When Willie Stewart was 18, he lost his arm in a construction accident in Washington, DC. His brother drove him to the hospital, but traffic was so bad that Willie jumped out of the truck and ran over a mile to the emergency room. Despite his efforts, he lost his arm above the elbow.
“After the accident, I didn’t think I could do anything. I wasn’t willing to try something new. I didn’t think I could, so I didn’t try. And that’s all of us. It has to start somewhere. After my accident, my mom made me do a 5K and I did it and I loved it.”
It’s hard to believe that Willie went from being a kid who wouldn’t do a 5K to competing in some of the toughest races in the world.
“Sometimes you just need someone to believe in you. Someone to say, here’s a kayak, figure it out. Here’s a pair of shoes, now go run 100 miles. Here’s a mountain bike, now go do an XTERRA.”
Willie admits that in addition to others encouraging him, it also took a lot of faith. “And a lot of failures,” he adds.
During Willie’s first race at the XTERRA West Championship in Temecula, California, Willie’s prosthetic arm fell off.
“I was still learning how to ride a mountain bike, and I had never used my prosthetic arm before. I rode up the hill and as I was heading down, there goes my arm and I crashed. I was embarrassed but I had already put myself out there and thought, dammit, I’m going to finish it. So all these people are riding over the hill and I’m running the wrong way, going back up to find my arm.”
Willie said that in the beginning, everything was a fail.
“This is why you don’t see a lot of disabled people racing because how many times can you get back up?”
However, Willie did get up. He got his arm, finished the race, and qualified for the XTERRA World Championship in Maui in 2003 (and last year he raced it for the seventh time).
As the first athlete to compete an XTERRA with a breakaway arm, he didn’t have anyone to show him the ropes. Instead, he had to seek his own courage and be willing to keep failing until he got it right.
“Ultimately, I just realized that the greatest failure was a lack of courage. Like I want to go for a run, but I don’t want anyone to see me because I suck. Or I want to do a race, but I look funny. But the biggest risk was to not compete because then I felt isolated.”
When racing XTERRA, Willie felt that his fellow competitors had his back and wanted him to succeed.
“Almost everyone in a race says, ‘Good job Willie,’ and I say it back to them. Everyone who races an XTERRA has to have the ability to not quit and to try new things. To not be frightened. When I see that happen to someone I’m inspired.”
Although Willie Stewart is extremely fast, he felt that he was admired not only for his skill and endurance but also because he was willing to show up.
“That’s probably why I race all the time. If you don’t show up, you can’t change the way people think. So if you want people to think differently about physically challenged athletes, you better show up.”
For Willie, a 2004 Dave DeSantis XTERRA Warrior Award Recipient, the sport has been a level playing field because all athletes who show up to a race face challenges of some sort and have experienced failure in their lives.
“And that goes for people with two arms as well,” says Willie. “I admire parents who race after getting no sleep the night before or a mom or dad who sacrifice a workout to jog with their kid. Those are things I admire. Those are the little victories that add up. It takes a certain character to do something you might not be great at, and those are the people who race XTERRA. Because XTERRAs are scary and they aren’t easy.”
Willie races to support the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which years ago helped him get a prosthetic arm and has been an integral part of his life (and lifestyle) ever since. To show his appreciation, he continues to push the limits of his own abilities and inspire other challenged athletes to get out and compete on the dirt.
“When you are disabled you are sidelined. But when you are competing, you feel alive. XTERRA opened a new frontier for me. I worked hard and I figured it out, but it took a long time to believe. It wasn’t like today I believe and yesterday I didn’t. It took almost 20 years to believe in who I was. XTERRA was a big part of that.”