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Willie Stewart is Still Making an Impact as an Athlete and a Mentor

By Joshua Clayton | Sept. 24, 2020, 1:32 p.m. (ET)

Williams Stewart help win the Men's 1x2.5/2x5 km Relay Open at the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City


It’s been 18 years since William Stewart’s silver medal at the 2002 Paralympics in Salt Lake City, but he’s still competing like he’s in the prime of his athletic career. 

Just last week TeamUSA.org had to catch up with him at the end of the Idaho Smoke ‘n’ Fire 400 in which bikers navigate 440 miles of Idaho terrain for five days. It’s something most wouldn’t expect a Para athlete to be able to do but that’s exactly where he’s most comfortable. 

In fact, “One-Arm Willie” Stewart, as his mentees and fellow athletes know him, said he’s motivated to do things people wouldn’t expect him to do because he was once one of those able-bodied doubters. 

Stewart lost his left arm in a construction site accident in 1980 and had to run a mile on foot to the nearest hospital while carrying the arm out of the socket. 

Before the accident, he was a state champion wrestler and competed in football and rugby but was hesitant to go back to team sports because of a fear of failure. When he decided to get back on the rugby field, he excelled. 

“I was actually better at it with one hand than I ever was [with] two because I was so much more aggressive and almost willing to take things to an extreme because I was left out and I didn't ever want to get left out again,” he said. 

Here he was captaining the Washington Rugby Football Club to three straight championship games in elite-level American rugby, and he’s playing with one arm. Still, Stewart had no idea what the Paralympic Movement was. 

“As an able-bodied athlete and a fairly accomplished athlete in three sports, I don't think I gave the time of day to a person with disabilities. I think I gave them zero time.” 

Stewart first started to ski as a way to stay in shape after building body mass for rugby. 

“I went to the training center and got on a treadmill and they basically said, you know, you've got a great engine, but you're 50. You have to move 50 pounds the other direction.” 

He dropped from 210 pounds to 160 as he shifted to endurance sports. 

“I don't think I was ever that skilled of a skier, but I had a hell of an engine,” he said. “Ten years of international skiing and I think I had maybe three good events, but one of them happened to be the silver medal in 2002 with the relay team.” 

Stewart quickly started trying to develop younger adaptive athletes. As an adaptive ski school director, one of his students was Jim MacLaren, who played football and lacrosse at Yale before losing his left leg below the knee in a motorcycle accident. MacLaren went on to finish a marathon and Ironman race. Then, while competing in a triathlon in 1993, MacLaren became quadriplegic after being hit by a van. 

MacLaren asked Stewart to help with a fundraiser that would end up being the Challenge Athletes Foundation, which provides support for people with physical challenges to pursue athletics. 

“If we leave any of our people out of the ability to pursue happiness through athletic activity, they're going to actually be left out of society,” he said. “Some able-bodied people don't see the disabled going for it, then they just think our lives suck and our lives don't suck.” 

Now with over 25 years of work, the CAF continues to help change the perception of athletes with physical challenges. 

“It’s kind of healing for those with traumatic injury. And then also seeing those that are born with different abilities, you start realizing how [incredible] so many of these little kids are,” he said. “I mean, these kids don't even blink.” 

An elite athlete at every level, Willie Stewarts’ biggest contribution to the Paralympic Movement has been as mentor. 

“I can't stress enough how important it is,” he said. “Every person with a disability that pursued any sport, recreational or high-level competition is a really vital messenger for our cause.”