James Lilly, who won gold medals at international paralympic games, dies at age 43
BY MAUREEN ODONNELL Staff Reporter firstname.lastname@example.org December 26, 2012 7:50PM
James Lilly, para-athlete who competed in grueling races. | Facebook photo
Updated: January 30, 2013 6:05AM
In the 28 years since he was shot and paralyzed when he was a 15-year-old running with gangs, James Lilly competed in astoundingly grueling wheelchair races as far away as Alaska, coached other people with spinal cord injuries and did motivational speaking urging kids to make better choices than he once had.
With his specially equipped big brown Cadillac, bigger smile and a titanium determination that helped him drag his body up and down stairs, if necessary, to get to gyms, he was a familiar and well-liked figure in the world of para-athletes.
Mr. Lilly, 43, died Dec. 24 at Loyola University Medical Center. His wife, Nora Cahue, said he had had a tough year of health struggles.
He competed in more than 130 marathons and races, including the Chicago Marathon; played basketball for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, and did wheelchair racing for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, his wife said. Most recently, he competed in October’s Twin Cities Marathon in Minnesota.
He won gold medals at international paralympic games. Friends and family said he competed the most times of any athlete in Sadler’s Alaska Challenge, a race that makes marathons look like a walk in the park.
The Challenge — dubbed the Tour de France of wheelchair races — involves a punishing 250-or-so mile route from Fairbanks to Anchorage. It’s the longest wheelchair and handcycle race in the world.
Mr. Lilly returned to the Sadler’s race 10 times and won it in 2002.
His wife said she knew he was special when they first started seeing each other in 1994. He was planning to do the Lake County Marathon, though a race official expressed concern that it wasn’t wheelchair accessible, she said. “He told me to go in the car and ‘meet me at the finish line.’’’
“Here I am on the highway, driving for a very long time to get to the finish line,” she said, “and when I got there, he had finished the race.”
In motivational speeches at schools, he often talked about how his gang-banging as a youth in Chicago led to his being shot in the 2200 block of West Coulter Street in September of 1985. He was only 15.
“I get kind of depressed, and I think, man, why does life have to be like this? But I don’t cry. I get pissed off and angry, and say, you know, ‘Damn it, why do I have to be in a wheelchair?’ ” he said in a documentary about his life, “Pushin’ Forward,” by filmmaker Izumi Tanaka. “I acknowledge the fact all the time that. . . . I was the idiot that chose to do everything that caused me to be in a wheelchair, so I have nobody to blame but myself.”
Still, he persevered.
“He never let anybody tell him he couldn’t do something,” his wife said. The Sadler’s Alaska Challenge “was a grueling race; the weather — sometimes they were pushing 50 miles a day.”
Closer to home, he tangled with amusement park officials if they told him he couldn’t ride a roller coaster with his kids. They sometimes tried to bar him because of his wheelchair cushion, which he needed to prevent pressure sores. They said it could come loose and cause problems on the ride.
He went to a hobby store to jerry-rig a solution. “He bought the straps with the Velcro; he put the straps on the cushion, and came [back to the amusement park] the next day,” his wife said. “They actually stopped the ride and called the manager and he was able to ride.”
Mr. Lilly often spoke on behalf of the Spinal Cord Injury Association of Illinois, said the group’s executive director, Mercedes Rauen. “He did a lot of injury-prevention programs and peer support for other people, and [he was] an excellent father.”
When he gave motivational speeches, he liked to wear a ring that said “Dad.” “That was his lucky ring, every time he went to speak,” his wife said.
Hector Bruno credits Mr. Lilly with getting him to do wheelchair marathons. Bruno was shot and paralyzed in 1979 while at a party in Chicago. “We used to train around his neighborhood. He pushed you but it was good for you. He never gave up on me,” Bruno said. “I did four marathons.”
“He got many, many people involved in wheelchair sports,” said his friend and fellow racer, Tony Iniguez. The equipment is expensive, so Mr. Lilly found ways to enable others to compete.
“He’d let them use some of his extra chairs, or he’d borrow a chair from somebody,” Iniguez said. “He’d find somebody to donate the gloves, or he’d donate his gloves.”
“The thing I’m going to miss on race mornings is having James coming out of the elevator in his racing tights, screaming at the top of his lungs to try and psych himself up,” Iniguez said. “Everybody’s sleepy, and so here comes James with his warcry.”
Mr. Lilly also is survived by his sons, James, Jr., Christian and Michael, his parents, James and Elizabeth, and his brothers, Antonio and Thomas. His funeral mass is 10 a.m. Saturday at St. Cletus Catholic Church in La Grange. Burial is at Queen of Heaven Cemetery in Hillside.