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Amputee will put kayak arm to ultimate test

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BETHESDA, Md. -- Willie Stewart says he used to be a real jerk.

Stewart lost his left arm up to the biceps in a roofing accident at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., when he was 18. He says he went through years of depression, self-loathing and anger.

"I had a bad attitude," he says. "I was a tyrant. I had a lot to prove."

Now 43, Stewart has proved that the accident that changed his life 25 years ago has rarely stopped him from achieving his goals.

On Wednesday, Stewart will embark on his next pursuit: a 20-day group kayaking trip through the Grand Canyon on the Colorado River. With the aid of a specially designed prosthetic arm, Stewart will battle the rapids and live out a dream.

"It is so fun to know that you had your arm chopped off, never thought you would paddle again, (then) someone makes an arm for you ... and you can go out on the river and have a blast," he says. "I'm fortunate or blessed, or whatever you want to say, that I get to do that."

The kayaking arm was designed and built by orthotics and prosthetics clinical manager Michael Davidson at Loma Linda University Medical Center in California.

"Obviously, it's needed to do things like steer and propel and make (the kayak) go, but it's real critical should he flip over, upside-down. He needs two arms to be able to get back upright so he doesn't drown," Davidson says. "That was one of the neat things that he was able to master, and really has less to do about the arm and more to do about him."

Last month, Stewart showed a group of veterans and kayakers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington how the kayaking arm works. The next day, he was out on the Potomac River showing off his skills with Team River Runner, a local kayaking group that includes war veterans, amputees and world champion kayakers.

Bill Johnston, a veteran of the Vietnam War, got involved with Team River Runner as soon as he arrived at Walter Reed in June. Johnston, a double-leg amputee, says kayaking is good for balance, and the "skills are transferable" to other activities, such as horseback riding and basketball.

He's impressed with Stewart's Grand Canyon trip and says the kayaking arm has inspired other upper-extremity amputees at Walter Reed to get involved with the sport.

"I think it's going to be more arm amputees out with us from now on, because I know a number of them were impressed with (Stewart's) ability and especially how quickly he's learned," Johnston says.

Stewart knows he's taking on a daunting challenge: The Colorado River, he says, can reach a staggering volume of "9,000 to 17,000 cubic feet per second." One cubic foot of water weighs nearly 63 pounds and contains almost eight gallons.

But he remains optimistic.

"I have a certain amount of fear, which I think is good because (it) motivates you to learn as much as you can about the river and train as much as you can," he says. "There's so much that can go wrong, I'm not even going to dwell on it.

"I'm just going to keep focusing on trying to train and getting myself in shape ... to make sure that I can give my best."

For Stewart, giving his best has been a struggle in the years since his accident. After an early adulthood of depression and anger, the former Virginia high school state wrestling champion got back into sports, which he says helped save him. He was able to release many of his frustrations about being an amputee through physical activity and was captain of the Washington Rugby Club.

"I was dissipating anger through rugby," he remembers. "It was better than going to jail. Rugby was like legal mayhem. I loved it."

After rugby, Stewart did things that his doctors never imagined he could. He was a bike messenger in Washington, D.C., a ski instructor in Colorado, an Ironman triathlete and a U.S. Paralympian skier in the past three Winter Games. He now works at the Loma Linda Medical Center with PossAbilities, an outreach program for the disabled.

Stewart says losing his arm was "a slap in the face" for the "arrogant" young man that he was. He hopes other injured and disabled people can see that their challenges may be blessings in disguise.

"My hope is that the things I do show people there's a great life after getting hurt. It can be a better life because it's good to get knocked down -- be at the bottom sometimes -- and then come back up.

"I used to think, 'I'm failing. I'm stupid. I have one arm,'" he says. "Now I think, 'So what? I tried.'"

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© Copyright 2004 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc.

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