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Downers Grove man, former Olympic fencer finds success, struggles in distance running

DOWNERS GROVE – Last July, for the first time in his 58 years, Olympian Michael McCahey’s body wasn’t cooperating.

The Downers Grove resident broke his elbow after slipping on a wet floor, and then a week later, he fractured his leg while training for a marathon.

Few things would have been more frustrating for a man used to setting athletic goals and then pretty much always reaching them. As a 10-year-old, McCahey told his father he wanted to be on the U.S. Olympic fencing team, shorty after discovering the sport at the Chicago Athletic Club.

“And he said, ‘I’ll support that if you commit to it,’” McCahey said. “And so I did.”

As a lanky and initially uncoordinated child, his first competition did not go well, but McCahey developed the discipline that would serve him well moving forward.

“I listen well, and I built a good foundation of techniques, which is the attitude I started to take to any sport – which is to learn the foundation, learn the technique, learn the fundamentals and then work at it very hard and you’ll be successful,” he said. “I’ve taken that philosophy in everything I’ve done in my life, whether it be business or athletics.”

By his senior year of high school, McCahey won the U.S. National Championship, and the following fall, he attended Notre Dame on a fencing scholarship. The team won two NCAA championships, and after competing internationally, McCahey joined the U.S. Olympic team in 1980. He was close to his dream, but world events would delay the realization for four more years.

“On [March 21], then-President Jimmy Carter announced that we would be boycotting the Olympic games in Moscow due to the fact that the Soviets were invading Afghanistan – how ironic,” he said. “Sixty-seven percent of the athletes voted in support of that boycott, including myself. We felt it was not in keeping with the Olympic spirit to go compete for peace and harmony on the soil of a country that was invading its neighbor. It put a big dent in my Olympic dream.”

McCahey kept training for four more years, and by 1984, he ranked higher internationally than in 1980, he said, and he led the U.S. team’s efforts in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

Walking in the opening Olympic ceremonies almost was “beyond description,” he said.

“Your whole life as an athlete you dreamt of this and visualized it. I saw myself walking in there with almost all of the other top athletes in the world, and when it actually happened, it’s almost surreal. So you soak in the sounds of the crowd and the lights and the pomp and circumstance.

“And I would have to say it’s probably the greatest feeling in the world.”

Having accomplished his goal despite the U.S. team not medaling in the ’84 Game, McCahey was ready to move on to other pursuits. Other than a few competitions, he left fencing behind and refocused to raising his two daughters and building his software sales career.

Athletics were largely in the rear-view mirror until one of his daughters reached high school in 2009 and challenged McCahey to run with her so she could train for the track team.

“I trained for about a two-month period,” he said. “I dropped about 30 pounds. I entered the 5k race, and I kind of got the bug for competition. I won my age group for that race, and I thought, ‘This is a lot of fun.’”

McCahey found himself in a new sport, and typically, he set high goals.

“I entered the Chicago Marathon for my second competitive race,” he said. “It was a big leap, but I absolutely fell in love with the distance and running in general. I joined the Chicago Runners Association, and in 2011 I won the Chicago circuit in my age group for them.”

Things were going smoothly until July 27, 2012, when he was carrying his dog into the house on a rainy day. He slipped and fell, breaking his elbow.

“I convinced the doctor not to put it into a cast,” he said. “We just put it in a bandage and a sling, so that when I was training, I could just keep my arm at 90 degrees. I could run with it, I figured I could deal with the pain and keep training. And then on the second or third of August, I was doing a track workout and as I came around turn one, I planted my right foot and my right leg broke.”

McCahey was in a boot for 12 weeks, and worked with physical therapist Shilpi Havron to heal.

When he was finally out of the boot, the muscles in his right leg had atrophied from lack of use, and he had lost his running speed and endurance. It was time for McCahey to set some new goals.

In November, he started training for April’s Boston Marathon. By Christmas, with the help of his physical therapist, he was already up to 40 miles a week.

At the Boston Marathon, he was back to near full-peak, and he finished an hour and forty minutes before the first of the two bombs were detonated.

McCahey is now back to full strength, and last month he ran a personal best marathon time in Duluth, Minn., – 3 hours and 6 minutes – less than a year after two serious injuries.

“A goal without a plan is really a wish,” he said. “And wishes don’t often come true. But if you have a plan, and put steps in place, and set the bar higher than you think you can reach, anything is available for anybody. I truly believe that.”

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