The Rise, the Fall and the Comeback: a Story of Resilience and Athleticism

By: Brianne Smith

Stuart McGregor is sitting in a classroom, surrounded with brightly decorated walls and miniature furniture. He’s wearing a red Ottawa Lions shirt and jeans, sipping an extra large Tim Hortons coffee. The three-time Paralympic runner looks at ease here. It’s his fourth-grade homeroom at the Ottawa Christian School where he teaches physical education, math and language arts. It’s also where he coaches one of the most successful elementary running programs in the city.

At 37, McGregor acts as a role model to the young runners he coaches. Not only has he competed internationally at the Paralympics, he is also a back-to-back national champion as a middle-distance runner. He holds the current Canadian records for the 400 metre and 800 metre.

In elementary and high school it seemed like there wasn’t a race McGregor didn’t win.

“I was always naturally gifted at running. I had to train a little bit, and I still feel like I worked harder than anyone even at that age, but I think naturally I was just better and faster,” he says.

McGregor comes from a family with natural athletic abilities. His mother, Anne McGregor, was a talented runner and competed nationally for much of her young adult life. His three brothers all excelled in their chosen athletic passions growing up, as well. “I had that fast twitch. I suppose I was born with,” he says. 

He was also born with a degenerative eye disease called Retinitis Pigmentosa. He was officially diagnosed in 1991 after noticing changes in his ability to see at night.

What he assumed was a regular eye exam, soon turned into hours of tests. McGregor, who was 12 at the time, remembers sitting in the optometrist’s office with his mom, patiently awaiting the results that were about to change his life. His mother recalls that appointment well. Almost 25 years later she still feels the shock of hearing her son was legally blind, and would most likely lose all of his vision by the time he was 14.

“[My husband] and I were literally devastated for a couple of years,” she said. “We never told him that the doctors said he was going to be completely blind, so it was a slow process of him learning the extent of his disability.”

Though he has experienced deteriorating vision since his diagnosis, McGregor beat the odds the doctors gave him. Today, he is left with about 10 per cent peripheral vision.

Despite his disability, he continued to run against able-bodied athletes, and win.

In Grade 9, McGregor joined the Ottawa Lions under head coach Ray Elrick, and stayed with their program throughout the duration of his athletic career. By age 14 he was headed to nationals. By 16 he made his way to the first of three Paralympic games when he competed in Atlanta, where he won a silver medal in the 1500 metre. He also won bronze in Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004).

McGregor credits his running coach for pushing him to limits he didn’t think existed. He remembers running interval sprints along the Rideau Canal in the dead of winter. “My coach was tough as nails, and you could never give any excuse to him and he wouldn’t accept any excuse,” he says. “You had to really work to earn his respect.” 

Elrick said it didn’t take long at all for McGregor to earn it. “He had his own motivation. I never saw him slack off at all, he was an excellent athlete, and very coachable,” he says.  “A guy with a disability doesn’t mean he can’t do what he wants to do and follow his dreams.”

McGregor says it was his three brothers who instilled that competitive flare in him, but it’s his older brother Rob he points to as having had the biggest impact on him as an athlete. The two describe themselves as best friends. He was the best man at Rob’s wedding. “We sort of saw eye to eye more on just what being a good athlete meant. He would always say things like ‘you’re a winner, you’re going to win’, and he’d always be the one who would pump me up,” McGregor explains.

Rob says it’s an honour his brother thinks so highly of him, but in reality Rob feels that it is he who looks up to his little brother. “He probably has the strongest will and determination of someone I’ve ever met. For him to say [he looks up to me], it’s very nice, but it’s more so the other way, I’d say.”

In the spring of 2005, McGregor ran the best time of his life in the 800 metre, missing the Paralympic world-record by a tenth of a second. With the dream of holding the record in the 800 metre so close in reach, he swore to make his dream a reality and he pushed himself more then ever in pursuit of it.

