Friday, November 13, 2009

Standing tall

Kacey is one of those people who I'll never forget, even after he graduated it was always a treat to see him when he dropped back by the school.

Published Feb. 20, 2004 in the Keizertimes

Kacey McCallister, without legs, stands 3-foot tall but people still look up to him.

After 6 minutes on a wrestling mat, Kacey commands the attention and respect of every wrestler and spectator on the scene.

At the duels this season the McNary High School wrestler won all of his matches by pin or technical fall, meaning he beat his foe by at least 15 points. His single-mindedness in preparing for his opponents set the stage for his second straight Valley League title in the 103-pound weight class last weekend.

The determined 17-year-old senior is no stranger to McNary sports fans, who know him as a fierce opponent in any of his three chosen sports. He's equally well known as the Celt promotoer with fiery red hair and a disarming smile, one that belies his competitive spirit.

"I've never really thought of myself as the kid without legs, I just go out and try my best," he said.

Kacey grew up Kemmerer, Wyo., where he was born on Sept. 11, 1986, the son of Bernie and Julene McCallister.

He lost his legs in an accident during a visit to his grandmother's house when he was 6.

"We had just gotten out of church and I was standing by the road when my mom said that there were a couple of cars and a truck coming, I don't know what I was thinking but I darted out in front of the truck," he said.

Kacey lost his left leg in the accident, and his right leg was broken in seven places but had to be amputated to save his life. He had to be air-lifted through a blizzard to Salt Lake City for further treatment.

"I clinically died several times on the flight," he said. "But one of the only things I remember about the accident is the wind and sound of the helicopter as I was taken off of it."

Kacey made a full recovery and the family later moved to Keizer for his father's job.

"I really just had to learn to do things on my own. Whenever I struggled, my mom would leave the room so I could figure out how to do things by myself," he said.

Doing things by himself - whether in playing basketball or baseball, racing in his wheelchair, or wrestling - has garnered Kacey worldwide attention.

His story and accomplishments have been broadcast across the United States and around the world. As he's putting the finishing touches on his high school career, he's making some of his biggest strides yet.

In addition to his second consecutive district title in wrestling, Kacey won the Valley League title in cross country.

His performance in cross country sparked debate about whether wheelchair-bound athletes should compete alongside other runners or have their own event, a question that hadn't been an issue in the three years before his win last fall.

"It was an amazing feeling to win at district and it felt even better to prove people wrong," he said. "But I don't think that we need a wheelchair competition, there would only be one person a year to compete."

In addition to winning district, Kacey also improved his best personal time by more than 20 seconds. He beat the second-place runner by more than 20 seconds.

He said that for the most part he's put the resulting controversy behind him.

"At best, maybe I've opened a few doors for other people," he said.

Keith Anderson, McNary's cross country coach, equated Kacey's win to Sir Edmund Hillary scaling Mt. Everest. Anderson said that in four years with the team, Kacey went from trailing the pack as a freshman to leading it as a senior. When not competing, he could be found along the route, energetically cheering his teammates on.

"It is an honor to have him on our team, he encourages everyone on the team. No one is a loser in his book," said Anderson.

Anderson said that Kacey's sense of humor has been a welcome addition to the team.

"Once we're on the bus, Kacey will shout out loud enough for the bus driver to hear, 'Oh no, coach, I forgot my shoes,'" said Anderson.

More than once a driver has pulled over to ask if they need to return to the school to retrieve Kacey's shoes.

Kacey first attempted to play organized sports - basketball - in the sixth grade. The school team wouldn't allow it, citing safety concerns.

"They thought I would get stepped on," he said.

Kacey and his family sought out the Boys & Girls Club, which allowed him on the courts. Later that year, Kacey began playing Little League baseball.

The first wave of media attention soon followed.

"I was just 10 or 11 years old, a normal kid going about my life," he said.

But feature stories about his endeavors put a spotlight on him.

