He’s escaped from Alcatraz, traversed dangerous waters in the Grand Canyon, and dominated Ironman competitions around the country. Now Willie Stewart is hoping to add the title of Leadman to his extensive endurance sports resume. Having lost his left arm in a construction accident in 1980, Willie, nicknamed “One Armed Willie”, is known for his indomitable spirit and drive to take on any event he puts his mind to. We had a chance to sit down with him and discuss his endurance career, his passion for working with the Challenged Athletes Foundation, and the obstacles that face him as he begins his Leadman journey.
This interview has been slightly edited for clarity.
Athlinks: How did you get into endurance sports?
Stewart: I started participating in endurance sports because I admired perseverance. I always wanted to do the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race and run!
Athlinks: Your nickname is “One Armed Willie”, was it you or someone else who came up with that?
Stewart: I think that happened at Ironman, probably in 2000 or 2002. I was always talking to guys that would call me Willie with one arm, and eventually that just became one arm. That year, when I came across the finish line, Mike Riley, who is the famous announcer from Ironman world championships, announced “ladies and gentlemen your new Ironman, One Armed Willie!” and then it just stuck.
Athlinks: You’re part of the Challenged Athletes Foundation. When/How did you get involved with them?
Stewart: Over 20 years ago while skiing in Breckenridge, Colorado, I talked to James MacLaren who is the founder of CAF. It was originally founded for skiing and I’ve been involved ever since!
Athlinks: What do you want people to know about the organization?
Stewart: Challenged Athletes Foundation shines a light on those normally left in the dark.
Athlinks: Do you have a moment that rings as your proudest?
Stewart: I have many moments that I’m proud of. Kids, family, athletics. Solo kayaking the Grand Canyon, seven Leadville Trail 100 mile bike races, four Iron Man world championships, Xterra worlds, winning the Catalina Island Marathon, Paralympic silver medal in cross country skiing. But most of all being a strong advocate for those left out.
Athlinks: You have this great sense of levity that you bring to your story. Did you have that sense of humor before your accident, or was it something that ensued because of it?
Stewart: I think it’s probably because of my accident. I think I had a sense of humor, but it’s hard to explain to people that getting your ass kicked is the best way to cause a bit of self-examination. Mostly we lose, and mostly we suck, and if we can help other people while we suck then a lot of good can happen. If we only celebrate when we win the race, then we’re not doing a lot of positive things. Most the time we don’t win. Take on a higher calling than yourself to help others while you race. To race for others makes it easier to race longer, farther, and harder. That’s the way I’ve always felt.
Athlinks: Can you pinpoint a moment when you thought, I just can’t do this, it’s too hard?
Stewart: Standing naked with my arms around a tree at 6 AM in the morning unable to move. During the HURT 100, I cracked. However, I returned the next two years to finish.
Athlinks: Standing naked with your arms around a tree? Now I have to hear that story! Would you mind elaborating?
Stewart: I was running consistent marathons, and I could run them pretty well without hurting at around 2:40. So I thought, “hey well I can just drop my marathon time down and I’ll go win this race!” So I went out thinking I’d go win the HURT 100 on my first try. I knew the HURT 100 was a tough course, and someone said to me, “don’t pass that girl” and pointed to Monica Scholz, she’s an iconic 100-mile runner and she’s unreal. But I took a look at her and thought “I’ll kill that chick!” and just went flying by her.
Somewhere along 2:00 am, and mind you the race started at about four or six in the morning, I started chaffing. So I took off my clothes in the nighttime and wrapped them around my neck and was running through the night with just my shoes and socks on. Then around maybe 4:30 or 5:00 am, I just couldn’t take it anymore so I thought, let me hold onto a tree and see if it subsides. Then I couldn’t move. I was probably holding onto that tree for three hours until the sun came up and I was naked on a tree with people running by asking if I was ok. After that, I crawled 3 hours, and then laid in a creek for probably another 3 hours, until a car picked me up and drove me to the finish line, so I didn’t finish that one. But, I came back and finished two 100’s. you live and learn.
Athlinks: Many athletes are praised for their achievements as a disabled athlete, instead of their success as an athlete overall. Do you have those same kind of qualms?
Stewart: Of course. Let’s just celebrate the fact that we’re great when we tow the line together and work to achieve goals that surpass preconceived notions. Like Leadman, for someone who’s 56, that’s a lot for me. I like to say that it’s more my age than my arm at this point. Most people are like “look he rides his mountain bike with one arm”, I ride my mountain bike with one arm and have two young kids. That’s the real challenge right there! Taking care of two young kids is way tougher than riding my mountain bike.
Athlinks: We all leave a legacy, unintended or otherwise. What would you like your legacy to be in the sports community?
Stewart: I really don’t think about legacy. I look at people with disabilities now and I know that [back then] my own perception needed work. Once I was able to see the world from another point of view, that’s what made me change. In life, I have found it is difficult to change perceptions. Maybe that’s my legacy.
Athlinks: Why take on Leadman now?
Stewart: With the Challenged Athletes Foundation, I always thought the hardest thing to do was to try and show ability, not disability. I wanted to focus on ability. I didn’t take on the Leadville Trail 100 mountain bike race for almost 20 years because I didn’t want to hurt someone or hurt myself. I kind of doubted myself, and the more I doubt the more I try to take on. Since I’ve been doing Leadville Trail 100 for quite a while now, I’ve seen all kinds of athletes with all kinds of disabilities compete there, and it’s not that big of a deal, which I think is awesome! I wanted to tie CAF with Leadville and athletes with disabilities a long time ago, but I couldn’t get people to be interested in it. This is a really iconic race series, and now we see lots of athletes with disabilities taking it on, and doing way more than I can do. They are the ones who might even be able to win it someday! So we surpassed preconceived notions of what’s possible. The main thing is that we don’t know what’s possible until someone tries.
Athlinks: Why did you decide to take on Leadman this year and what event will be most challenging?
Stewart: I chose this race because I don’t feel like I have many more years to compete at that level and I wanted to get this done. The 50-mile mountain bike race will be very difficult for me; it is pretty technical.
Athlinks: What about the Leadman challenge appeals to you?
Stewart: The design of the series is good, because it allows you to accumulate more training time as the summer goes on, but without killing you up and down. Your first event is a marathon and then a 50, a 100 and another 100. That design appeals to me because my hope is that I’ll be in good shape by August, which I can hold for a couple weeks. But I don’t want to be my best fitness this weekend, I just want to make the cut off time.
Athlinks: How do you train for a series like this?
Stewart: Training for it is mostly about staying healthy and having the right mindset. I think my fitness level is good enough as it is, but to stay healthy and strong with no nagging injuries going into the 100, that’s the goal. That 100 is the event that can crush everybody! It’s mile 80 and on that’s the problem. I think I like it because I don’t have preconceived notions that I’m going to succeed. I’ll give it my best shot and if it doesn’t work out I’ll still be here to race again.
I feel like if I do my work and work hard in the summer time, I should be able to do it. The best racers in the world sometimes can’t get to the finish line, but you don’t know until you start. That’s where we are right now, we’re just at the beginning!
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