Jim MacLaren's Life an Inspiration to All

By Jeff Ferrantino on June 30, 2007

Jim MacLarenPerhaps we all can learn a lesson from Jim MacLaren. That is certainly the goal of the man who has had to fight his way back from not one, but two devastating accidents in his life.

At the age of 14, MacLaren found acceptance at Vermont Academy, an exclusive boarding school that eventually led him to an Ivy League education at Yale, where he not only excelled in his course studies, but also lacrosse and football. As an undergrad, MacLaren majored in theater studies while morphing into a 300-pound defensive end for the Bulldogs.

Finishing his undergraduate work in 1985, the aspiring actor ventured to New York City to train at the Circle in the Square Theatre School on Broadway. Three weeks later, leaving a late-night rehearsal session on his motorcycle, MacLaren was broadsided by a 40,000-pound city bus. Rushed to Bellevue Hospital, he was initially diagnosed as "dead on arrival."

After 18 hours of surgery, the doctors stabilized a comatose MacLaren and made a decision that would shape the next eight years of his life. They amputated his left leg below the knee. MacLaren awoke from his coma, rehabbed diligently, and attempted to resume his graduate studies at the Yale School of Drama. There, he started swimming and picked up a book on triathlons that sparked his imagination. Soon, MacLaren was ready to resume his competitive side again, this time as a triathlete.

MacLaren would become a media sensation in the emerging sport, paving the way for a new generation of disabled athletes. He competed and set countless records in some of the world's toughest races, including the New York City Marathon and the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. Amazingly, MacLaren routinely finished ahead of the majority of the able-bodied athletes that he was competing against.

Then, just when he was back at the top of his game, MacLaren's life suddenly took another cruel and unusual turn on June 6, 1993. He was in Southern California competing in another triathlon when two miles into the bike leg, on a closed course, a traffic marshal misjudged MacLaren's speed approaching an intersection. The marshal directed a van to cross the street, and the van and MacLaren collided. Hurled into a signpost, MacLaren broke his neck at the C5 vertebrae. The accident left him paralyzed.

While many of us can't fathom what it would be like to go through two such experiences, the man with the amazing will to live said that he never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him.

"This has not been a curse," explained MacLaren. "It's opened up thousands of other choices that I never would have looked at. I wouldn't take it back."

Not one to give in, MacLaren said he began to see his new focus in life while he was sitting in a hospital room, a short time after the second accident.

Said MacLaren: I remember one day I was in ICU, I couldn't even see the TV. I had screws in my skull with a halo. I remember hearing the commercials and everyone saying, this is life and buy a new car. I thought, 'Wait a minute, I can't move anything, but I'm still alive. I mean, I still speak and think.' And then the sun came up one day out the window and I thought, 'You know, it's the same sun as it was when I was a 190-pound, lean triathlete.