One result of that has been several unusual opportunities for Kacey to speak with people across the nation. A Little League team in South Carolina dedicated its season to him. He spoke to a classroom in Craig, Colo., via speakerphone. More recently, he has been speaking at youth conferences as far away as Alabama.

"The kids are hilarious - They'll ask 'What happened to your feet?'" said Kacey with a laugh. "I usually just talk about what happened and how I haven't let it get me down."

Kacey said that he doesn't encounter ridicule very often, but that he gets frustrated when people don't ask questions or pretend not to stare.

"I'd rather talk. Let's learn something from each other," he said.

His openness about his situation is exemplified in that he chooses to act as mascot for the Celtic football team. Now matter how far behind the Celts may fall Kacey can be found rallying the fans on the sidelines wearing a horned helmet and cape.

Kacey credits his family, and particularly his mother, for his success.

"She was always the one who pushed me to do things by myself," said Kacey, one of five children.

The family includes his brothers and sister: Keith, 19; Kirt, 12; Whitney, 13; and Kyle, 4. The family also hosts two exchange students.

"My mom has a job ... she doesn't get paid, but she has a job," notes Kacey.

The drive to compete in sports comes from his father and brother

"My dad always pushes me to be a better athlete, and my older brother and I are constantly competing," said Kacey.

He said he started out competing in cross country his freshman year as a way to keep fit but soon racing became a passion. In spring of his freshman year, he began to compete in track and last year he took his racing skills to the U.S. Wheelchair Junior Nationals racing event.

"I did okay, but I'm going to do better this year," said Kacey.

Meanwhile, it's wrestling that ignites a fire in his eyes and brings on that grin.

"People talk about which is the toughest sport all the time, but it's wrestling," said Kacey. "Physically and mentally it's the toughest sport out there and it's a great adrenaline rush and thrill."

Kacey began wrestling in seventh grade after talking about it with friends. At McNary, it's the only one of his sports that poses no limits as to how far he can go.

Last year he won his weight class at the district meet and went on to place fourth at state. This year, he headed to the state competition on Thursday, past deadline, already ranked first in his weight class for all of Oregon.

"I was disappointed with my finish last year, but what it did was motivate me to train harder this year. Every day I've been training for state." He said. "I just love being out on the mats and I love to compete. It makes the day a little bit better to push yourself hard and achieve a goal," he said.

Jason Ebbs, the McNary wresting coach, said Kacey is an outstanding leader for the squad and an inspiration for himself as well as the team.

"He has the mentality of a champion, but he doesn't do anything that anybody else couldn't do," Ebbs said. "He just does it without legs."

Kacey's equally accomplished in the classroom. He expects to finish high school in June with a grade-point average greater than 3.5.

"Kacey is an incredible presence in the classroom. There isn't anything he can't or won't tackle," said Anderson. "He's just as helpful to other students as he is encouraging in sports."

Kacey's energy and enthusiasm will get a more literal spotlight this spring when he plays the Duke of Venice in the McNary drama department's production of "Merchant of Venice."

Long a fan of arts and drama, he enjoys the stage but admits that his ultimate focus lies elsewhere.

"I want to become a teacher, probably a science teacher because that's seems to be what most coaches are," he said. "And I also want to coach wrestling."

He said that he had two criteria for picking a college.

"It had to have a wrestling program and it had to be out-of-state," he said.

He found one to match both requirements. He plans to continue wrestling next year for Utah Valley State College.

Meanwhile, he's concentrating on getting through the state meet.

"I'm going to have to gain about 20 pounds before I can wrestle in college, but right now I'm working on losing a pound for the state meet," said the 103-pounder.

Kacey said he's also looking forward to serving on a two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Beyond that, he said he's not planning everything out.

"I'd like to become a motivational speaker, but I can wait for that," he said.

Regardless of his future course, Kacey can be assured that he's left his mark at McNary, on his teachers, and in the Keizer community, where his irrepressible spirit has captured the hearts of many.

"I'm lucky to have him for a year. I'll just be a small page in Kacey's book, but he's a big page in mine," said Ebbs.

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