But one night in November 2005 changed everything. His dream got washed away in a rainstorm when he and fellow paralympian, Jason Dunkerley, were hit by a vehicle, while running together.  The car—a Nissan Pathfinder—was a write-off, and McGregor looked to be too.

Despite the thick rain further impairing his vision, McGregor was able to see enough to tell Dunkerly had been pushed into the middle of the road during the accident.

“My leg was shattered, like bone through the skin,” he says. “I skidded across the road, but I could see to my right lying down that my friend Jay was sitting upright right in the middle of the road. And I didn’t really know his condition, I knew he was okay enough that he could sit up, but I could tell he was totally stunned.”

McGregor took the brunt of the hit, with his left leg broken in 28 spots. He developed a bad bone infection called Osteomyelitis, and as a result had to undergo five reconstructive surgeries following the accident. The infection left McGregor strapped to an IV for a year. At the same time he was fighting nerve damage in his foot and loss of mobility in his knee.

“It wasn’t the pain of getting hit, but the week afterwards, once I was released from the hospital and was able to go home. Every time I stood up just the blood rushing down to the fracture area. I still remember that and almost throw-up, it was just so painful and I was on the strongest medications and it didn’t help at all.”

“Nobody would realize what he went through, the grit, the determination and the pain he went through to comeback from that accident,” his mother said.

After hundreds of physiotherapy sessions, and countless days learning to walk with a cane, McGregor was able to recover to the point where he felt ready to hit the track once again.

“Just trying to jog around the track would take me like three minutes. [Other runners at the track] remember watching me do it with this crazy limp, but for them it was like probably a combination of this guy’s insane versus this is pretty inspiring,” he said. “I just needed it so badly, just for my own mental sanity.”

Elrick remembers the injury from 2005 well. “I saw him and Jay in the hospital after, and thought holy shit. I didn’t see how they could come back from that kind of injury.”

In McGregor’s return to the track, Elrick saw the determination the athlete had held so fiercely throughout his running career, be put to the true test.

“It was just being patient with him really,” says Elrick. “The odd pep talk, you know he was frustrated obviously, and he just had to understand it would take time, maybe more time then he wanted or even had.”

His comeback to the track came less then three years after his accident when McGregor began preparing for the 2008 Paralympics. He trained relentlessly.  Part of his motivation came from filling the walls in his basement with hundreds of post-it notes outlining training goals he was going to reach each day, heading into the games. “It was unlike anything I’d ever seen,” his brother remembers.

When he didn’t make the cut he shifted his focus to the 2012 games in London.

But again, he was denied qualification for London.  

Though upset, it motivated him to train to qualify for the Parapan American Games, with the decision he would retire his running shoes afterward.

After meeting the standard numerous times, McGregor was also not selected for the 2015 games, a decision by Athletics Canada that left him frustrated and hurt. “It was so back-handed and it was just so wrong. My qualifying time that I had run a few times would have put me second and challenging to win it with another Canadian. A Canadian had won it, and my time was right behind what he had done. I would have medalled, let alone I would have had a chance to win, and it was ripped away,” he says.”

Elrick says he remembers how devastated McGregor was. He too was frustrated with the decision. “I thought he had made the standards that [Athletics Canada] had set, because we chased that all summer, early on in the summer,” he said. “It was sad really but I’ve seen that before on the able-bodied side too, and things like that happen. You can’t control it, you can only control what you do on the track, and if that’s not good enough, then it’s frustrating.”

McGregor has since decided that his competitive running days are done. For now, he says he enjoys playing hockey on his outdoor rink with nine-year-old son Will, and watching his two young daughters grow.

He looks back at his running career with fond memories. Everyday reminders of his achievements fill the walls of his home. From articles of his success, jerseys from the three Paralympics and cases of medals, McGregor knows he has made not only his country proud, but also himself. He recognizes that despite the setbacks and disappointments after his accident, the future is bright for him.

“It’s honestly really bizarre to say,” he says. “I have this feeling of needing to do something big but I don’t know what it is yet. I’m trying to figure out what.”