When I lost my arm, I quit life for a long period of time. I hated who I was and hated how I looked, but I believe everyone goes through this at some point. I realized that I’d created a false narrative about myself and others. Put simply, we can all kick ass once we learn that the crap in our head is just that! And so, if we fall, we’ll still become great so long as we have access to one small opportunity or one person who believes in us.
As a part of our series about “How Athletes Optimize Their Mind & Body for Peak Performance”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Willie Stewart.
In 1980, a construction accident resulted in Willie’s left arm being ripped out of its socket. Because of rush hour traffic, Willie ran a mile on foot to the hospital while trying to hold his bicep muscles in with his remaining arm.
Only a few short years after losing his arm, the former all-state wrestler captained the Washington Rugby Football Club and turned that experience into a catalyst that launched him into the world of extreme and endurance sports.
Willie’s sports resume includes winning the Catalina Marathon overall, completing the IRONMAN and Xterra world championships, and winning a Paralympic medal in cross country skiing. Willie is also a 15-time Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon finisher and record holder, a 10-time Leadville 100 mountain bike finisher, a two-time finisher of the grueling HURT (Hawaii Ultra Running Team) 100 mile run in Honolulu, and has kayaked the Grand Canyon with one arm.
Willie serves as a spokesperson and advocate for the Challenged Athletes Foundation and plays a key role in mentoring and facilitating events for adaptive athletes. Living in Boise, Idaho, Willie uses his experience to ensure adaptive athletes recognize their true potential and are never left behind.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is a great honor. Our readers would love to learn more about your personal background. Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
Igrew up in a very large Irish-Catholic family where most disagreements were handled by violence. In my house, it was always best to remain invisible. I was number seven out of eight kids with six boys in total. Our value as kids was based on our success in sports, and frankly, my siblings were all better than me. This really shaped the rest of my life.
I loved pretty much everything about school, except the parts where I had to go to class. In high school, I grew into my talents and became an undefeated state champion wrestler. I played football and rugby, but I remember being a real jerk most of the time.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career as a high-level professional athlete? We’d love to hear the story.
The summer after graduation, I lost my arm. With that, I also lost my personal perceived identity.
Anger is what really propelled me at first. It allowed me to conquer my fears and conquering those fears led to my return to sports. I spent 10 years on the rugby pitch and was captain of the Washington Rugby Football Club. I was barred from the starting line of the Leadville 100 mountain bike race and told a disabled person could never finish it. I’m now a 10-time finisher of that race. I’m a four-time IRONMAN World Championship finisher in Kona.
The list of these athletic achievements is long and boring, though I’m proud to say that I’ve solo-kayaked the Grand Canyon and have run some of the hardest races in the world. But the fact of the matter is, those events don’t make me special. Sure, I had grit and determination, but I also had a lot of incredible opportunities and I took advantage of every one of them.
The second phase of my transformation moved from anger and was centered around inspiration and putting the meaning of the words athlete and sport into perspective.This is when I narrowed in on how sport can create a personal transformation for me and other people with disabilities. Here, I really learned to believe in what’s possible, what inspires us and what moves us to tears. It turns out I was wrong about everything, including who I thought was a great athlete and who I thought was disposable. I was wrong about people with disabilities and I was wrong about myself.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
I was lucky enough to meet a man name Kirk Bauer; a bronze medal and silver star recipient in Vietnam, an above-knee combat amputee and the executive Director of Disabled Sports USA. He believed in me and gave me the opportunity to help others through sport. I became the director of an adaptive ski school at Breckenridge and years after my injury, I finally began to sit down and talk to other people with disabilities. I learned so much about them and about myself.
While I was at Breckenridge, one of my students was Jim MacLaren. Jim was the man who inspired the creation of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, and here we are, 30 years later in Boise, Idaho, making a difference in the lives of people with disabilities, but most importantly, improving the lives of everyone through sport.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your sports career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I’ve made a lot of mistakes, but they’ve always driven me to work harder. I was a complete embarrassment in all sports. I was always last at the beginning, but I never quit.
As a wrestler, I was pinned in 14 seconds, but I went on to become a state champion. As a bike messenger in Washington D.C. with one arm, I spent most of my time during the first 30 days on my back in a puddle of blood, but that’s how I learned to ride a bike and pay the bills. As a rugby player with two hands, I couldn’t catch the ball to save my life, but with one hand I never dropped a ball!
As a runner, I was dead last in my first 5k. Ten years later, I won the Catalina Island marathon. I entered IRONMAN Brazil and I couldn’t even swim across the pool. One year later I was in Kona on the starting line of the IRONMAN World Championship and I went 10 hours and 52 minutes. At one of the most grueling runs in the world, the HURT 100, I lay naked in creek at mile 80 for five hours and didn’t finish. At the time, only 10% of the runners finished and I was definitely not one of them. But I came back the next two years and finished in 33 hours and then 35 hours (the cut off was 36).
