Sitting in his high-tech wheelchair on the stage of Yale Law School’s Levinson Auditorium on Wednesday, a man who once excelled in two varsity sports remained almost completely still. Motivational speaker and the 2007 Kiphuth Fellowship winner, Jim MacLaren ’85 DRA ’89 spoke to his audience about what can happen when life takes unexpected turns.
“We never know what our lives will look like, and as long as we accept what happens and move forward, we’ll be OK,” he said during his 90-minute speech.
This year the Yale Athletics Department awarded its Kiphuth Fellowship to a man who survived not one, but two serious accidents. In 1985, the former football and lacrosse star lost his left leg when a 40,000-pound bus collided with his motorcycle. Eight years later in 1993, after he had become the world’s fastest one-legged athlete, a van crashed into MacLaren when he was competing in a triathlon. After a long and tedious rehabilitation, the 43-year-old decided to embark on a career of motivational speaking and created the Choose Living Foundation in 2005 to support his philanthropic works.
“I am not my body,” he said. “I am a man. I am alive, and being alive is being alive. It’s a good thing.”
On Wednesday, MacLaren’s classmate and teammate Jon Litner ’85 introduced his dear friend to the audience as a man with “an insatiable zest for life.” Litner said he has looked at his friend Jimmy as a hero since he met him at age 17. On that day back in 1981, MacLaren, a “6’5”, 250-pound, ‘blue eyed Adonis,’” ate a lunch of two cheeseburgers, a plate full of fries and chocolate pudding, while recounting his tales of growing up all over the country and of having a 26-year-old girlfriend.
Litner described a time in his sophomore year when the Yale football team was playing at West Point, and MacLaren, then a tight end, experienced a concussion. But that did not stop MacLaren, who persistently tried to go back on the field. The only way to stop MacLaren was for the coaches and teammates to strip him down, Litner said.
Litner talked about the same drive MacLaren had when he pursued his career as an actor at Yale and on Broadway — until the fateful night of his first accident.
“He went on to a career in drama,” Litner said as he concluded. “It just wasn’t in the sphere he intended.”
As MacLaren rolled onto the stage of the Levinson Auditorium, he told the crowd that they would first watch a clip from the 2005 ESPY award ceremonies where he and a fellow disabled athlete whom he described as his “brother,” Ghanian Emmanuel Ofosuh Yeboah, were awarded the Arthur Ashe Courage Award.
“[The video] tells my story, which I’m not all that interested in,” MacLaren said. “I’m just a 43-year-old work in progress.”
The segment followed MacLaren from the day of his first accident in 1985, when he was announced ‘dead on arrival’ at the hospital, to the present. MacLaren woke from a coma with little memory of the trauma that cost him his left leg below the knee. He made the decision to start swimming and competing in triathlons, and after some time, MacLaren became the fastest one-legged athlete on the planet.
During a 1993 triathlon in California, MacLaren was once hit once again — this time by a van — because the traffic marshal had misjudged his speed approaching an intersection. The accident hurled MacLaren into a sign post, and he broke his neck. As a result, he became an incomplete quadriplegic, meaning that although he lost much of his ability to move and sense, MacLaren maintains some nerve activity.
MacLaren would go on to dedicate himself to surmounting the great obstacle of ‘losing his body.’
Although MacLaren has had more than his fair share of so-called life lessons, he said he will forever remember the valuable education he received attending both Yale College and the Drama School.
“Yale taught me that learning is forever,” he said. “Learning is a lifelong process.”
As an undergraduate, MacLaren juggled academics, athletics and the job he held to support himself. He said that although he acquired substantial knowledge from his classes and activities, he also learned a great deal from the “weirdos here during the Reagan era.” One of his most memorable acquaintances here was a person double majoring in molecular biology and Classics, who identified himself as a punk rocker, MacLaren said.
During his time at the School of Drama, MacLaren, who by then only had one leg, molded his tight-end body into the physique of a lean triathlete by losing 110 pounds. He said the core class he took on voice was the best therapy because he learned many of the skills he would later use in his career as a public speaker.
“Yale taught me to do what I love,” he said. “And it taught me that I will always know how to learn.”
In May 2002, GQ Magazine ran a feature-length profile on MacLaren, entitled “Lucky Jim.” The article honed in on the treatments he went through to recover, recounted the training he went through to become a world-class disabled athlete, and spoke of his personal battle with substance abuse.
The article also captured MacLaren’s realization of his absolute deepest fear.
“I was afraid of being alone with myself, with my mind, with the dark things that lived in me, like fear and doubt and loneliness, and confusion,” he said in the profile. “I was afraid of metaphysical pain.”
But MacLaren has come a long way since then, making him an ideal recipient of the Kiphuth Fellowship. The award is named for legendary Yale swimming coach and Athletic Director Robert J.H. Kiphuth, who “went out to the world and brought back the excitement of those he met,” according to the fellowship’s mission statement. The award was founded to “perpetuate the lively interest of those areas that Bob Kiphuth stimulated in those who knew him.” And the recipient of this year’s award is exactly the kind of person Kiphuth so admired.