Joe Juliano of the Philadelphia Inquirer is a past-president of the Philadelphia Sports Writers Association, and for 29 years he has anchored the committee that selects the winner of our annual Most Courageous Athlete Award.
Annually, the award is the finale of the PSWA banquet, and the identity of the winner is kept secret until the night of the dinner.
We asked Joe to share some of his memories of this hallowed award.
Following is the second of two posts that trace unforgettable award-winners, and some of the athletes who have inspired us through all these years.
To view the first installment of memorable ‘Most Courageous Athlete’ moments, click here.
1998 — Terry-Jo Myers, golf
A member of the LPGA Tour, Myers saw her career almost come to an end because of interstitial cystitis, a bladder disease. Whenever she had any liquid in her bladder, it would cause her intense, unrelenting, excruciating pain. The pain got so bad at one point that she contemplated suicide.
“It feels as that there’s a thousand paper cuts lining your bladder wall,” she said. “I used to drive down the interstate at well over 100 miles an hour just so I could get to the next rest area. I can’t describe how much terror goes through you thinking what will happen if you don’t find one.”
Myers eventually found a drug that provided some relief and her golf game flourished. She won two tournament in 1997, the year before we honored her.
“You have to hit bottom before you can help yourself,” she said. “I’m a very stubborn person. Golf I love. It’s probably what kept me alive. I was naive. As long as I had that dream, I wasn’t going to let it beat me.”
2000 — Jay Sigel, golf
Sigel, of Berwyn, Pa., was one of the greatest amateurs ever to play the game, and currently is enjoying a fine career on the Champions Tour. But he almost had to give the game while a student at Wake Forest. He tried to stop a swinging door with his left hand and the hand went through a pane of glass, severing arteries and nerves. He had more than 70 stitches (“The doctor stopped counting at 72,” he said) and doctors had to reattach part of a finger. His dreams of a pro career over, he had to consider possibly giving the game up entirely. It took him five years before he could play again at a decent level.
“I didn’t know it then, but it was a blessing,” Sigel said. “What I coudl have been was an average golf pro. Cutting my hand led me down different avenues. You either deal with it or you don’t. I was dealt a bunch of lemons. It was up to me to make lemonade out of it.”
Sigel had been honored by the association before, and that familiarity made him appreciate the award more even though he questioned how he stacked up against other recipients.
“I have seen these people and I’ve been moved by their stories. So when I found out I was going to be honored, I thought, ‘Why me?’ I cut my hand. It was bad but it wasn’t life or death. I didn’t have a heart transplant. I didn’t have cancer.”
2004 — Neil Parry, football
Parry was playing football for San Jose State in 2000 when he suffered a compound fracture of his right leg in a gruesome accident while on the kickoff coverage team. The injury was so bad that he had to have the leg amputated below the knee just nine days later.
His medical story didn’t end there, as he underwent a total of 25 operations over nearly a three-year period. Finally, the leg was healthy, he found a prostheses that fit, so he returned to the game in 2003, participating in 19 plays on punt return and coverage teams. He ended the season by playing in the East-West Shrine All-Star Game.
Of his first game action upon returning to football, Parry said, “For three years, I’d run through my head how I wanted it to happen but it didn’t happen like that. I didn’t really put a big hit on someone. It wasn’t until after the game that I realized what a big deal it was just being out there.
“I was put in a situation where I can help others. I guess this has brought out my character, shown who I am. I’ve been able to help more people than I ever would have with two legs.”
2006 — Macharia Yuot, track/cross country
Yuot had to flee Sudan as a child because of a civil war in that country, leaving his mother and four siblings behind. He was one of more than 20,000 youths known as the “Lost Boys of Sudan,” children that wandered across Africa amid terrible hardship, with about half not making it because of starvation and animal attacks.
Yuot found his way to a refugee camp in Kenya in 1992. Eight years later, he was among 3,500 youths brought to the United States. He settled in Philadelphia, learned how to speak English and became accustomed to a new culture. He attended West Catholic High School and Widener University.
At Widener, he became a champion cross country runner and starred in the 10,000 meters in track.
“It wasn’t something that was planned,” Yuot said. “Now I have so many dreams to follow. I focus on that. A lot of people didn’t make it. You look at what I’ve gone through and people can learn from that. If I can do it, somebody can say, ‘I’ve got a heart like him, I have to do it (too).’ We can encourage one another.”
2007 — April Holmes, track and field
Holmes, of Somerdale, N.J., was an All-American sprinter in college who almost saw her career end. In January 2001, she slipped attempting to board a SEPTA train that had just started to pull away from 30th Street Station. Her left foot got caught below a wheel, severing it at the ankle. It took emergency workers 30 minutes to rescue her and she wound up having her leg amputated below the knee.
Holmes never allowed herself to give up on her dreams. “Don’t lay there like you’re dead,” she recalled saying to herself in the hospital. “If you’re dead, you’d be dead.”
Holmes learned of track programs for the disabled and threw herself into that. She has competed in two Paralympic Games, winning a gold medal in 2008. She has held world records in the 100, 200 and 400 meters in her classification.
“Sure your life changes, but I didn’t want people to treat me like I’m handicapped,” she said.
She organized a foundation to encourage those who have learning and physical challenges.
“If I can motivate you to bend down and tie your shoelaces where you couldn’t do that yesterday, then I’ve succeeded in doing something,” she said.
2008 — Lois Gilmore, road racing
At age 77, Gilmore was the oldest recipient of the Most Courageous Athlete Award. Always an active woman, she took up running in her 50s as she recovered from breast cancer, began competing and did pretty well at it. However, in 2002, she suffered a stroke while running, and doctors gave her a 10 percent chance of surviving.
She underwent rehabilitation to the point where she felt as if she wanted to return to road racing but was concerned. After all, she was in excellent health when she suffered the stroke.
“I thought something would happen and the other shoe would fall,” she said. “I just worried so much that running would stop being fun. So I just decided if it happens, it happens.”
It didn’t happen. Though she still has problems with her peripheral vision, she has been the most successful person in her age group in road racing history. She was the No. 1 runner in the 75-and-older classification in 2007 and was named Masters Athlete of the Year by USA Track and Field. She does it with desire, guts and a sense of humor.
“My first race back, I ran into a stop sign and fell,” she said. “People around me were saying, ‘Are you hurt?’ But I got back up. I have finished every race that I have fallen down in.”
Tickets for the Award Dinner, which has been held continuously since 1904, are $75.00, and can be purchased by clicking here.