When I kayaked the Grand Canyon, I couldn’t do a roll in white water to save my life. I practiced in a pool every day for months. I’d kayak in white water on any river I could, but I’d fail miserably, but when I put in my boat at the top of the Grand Canyon, I knew I could do it, and I did. 21 days later a one-armed guy kayaked 248 miles through the Grand Canyon. During my first US Nordic national championship, I broke three ski poles. I finished 200th place out of 200 athletes, three minutes behind the 199th person. Ten years later in 2002 I won a silver medal in Salt Lake City.
What advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your career?
I really sucked at almost everything I’ve ever tried, and I failed multiple times in multiple sports, but I always got up and I never let anything get me down ever! Always take great risks and just keep pushing. You’ve got it in you.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
My involvement with the Challenged Athletes Foundation and the adaptive athletes who are part of CAF-Idaho are always top of mind for me. They’re the most exciting parts of my life and the events and mentoring I assist with through CAF are the projects I’m most proud of.
Today there are so many young people with disabilities who are so much better than me, and that makes me really proud. People with disabilities are often the ablest people I have ever met. The sad thing to me is that society sometimes gives up on disabled people too quickly. I believe the opportunity to be involved in any kind of sport makes you feel whole, and a part of the big team. The Challenged Athletes Foundation makes that happen and, especially in Idaho, we work hard to look at the social and psychological impact of awarding grants to adaptive athletes for equipment and training. We all want to belong somewhere in some way, and sports at any level allows us the opportunity of a happy and fulfilling life.
I’ve always felt society as a whole is missing one of the great opportunities of inclusion. We all want to help others, sometimes more than we want to help ourselves, but we don’t know-how. I believe there is a better way, it’s just a matter of us being willing to try something new and something different. Try a new sport, try a new piece of equipment, talk to someone you wouldn’t normally talk to, ask for advice. Change is difficult and to change how society thinks is almost impossible. CAF Idaho is a giant step when it comes to change.
OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. As an athlete, you often face high stakes situations that involve a lot of pressure. Most of us tend to wither in the face of such pressure and stress. Can you share with our readers 3 or 4 strategies that you use to optimize your mind for peak performance before high pressure, high stress situations?
Most the things I’ve learned to keep me calm under pressure have been taught to me by my mother. She believed the quality of a human being is measured by how they act under pressure — grace under pressure if you will. It’s served me well and that’s how I want my children to act, too. It’s important to stay calm and respond appropriately under pressure. Of course, every situation is different, but a calm demeanor under pressure, focus, and determination are character traits that can be learned.
Life, in general, is about dealing with setbacks and somehow managing to not freak out. Just clap your hands twice and go for it. You’ll be admired for toeing the line and you should be proud of not being on the couch.
Do you use any special or particular breathing techniques to help optimize yourself?
Funny you ask because I’m always holding my breath to see how long I can survive underwater. The only way for me to hold it for more than two minutes is to completely relax and almost fall asleep. On the flip side — in an intense situation — you have to breathe in order to perform. Before any big descent, I remind myself to breathe. It’s simple, it’s silly, but that reminder helps, especially because if I crash on a descent, I can’t detach from my bike because of my prosthetic, and those injuries really suck.
Do you have a special technique to develop a strong focus, and clear away distractions?
Passion, vision, purpose, and focus are all words that mean a lot to me. My vision is my passion and I keep laser-focused with purpose. Combine those together and you can’t be beat, no matter how long it takes. It might take you four years to be good and eight years to be great, but we can all inspire others just by taking action. It’s in those moments we truly become great.
How about your body? Can you share a few strategies that you use to optimize your body for peak performance?
I’m a big fan of cross-training, kayaking, trail running, mountain and road biking, and downhill and cross-country skiing. Because I live in Idaho, all of that is right in my backyard. Unfortunately for many people with disabilities, experiencing this kind of movement just doesn’t exist, and that’s what motivates me to be seen and to be an advocate for CAF. If you have a disability, but you have enough ability to get out the door, then you’re helping to spread the message to the larger number of folks trapped inside that we can do it.
These ideas are excellent, but for most of us in order for them to become integrated into our lives and really put them to use, we have to turn them into habits and make them become ‘second nature’. Has this been true in your life? How have habits played a role in your success?
I believe I became stronger the moment I actually stopped my usual habits and simplified my training routine. After years of collecting data, I decided to race without technology. It was like when we talk about flow — there’s something powerful about being in the moment and understanding your perceived effort and focusing on the positives and enjoying the surroundings and competition.
Can you share some of the strategies you have used to turn the ideas above into habits? What is the best way to develop great habits for optimal performance? How can one stop bad habits?
