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Paul Rockwell: Marathon Man

Story by Gary Greenberg
Photo by Diane Bradford

April 2002-- “That’s me with my father,” Paul Rockwell says, pointing to a black and white photo hanging on his bedroom wall. He laughs. “Check out my Forrest Gump braces.” 

     Ah yes, it was so easy for Forrest Gump. One moment he was crippled, and the next he was running, faster and faster, until he ran right out of his leg braces. It was a mystical, magical transformation. Pure Hollywood.

     The script 35-year-old Paul Rockwell has had to follow through reality hasn’t been so smooth. Born with cerebral palsy, he’s been shackled to crutches for life. But like Forrest Gump, Paul Rockwell has managed to shed his braces. And like Forrest, Paul runs. With splayed crutches swinging and twisted legs hopping along, he runs the streets of Stuart, Fla., up to nine miles at a clip.

    In a storyline nearly as improbable as Forrest Gump’s, Paul Rockwell has become a marathon runner. 

    “Cerebral palsy is amazing because it affects everyone differently,” he says. “I’m lucky that mine is limited to my legs. It hasn’t even stopped me from running. I count my blessings every day.” 

    A Cambridge, Mass., native, Paul got the idea to run the famed Boston Marathon a few years ago and set out to accomplish the goal in a quixotic quest that would change his life. But it wasn’t really that much of a stretch for the lifelong sports junkie. 

    “All I remember from my youth is playing sports,” he explains. “I built a baseball field in my backyard long before Kevin Costner did it in the movies. And I played four-on-four football with my friends. I was always the quarterback…” he pauses for effect “…because I had the best arm.” 

    In 1999, he began training for marathons, a 26-mile race that remains one of the most grueling tests in all of sports. In October of that year, he ran the Chicago Marathon to qualify for Boston. And the following April, he completed his Holy Grail, the Boston Marathon, in just over seven and a half hours. 

    Along with physical fitness and mental strength, his accomplishments gained him some media exposure, some fans and a very unexpected fringe benefit. Paul used his newfound notoriety to raise $1,000 for United Cerebral Palsy, and when charity worker Lauren Spalding was sent to pick up the money, she instantly became smitten with him. In happily-ever- after fashion, they were married last May. 

    Paul ran Boston again in 2001, but had to drop out in the thirteenth mile after pulling a muscle. Now, wanting his 26-year-old wife, Lauren, to see him finish a race, he’s training to take on the Chicago Marathon again.

    “Most of what I use in running is my upper body, so I’ve been concentrating on weight training these days,” he notes. The strength it takes shows in the corded muscles of his arms as well as the number of crutches he goes through. 

    “They tend to break in half,” he says. “But one of the first things you learn when you’re disabled is to fall well because you’re going to be doing it all your life. My first therapist told me that after she pulled my crutch out from under me. She said, ‘You have to make gravity your friend.’” 

    For the most part, Paul has made gravity his friend. And he’s made a lot of other friends through his proud, determined, never-say-never attitude towards life despite being dealt what most people would consider a bum hand. In fact, when asked how he’d feel if he could be miraculously cured, he shrugs as though he could take it or leave it. 

    “Sometimes people come up to me and say they’ll pray for me to be healed,” he confides. “I tell them I’m made in God’s image, so He must have crutches, too. I’m happy with the way I am.” 

    That may be a difficult concept for able-bodied people to accept. To watch the trouble Paul has merely walking from the living room to the kitchen, his strong upper body continually teetering on mutinous legs, every ungainly step looking tortured as he struggles to remain on good terms with gravity…it’s enough to send the pity meter off the high end of the scale. 

    But Paul neither wants nor expects your pity. And when he’s out running on the street, you see that there is grace to his stride, a fluidness born out of the regularity of his movement as he swings on the crutches, churning up mile after mile at a slow, steady pace. 

    Like Forrest Gump, Paul Rockwell has run right out of his braces and into the heart of anyone with a heart. And he’s proven beyond a doubt that you don’t have to be able-bodied to be a winner in the human race.

Next: Irwin Stovroff: The Lucky Bombardier
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