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The man of steel

Mark McAlister’s toughness credited with helping him survive wreck

By Paul Harris

Describing his recovery from a nearly fatal car accident, Mark McAlister sounds like a college’s fight song bellowing: Fight! Fight! Fight! That makes sense since the former strength and conditioning coach was around college students for nearly 18 years of his life.

McAlister’s life changed as he was driving back from a conference with his family and graduate students in June 1999. It was raining and another driver, going too fast for the conditions, lost control and hit their vehicle. Mark was in a coma for six months, and a nurse told family members that if he had not been in such good shape, he would have died.

The lasting impact includes brain trauma, steel rods in his legs, and a metal plate extending from his forearm to his shoulder.

“It’s difficult to get through airport security,” he said with a laugh.

His wife, Hjerda, jokes that his smart-aleck humor survived the crash.

McAlister was working as a strength and conditioning coach at Indiana State at the time of the accident. After his recovery, he moved here so they could be closer to family. He does not work and cannot because of his condition.He had to re-learn how to walk, talk, and write.

“Before the accident it was left-handed,” he said. “Now it’s right-handed.”

Not only does Mark physically see the scars of the accident on his arms, he has to live with them on a daily basis.

“It’s hard to eat, brush my teeth and shave,” he said.

His vocabulary is also shortened and his short-term memory is diminished.

Despite those challenges, Mark still has time to go to the gym at Max Fitness every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. An ATA bus picks up him at his house, takes him and brings him back home.

He cannot do any Olympic-style lifts such as bench, squat and power thrust. But he can do leg press and clean sweep. He also walks on the treadmill.

Going to the gym has been a part of McAlister’s life since he was a high-school student.

“I wanted to look better and get bigger,” he said.

The gym is also were Mark met his wife.

“He dropped a weight plate on my foot,” Hjerda said. “Luckily it was only a 25-pound plate.”

After seeing the effects of lifting on his own body, Mark decided he wanted to become a strength and conditioning coach.

“Mark is not a very big guy,” his wife said. “He wanted to show these athletes that you don’t have to be 6 feet 5 inches to be strong.”

After graduating from Ohio State with a Masters of Science, Mark landed his first job as head strength and conditioning coach at Columbia University in New York City. During his four-year stint, he was named Ivy League Strength Coach of the Year in 1996 and helped propel defensive end Marcellus Wiley to the NFL. Wiley was the first player drafted from Columbia since 1984. No one has been drafted from Columbia since then.

McAlister also got the Columbia Athletic Director to build a new strength and conditioning center, Aldo T. “Buff” Donelli Strength Room, at an old natatorium. Mark helped design it.

From there, he went on to Indiana State. “We liked New York, but we wanted to be closer to family,” McAlister said about the move.

Although it seems difficult to imagine now, the mild-mannered McAlister said he yelled and cussed to get his athletes motivated. At Columbia, Mark would have his athletes meet him at the weight room at 6 a.m., which meant Mark had to get up at 5 a.m. for his hour-long drive to the office. Athletes would sprint, until Mark looked at his watch and told them it was time for breakfast.

“They never told me they did not like me to my face,” he said. “But I would listen and hear things.”

Even though the journey back has been tough for Mark, he said he is blessed to have such a great family, including his wife and his 17-year old son.

“Some good people have been helping me.









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