CAF-Idaho athlete Annie Carey is a good example for this one. Annie was born with a severe club foot. Early on it was determined that for her to have a healthy and physically active lifestyle, she would have to wear an Ankle Foot Orthosis on a daily basis, but she’s a fierce competitor. Right now, she’s getting her butt kicked in skiing. One ski year seems to last forever (and it does), however her results over the next few years don’t really matter right now. Sometimes looking at the far away picture doesn’t help. What she needs to realize is that she’s just started to climb this mountain and in order to make it to the top, she needs commitment. She’ll be there in a few years.
As a high-performance athlete, you likely experience times when things are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a mind state of Flow more often in our lives?
The state of flow is sometimes how athletes explain the perfect game. I ski-raced for 10 years and only twice did I feel it. I’ve felt the state of flow once while kayaking during a near-death experience, and I’ve felt It on the rugby field and occasionally on the wrestling mat. The day my arm was torn off, I felt the ultimate flow as I ran over a mile to the hospital because I wanted to be alive! Only a few times in my life have I truly felt flow. What I’ve learned from those moments is that in order to achieve that flow, you must find clarity, focus and purpose. To find those things, it often takes great risk.
Do you have any meditation practices that you use to help you in your life? We’d love to hear about it.
Life can be overwhelming for all of us, but most of us carry someone else’s spirit with us to give us strength and motivation, like walking in someone else’s shoes. I do this daily. I put someone in my pocket and use their story, their power and their struggles to lift me up. I often turn to my fellow athletes Lance Pounds with cerebral palsy, or Kevin Holtry, a police officer who lost his leg while apprehending a bad guy, or little Brooklyn Gossard with transverse myelitis. I make video tributes for them as a way of showing thanks, and I’m honored to know them. Because of them, I can climb my own mountains.
Many of us are limited by our self-talk, or by negative mind chatter, such as regrets, and feelings of inferiority. Do you have any suggestions about how to “change the channel” of our thoughts? What is the best way to change our thoughts?
When I lost my arm, I quit life for a long period of time. I hated who I was and hated how I looked, but I believe everyone goes through this at some point. I realized that I’d created a false narrative about myself and others. Put simply, we can all kick ass once we learn that the crap in our head is just that! And so, if we fall, we’ll still become great so long as we have access to one small opportunity or one person who believes in us. That’s what makes CAF-Idaho so powerful to me: it provides those opportunities and that community. In my book, all of us who try, despite what others might think, have won.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are by all accounts a very successful person. How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I always have a social impact in my pocket. I’m always looking for someone who is really courageous and believes in new a future of ability — someone who wants to change perceptions about disabilities and refine the word athlete.
With all of my heart, through this work, I truly believe a baby born today with a disability can thrive tomorrow if we just do some little things differently, starting with empowering this adaptive community. Anyone who acquires a permanent disability should not fear or despair, and their families should not have to grieve. A new beginning, a new opportunity and a new playing field awaits them. They have a chance at education, a chance for a new job, a chance to own their own home, and a chance to raise their own family. They’re citizens who are proud to be a person with a disability.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
I like to encourage others to share your power.
Losing my arm opened up my eyes to the importance of that statement. We don’t tell our stories because we’re looking for pity, we tell our stories because they are powerful. Sometimes just getting out the door for a person with a disability is far more significant than seeing a Paralympian on a podium. Are they athletes? They certainly are. Do they inspire? They certainly do. And their stories are powerful.
Please don’t feel sorry for me or my brothers and sisters. I hope they can inspire you as they have inspired me.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
There are a few people who come to mind for this. The first is Alex Gorsky, the CEO of Johnson & Johnson. I met Alex at the Philadelphia Triathlon and I know for a fact he’s always looking for new ways to improve the delivery of health care. I believe he could create a social impact fund to empower people with disabilities to rise up and believe in themselves, in turn inspiring a nation through physical wellness for all. Access to some form of physical activity is a small component of a full life, but it’s a springboard to spiritual, social and emotional well-being.
Lately I’ve also been paying attention to Eric Schmidt, former chairman and CEO of Google. We have a mutual friend and I believe he’s another person who could enact great change in the way society perceives people with disabilities. The disabled population has an 80% unemployment rate and a 75% college dropout rate. By investing in education and the development of assistive technology in the workplace, we could move those numbers drastically.
The third person who I believe could create great change is Rob Katz, Chairman, and CEO of Vail Resorts. He has the resources to implement a project that would provide fully integrated, family-friendly recreation at major mountain resorts across the country, year-round. Many resorts provide the perfect healing environments for not only families with senior citizens and children, but also for those with disabilities. Mountain biking or skiing coupled with adaptive partnerships and accessible venues would open up a new world to these families. Mr. Katz is a key component of the new formula of health care. Healing from a day on the mountain is much less expensive than a night in the hospital.