctly traced a life story that started with an early tragedy but has now placed McGrory on the world stage as a Paralympics medalist, most recently in Rio de Janeiro. She has won the 2011 New York City Marathon, breaking the event record by more than two and a half minutes. She won the London and Paris Marathons a week apart in 2011. She won her first New York City Marathon in 2006, and has placed in the top four in New York seven times. She has competed in three Paralympic Games since 2008, won seven medals, and broken several world records. She won the Tokyo Marathon in February, and finished second at the most recent Boston Marathon and London Marathon. She is training for one more Paralympic Games, Tokyo 2020.
At the age of 5 in 1991, McGrory recalled, “I woke in the morning with tingling in my legs. Within an hour, I wasn't able to stand.” Beaming brightly from the stage, McGrory, 30, pointed out her father in the audience, who was celebrating a birthday. Her father is Tim McGrory, the owner of McGrory Inc., and Amanda grew up in Kennett Square.
She had been stricken with a disorder called transverse myelitis, which affects no more than one in 5 million people. “It's essentially an autoimmune disease,” McGrory said. “An external stimulus triggered my immune system to attack the myelin sheaths surrounding the nerve cells in my spinal cord. Without that covering, the nerve signals can't transfer, thus preventing my brain from receiving any information about anything happening below my injury level.
“This is where I learned my first lesson,” she said. “Things are never going to go exactly as planned, no matter how well-prepared you think you are. Life is all about learning to roll with the punches. In all honesty, this was probably the hardest lesson I had to learn. My transition to life as a person with a disability was anything but smooth. … For weeks, I remember laying in bed just before falling asleep, trying to convince myself that this was a bad dream, and I'd wake up in the morning and everything would be back to normal.
“As a testament to the dedication of my parents, they set out to find a way to make things right,” McGrory said. “That was my second lesson: Never underestimate the contributions of a strong support system. I wouldn't be where I am today without the incredible support of my family, coaches, teachers and friends. For anyone who hasn't experienced this kind of life-changing event, the loss of control, the helplessness, is almost impossible to describe. Luckily, my parents were, almost single-handedly, able to turn things around for me.”
Her parents connected young Amanda with camps, sports, and children just like her. McGrory played sports through middle school and high school, and got an athletic scholarship to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
“My first year here, I got my butt kicked so bad that I convinced my coach to let me return to the 18-and-under Junior National Championships, just so I could beat up on some little kids and feel better about myself,” she said, grinning as the audience laughed. “I am not proud of this,” she added.
“That is where I learned my third lesson: There is no substitute for good, old-fashioned hard work. Dedication, motivation and perseverance will go a long way. Within one year of that, I secured my first National Team nomination. A year later, I broke my first world record. One year after that, I won gold in the 5K at the Beijing Paralympic Games.
“It's been ups and downs since then,” she said. “I've won some big races, and I've lost some even bigger ones. I came off an incredible Paralympic Games in Beijing, only to return home from London four years later, empty-handed and broken-hearted. I thought it was time to retire. But once again, my support system came through for me. We re-designed everything – new training plan, new equipment, new diet, new boyfriend,” she added, smiling “I got a new job and applied to the Master's Program at the University of Illinois. And somehow, it worked. Eight years after I had won my first Paralympics medal, I was back on the podium at Rio.
“The biggest thing I've learned is that, in order to grow, as an athlete or as a business owner, even just as a person, you have to take risks. Not every endeavor will be successful, but that's life. You roll with the punches, you lean on those around you, you put in some hard work, and who knows? If nothing else, you'll be stronger for it in the end. And you'll have some great stories to tell.”
After a standing ovation from the audience, McGrory happily answered some questions. Her parents, she said, fostered her independence by “treating me just like any other kid. I had chores, I had to clean the floor, I had to empty the trash. My mom's a tough cookie. I think that did more for me than anything else. It helped me learn how to be independent and take care of myself. I moved away from home when I was 18. If I had a laundry emergency or burned my dinner, nobody was coming to help. That was hugely beneficial to me.”
Asked about the crashes that are all too frequent in wheelchair racing, McGrory said, “I'm a frequent crasher. You may have noticed I'm not a very big person, so when there's a little bit of an altercation and somebody's going down, it's usually me, because I'm the smallest.
“I once crashed in the New York City Marathon, going down the Verrazano Bridge at 30 miles an hour. I was a big, bloody mess, called my parents, and said I wasn't going to be able to finish the race. They told me they were going shopping and they'd see me later,” McGrory said as the audience laughed. “You never know what's going to happen. Flat tires can happen, crashes can happen, dogs can run out into the middle of the course. It's all about being able to react to that and be confident in your skills and still be OK.”
She said each marathon course is different, but that New York City has “a lot of bridges and the roads are in terrible shape,” making it a tougher challenge. “Chicago is kind of a hometown race for me and I've won that one three times, so I love that one. But I love traveling and racing new marathons. Every single course has its own personality,” she said.
Before she started doing wheelchair marathons in 2006, McGrory said, she was reluctant to take on the challenge. “Twenty-six miles is a long way to go. I didn't think it sounded like fun,” she said.
At the opening of her program, she showed a brief video of the women's top wheelchair racers at the conclusion of the Tokyo Marathon in February. “It has, in my opinion, all the best parts of wheelchair racing,” she said. “Drafting, pack racing, a crash, a high-speed 20 miles per hour finish, plus I win,” she said, laughing.
McGrory now lives in the Chicago area, where she is pursuing a Master's Degree in library information science at the University of Illinois, and she has a BS in psychology from the University of Illinois. She is also focused on training for Tokyo in 2020, but will be back in the Kennett Square area in late summer, she said, adding, “I've been super, super lucky and very, very busy.”
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email email@example.com.