In the marathon
leg of the 1989 Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii, Jim MacLaren, a 27-year-old
professional triathlete and a former linebacker for Yale, fell in step with
41-year-old Ken Mitchell, who played the same position for the Atlanta Falcons
from 1972 to '75. Given the demands of the race (a 2.4-mile swim, a marathon
run and a 112-mile bike ride), conversation had to be minimal, but the two did
talk a bit about Mitchell's 11 knee operations, the result of his football
career. After about a mile MacLaren decided to pull ahead. "I'm saying a
little prayer for you, Jimmy," Mitchell called out as he dropped farther
and farther behind. MacLaren, you see, was running with a prosthesis on his
For the past two
years MacLaren has been clocking triathlon times that are benchmarks for most
able-bodied athletes. He runs a sub-3:30 marathon and has a 2:10 for a
shorter-course (.9-mile swim, 6.2-mile run, 24.8-mile bike ride) triathlon to
his credit. He qualified for the U.S. Triathlon Series (USTS) Nationals in
November by finishing third in the 25-29 age group at the Alpena, Mich., race
last June. Bud Light has made MacLaren a member of its four-member triathlon
team, along with Dave Scott, Scott Tinley and Harold Robinson. In the '89
Ironman, MacLaren finished with a time of 12:13:50, shaving almost two hours
off the amputee record.
The challenges in
that event are "enormous," he says. "To do well, you need some
sense of humor and some sense of your own mortality." MacLaren qualifies on
both counts—especially the latter. MacLaren, who is also an actor, lost his leg
in a traffic accident on Oct. 20, 1985. He was riding his motorcycle down Fifth
Avenue in New York City at 9:30 p.m. after completing an assignment as a member
of the Circle in the Square Theatre School. He stopped for a red light at 34th
Street, and when the light turned green, MacLaren opened the throttle of his
Honda V65 Sabre and gunned it forward. At that moment, a westbound city bus
weighing 40,000 pounds roared into the intersection and hit MacLaren. According
to the police report, the bus threw MacLaren, who was still at his football
weight of 290 pounds, 89 feet.
The force of the
impact sent MacLaren's helmet flying. His unprotected head hit the pavement
first, and his skull split open across the forehead. A lung was punctured, his
spleen was ruptured, his kidneys were lacerated, and all his ribs were broken.
He was bleeding profusely, both externally and internally. His left leg, which
the bus had mashed into the engine of his bike, was burned and crushed.
pronounced dead on arrival at Bellevue Hospital, but doctors were able to
restart his heart—twice. They then had to restrain him when he tried to get off
the operating table.
MacLaren was in
surgery for 18 hours as the hospital staff tried to keep him alive. "They
didn't want to give us much hope," says his mother, Hillary Milum. "The
internal bleeding was so bad. For a long time, we didn't even know that there
was a problem with the leg."
from a coma six days later to the sound of a respirator pumping air into his
lungs. His left leg had been amputated just below the knee. "I don't
remember anything, really," he says. "But all the time I was
unconscious, my mother kept a journal of people who called or came by, which I
read after I woke up. It was like going to your own funeral. Only, I got the
chance to come back. My leg was gone, but I felt extremely lucky to be
Since the crash
MacLaren's biggest challenge has been fighting stereotyping, something he has
been doing since college. At Yale he had to prove himself as an actor: "I
was the size of a building, so people didn't think I could possibly be a good
actor, but I was." And because he was a football player, he had to prove
that he was indeed a serious drama student: "The dumb-jock-in-class
thing." In his sophomore year he took a class with Nikos Psacharopoulos,
renowned director of the Williamstown Theater Festival until his death in
January 1989. "Nikos wanted me to drop out of the class," MacLaren
says. "I knew I wasn't very good, but I stood up to him and said I wanted
to stay. To learn. Very untypical of me." MacLaren did stay, and
Psacharopoulos took him under his wing.
In June 1985,
MacLaren graduated from Yale with a degree in fine arts. In September he was
accepted by the Circle in the Square School. Just three weeks later he lost his
leg. Doctors told him that he should expect to be hospitalized for at least
four months. But after 11 days at Bellevue, he was released to the Kessler
Institute for Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J. By January 1986, he was back
at Circle in the Square.
Psacharopoulos accepted MacLaren as an actor at the Williamstown Festival.
While he was there, MacLaren met Marcus Giamatti, son of the late baseball
commissioner, and the two became fast friends. "That summer Jim really got
into taking care of his body," Giamatti says. Giamatti, a former member of
the Bowdoin swim team, taught MacLaren the rudiments of swimming.