By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
For those married to origin stories, here’s the primer:
Kacey McCallister, age 6, darts in front of an oncoming truck in Wyoming and loses one leg in the resulting accident, his second leg is broken in seven places and amputated after a helicopter ride to the hospital.
Jump to: McCallister in grade school, legless, playing for Keizer Little League, local and national headlines follow.
Moving along: McCallister at McNary High School, a three-sport athlete in cross country, wheelchair basketball and, his true sports love, wrestling. By the end of his career, he’s earned a district title in cross country, two district titles in wrestling, placed fourth in the state at 103 pounds as a junior and wrestles to the state championship match as a senior where he finishes second.
Bringing us to: Saturday, April 30, 2011, McCallister will become McNary’s first inductee to the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and a recipient of the Medal of Courage, an honor presented annually to a wrestler or former wrestler who has overcome what appears to be insurmountable challenges, which may be physical, mental or other handicaps, that make their achievements all the more uplifting.
Why? McCallister, now 24, admits to finding the situation somewhat surreal.
“I only wrestled in high school and now I’m coaching, but I’ve only been coaching a few years as an assistant,” he said. “In a lot of ways, I look around the state and the people that I coach with and I don’t feel I’ve attained that level yet, but I also have to step outside of myself and see what other people see.”
Makes sense, but athletes overcome adversity every day. Since his youth, McCallister has been asked to speak to other youth about his challenges and what he’s done to overcome them. What other people see in him is not what he achieved, it’s the mindset that helped him achieve anything at all facing a situation that would leave most bewildered and floundering.
For former McNary wrestling coach Tony Olliff, McCallister’s secret weapon is the self-reliance in stilled in him by his parents, Bernie and Julene McCallister.
As a child, doctors urged them to allow young Kacey to find his own ways of doing things when the easiest option would be to offer assistance. If a box of cereal lay beyond his reach in a cabinet, he had discover how to climb up to it. When it came to wrestling, that self-reliance carried over, Olliff said.
“Kacey modified every aspect of every workout to suit his needs. If we were working on leg rides, Kacey formed his version. If we were doing squats in the weight room, Kacey had his version. There was never wasted practice time,” Olliff said. “Kacey never stood off in a corner waiting on something to be applicable to himself. Kacey manipulated everything we worked on and made a version that was applicable to his body – his style.”
That intestinal fortitude is what made him worthy of one of the sport’s highest honors, Olliff said.
Since leaving McNary’s hallowed halls, where he is now known with some infamy as the unbeatable record-holder of the bench press in his weight class, McCallister, now a Monmouth resident, has been pursuing a teaching degree at various institutions. He still competes in triathlons and marathons when his growing family permits. He and wife Jennifer welcomed their first son, Patrick, two weeks ago, who joins his big sister, Anna, 2.
He’s also been helping out as an assistant wrestling coach in middle and high schools.
“Mostly, I want them to learn to love the sport and the things that come with loving it. Tony is a tough, tough coach, but he builds a camaraderie in his programs and that builds character. That’s what I’m looking forward to most is being a coach and helping to build the legacy of a program,” McCallister said.
There are, of course, those who remain overly fearful for his well-being when he jumps of a curb in his wheelchair or bombs down off a stool. But, after 18 years, he approaches it all with the same knowing grin and modesty he sported as a Celtic athlete.
“For a long time, I didn’t like being thought of as something special, but there are people who need a boost and if I can be here to help or inspire them to overcome their challenges, I’m okay with that,” he said.