The dark side of social media looms large these days. More and more athletes announce they’re “taking a break” from Twitter and Instagram, just to shut off the negativity and hate for a while.
Amanda McGrory knows the feeling.
“I’ve read some really unpleasant things,” said the seven-time Paralympic medalist, who is in Manhattan preparing for Sunday’s New York City Marathon. “It’s rough sometimes.”
Yet eight years ago, a single tweet from a fan congratulating McGrory on her victory at the 2009 London Marathon changed that fan’s life, while enriching McGrory’s.
Back then, Joe Monte, a 23-year-old gardener in Welham Green, a village in Hertfordshire, England, was going through tough times. A fine footballer (aka soccer player) and all-around athlete, he nevertheless felt disconnected from his peers and disinterested in his job. Crippling anxiety left him fearful of trying new things, like pursuing higher education or travel, and his mother Janet’s cancer laced his days with sadness.
“I wasn’t in the best of places for quite a while,” Monte said. “I was in and out, kind of hiding. I was trying to keep away from people a lot. I stopped enjoying my gardening. I felt apart from the general attitude (in Welham Green). I was struggling.”
One Sunday in late April, Monte arrived home from a football match and turned on the TV. There was McGrory, fresh off her victory, giving an interview.
“Seeing her, so bubbly and happy, in the emotional state I was in at the time, was a big lift,” Monte said. “So I sent her a tweet, congratulating her and saying I enjoyed the interview. And that one tweet led to a lot of good things.”
That Monte was watching TV at all was unusual; generally, he went to his team’s clubhouse after a match. What he did next was equally fortuitous: looking at McGrory’s Twitter page, he discovered they were both fans of Local Natives, a California-based indie band.
“Just as I was about to leave the screen, I saw a tweet about the band, and I tweeted, ‘Oh, you like good music, too,’” Monte said. “And it snowballed from there. We got into other subjects, back and forth, and it went on for a year.”
Anyone who follows McGrory’s Twitter (@alittlechipped) and reads her blog knows she’s a happy warrior, brimming with sometimes sharp but always good-natured humor. She embraced an online friendship with Monte, because hey, why not?
“Anytime a person makes an attempt to engage, I find it interesting,” McGrory, paralyzed since age 5 with transverse myelitis, said. “I happen to scroll through Joe’s message about the band, and I replied, ‘Oh, I love their new album.’ We had so much in common, it was easy to find things to talk about.”
At first, their chats were infrequent — just once a week or so, whenever both were on Twitter. Then the 2012 London Marathon came around, and McGrory planned her visit to the city.
“I was like, ‘Well, I’d like to put a face to the person I’ve been chatting with,’” she said. “So we met up at a London coffee shop.”
The conversation flowed. McGrory was empathetic about Monte’s struggles with anxiety, something many in his hometown circle failed to comprehend.
“Outwardly, I looked fine,” Monte said. “A lot of people don’t understand anxiety, and it makes it difficult to communicate with them.”
“People’s challenges aren’t always obvious, but they are real,” McGrory said.
Sadly, Monte’s mother Janet lost her battled with cancer about that time, passing away at age 55. McGrory encouraged her friend to spread his wings, travel a bit. With the help of medication to relieve his anxiety disorder, Monte took a three-month trip including Canada and the United States.
“I was terrified to do it,” he said. “I don’t know where I found the strength. Being a friend of Amanda’s helped a lot. I still had struggles; the fear was ever present. My mother’s death was a driving factor. For some reason, I couldn’t (travel) when she was alive.”
Monte visited McGrory at her family’s home in Philadelphia; her mom and sister dropped by, and he met them as well. McGrory’s parents, in turn, visited Welham Green on a trip to England. Eight years after the tweet, the friendship continues to grow.
“We don’t see each other too much, I’m not in London a lot,” McGrory, who is finishing up a master’s degree in information services at the University of Illinois, said. “Each time we are in the same city, we make an effort to catch up.”
Monte decided to visit Manhattan during the marathon’s race week, with a goal to do something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago: run the 26.2-mile race himself.
“I began training about three months ago, putting in as much effort as I can,” Monte said. “I run pretty much every day. I’m in the gym every day. I do yoga sessions. I’m taking it seriously. I want to find out what my body can do. I don’t want to just try and get through it — I’m competitive.”
“As soon as Joe told me there was a chance he might come to New York, I was super encouraging,” McGrory said. “If you run only one marathon, this is a great one.”
But Monte may not stop at one. He likes the way his body feels, and running lifts his spirits. He no longer takes anti-anxiety medication. Depending on how things go in New York, he may try London next year.
“Maybe I’ll dedicate myself to it for the next three or four years,” he said. “Putting in this work, running as strongly as I can run, I don’t want to lose it.”
McGrory, too, is on a high. She won the Tokyo Marathon early this season and placed second in Boston, London and Chicago. Having won in New York twice (2006, 2011), she — along with longtime rival Tatyana McFadden, and Manuela Schar of Switzerland — is favored for a top-three finish on Sunday.
“It will be weird to be over here, running myself and not being able to watch Amanda,” Monte said. “I will be much happier if she wins than when I cross the finish line. Not knowing how she did, having to wait — that’s going to drive me to hit the finish line a bit quicker.”