In 1988, at the tumultuous age of 14, Matt McCluskey was like any young teenager in St. Louis. He dabbled in team sports, including baseball and soccer, and excelled at wrestling as a junior high school athlete. However, something was about to set him apart from his classmates — something that would never prove to be a setback in his life.
“I had extreme pain and some swelling of my heel bone,” McCluskey explained as the early warning signs that something was seriously wrong with his left leg.
It would take several doctors appointments and finally a biopsy to determine that he had Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare bone cancer most commonly linked to male teens.
On March 21, 1988 McCluskey underwent a left transtibial amputation at the Children’s Hospital of St. Louis followed by one year of chemotherapy to make certain that all of the cancer cells were eradicated from his system.
Adapting a life
Following his amputation, McCluskey had to approach his love of sports a little differently.
“After my amputation, running became really hard on my leg and in 1988 the technology was not as good as it is today,” he said.
For many, this newfound frustration would mark the end of a sporting career, but quitting never entered his mind. His adolescent energy, coupled with the determination to find a sport in which he could excel, led McCluskey to adapt to his new lifestyle and focus on cycling and later mountain biking.
“I always liked bikes and because there is no impact with cycling, it really became my main way of participating in sports,” McCluskey said. “When you are 14 you think you are indestructible and you just want to go, go, go. That was a way for me to keep on moving.”
McCluskey, now age 34, a full-time engineer, husband and father of two, has taken his passion for cycling and expanded it from just a way to stay active into a full-time hobby gaining recognition within the competitive mountain biking community of Plymouth, Michigan — his residence since moving from St. Louis. His growing involvement within the sport is evident as he competes in races almost every weekend from April through October.
Now in his fifth season of serious competition, McCluskey said he has never been more dedicated to the sport, especially as more people within the racing circuit hear about his involvement.
“I am the only one out there that I know of who is racing with a prosthetic leg — or a prosthetic at all — and because of that a lot of people know who I am,” McCluskey said.
Competing against peers
McCluskey is the personification of the Extremity Games tagline, “There’s no replacement for the competitive spirit.” He made his Extremity Games debut in the summer of 2007 in Orlando.
After learning about the Games through his prosthetic care providers at Wright and Filippis, McCluskey was excited about taking on the new challenge.
“I have been going to Wright and Filippis for more than 10 years, so they all know me,” he said. “They really wanted me to get involved and participate.”
Not knowing what to expect of the Games, McCluskey eagerly accepted the opportunity to compete and was blown away by the level of competition he faced in Orlando.
“It made me feel, in a good way, like I was part of something again,” McCluskey told O&P Business News. “It was really cool to be around all of these amputees in one spot. I have not had an experience like that since I had cancer.”
He showed his mettle by taking third place in the advanced level mountain biking event at the 2007 Games.
This year, McCluskey’s involvement in the Extremity Games goes beyond the role of competitor. The games, relocating this year to Michigan, are taking place basically in his backyard, giving McCluskey the chance to become more involved in course planning and preparation.
“I race through the normal mountain bike season here in Michigan and I am familiar with the national rules,” McCluskey said. “The Extremity Games are growing every year so it is good that they are getting feedback from the athletes … and how they can improve.”
The mountain bike course at previous Extremity Games competitions was more reminiscent of a BMX course, McCluskey explained. Being a paced distance racer, it was not the kind of race to which he was accustomed.
“The minimum that I ride is 30 miles per race,” he said. “I [compete in] some 8, 12 and 24 hour races throughout the season on top of my normal 2 or 3 hours races, so I am used to going for long distances at a pace.”
Being familiar with the course and competing on his home turf, McCluskey is confident that his performance will improve from last year’s showing.
“I don’t want to make any predictions but I am planning on doing really well,” McCluskey said. “Hopefully better than third.”
Jennifer Hoydicz is a staff writer for O&P Business News.