One Step Ahead

By Janet Thomas

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Losing his leg could have been a handicap, but it hasn’t slowed Spence down in sports or on his mission.

When Spence McArthur was three years old, his foot and lower leg were mangled in a lawn mower accident. After Spence barely survived the 90-mile drive from his hometown of Lovell, Wyoming, to the hospital in Billings, Montana, Spence’s parents, Susan and Steven, over a period of two years, fasted and prayed often and authorized six surgeries in an effort to save his foot and ankle. But the lower part of Spence’s leg had to be removed.

Missing a foot and ankle, their five-year-old son would have some major obstacles to overcome. They wondered what his future would be. Would he have a normal life? Would he be teased? Would he be able to run? Would he ever walk without crutches? Would he play sports? Would losing his leg ruin his life?

Fast forward. Right now, somewhere in the Argentina Buenos Aires West Mission, Elder McArthur is keeping appointments with investigators, teaching discussions in Spanish, playing basketball with his companions on preparation day, and walking the streets with no sign of a limp, nothing to indicate that one leg is really bright blue fiberglass with stickers all over it.

However, for Spence, serving a mission is only the latest accomplishment in a lifetime of defying the odds and being able to do virtually anything he has tried to do. Before he left on his mission, we talked with Spence.

We talked to Spence’s best friends from high school, his cousin who is the same age and has grown up with him, and his younger sister, Shalane. What are the things Spence cannot do?

Together they tried to create a list. You could see it in their faces. They really were thinking hard. Is there anything Spence cannot do with a prosthetic leg? Finally, Shalane answered for the group. “No,” she said with absolute finality.

In high school Spence excelled at academics. He was valedictorian of his high school graduating class. He never had a B. He was popular with other students and was elected senior class vice president and prom king. He played all the usual sports, plus he was an all-state linebacker on the football team. He was captain of the basketball team, a team that won its first state championship in 10 years.

How about some recreational activities? What about swimming?

“He actually beats me,” said Jake Walker, one of his friends. “He’s fast. And he’s a really good snow skier. Physically he can do anything we can.”

Ashlee Mickelsen, Spence’s cousin and good friend, said, “I can remember when someone once said that Spence was handicapped. I was so shocked. That word just doesn’t apply to Spence.”

Since his friends can’t think of anything he cannot do, we asked Spence and his parents. They also had a hard time thinking of things. After all, this is the guy who danced with his school’s swing choir, worked construction as a summer job, and helped a family move after their home was flooded. Finally, his mother, Susan, remembers that years ago, while in grade school, Spence didn’t jump rope quite as well as the other children. And Spence mentions that he’s not that great on ice skates. Oh, he can skate, but he might need a little more practice.

It’s obvious that no one, not his friends, not his family, not his teachers, not his opponents on sports teams, thinks of Spence as handicapped.

Determined is the right word

Spence learned determination as a child, racing first on crutches, then on his prosthetic leg, to keep up with his three older brothers and older sister. But, as he grew, he had to face a time when he didn’t want to be different. He didn’t want anyone to know about his leg. He wanted to keep it hidden.

His friends tell a story about something that happened during that time. Jake said, “He lost his leg in a basketball game.”

Steven Hultgren and Stephen Anderson started smiling and began to fill in the details. “Spence used to wear these long socks when we were on the freshman basketball team. We started playing teams from other high schools. No one on the other teams knew he had a prosthetic leg. When Spence was going up for a shot, some kid stepped on his foot right when Spence jumped. He jumped right out of his leg. You should have seen the expression on the other kid’s face. The ref was so surprised he didn’t even blow his whistle.”

Spence continued the story: “Everyone was staring at me. I slipped it back on, and since the referee hadn’t blown his whistle, I took off running down the court. Everyone on my team was rolling with laughter. I was laughing. The kid who was guarding me stepped back, and his eyes were huge. He didn’t know what to think.”

After that, Spence became much less self-conscious. The next time he was fitted for a new leg, his doctor offered him a green one. As Spence explained, “The doctor said that I’ve got something special. I’m like nobody else and I might as well show it off. I don’t think I’ll ever have a skin-colored leg again. Now I like the other colors. I have stickers and everything else on it.”

A spiritual step forward

Even though he seems to have conquered every obstacle in his life, at one time Spence felt his leg would stop him from serving a mission. “I was about 16. I was struggling. I didn’t know if I was going on a mission. I have a fake leg, and I was scared. I thought I’d just rather not go. And I was having trouble with sports. My prosthetic legs were breaking a lot, and things were not good.

“One night, after family home evening, I got a feeling that I needed to read something. I didn’t know what. We have a bunch of Church books up on our shelf. I’d never looked at them before. I pulled out a book by Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone. I started reading it. I got to one story when Elder Featherstone was talking to a kid who didn’t have a leg. He wasn’t going on a mission, but then Elder Featherstone talked to him about it. I put myself into what was happening. The kid came back and told Elder Featherstone that he had a mission call and he was going to go. I just stopped. I realized, ‘That’s me. He’s talking straight to me.’ I set the book down. I had found my answer.”

But that moment was just the beginning of the changes in Spence’s life. For the first time in his life, he started praying on his own. He’d been taught to pray, but up until then, he had only prayed when called on in Sunday School or in his family. “Now I pray all the time in everything, in every sporting event, before every test. I pray for help,” says Spence. “My whole life turned around. Church hadn’t been my main priority, sports were. Now the gospel is the main thing. I have gained even more of a testimony of the Atonement. What Jesus Christ did for me is unbelievable.

“These past couple of years, I’ve been a lot happier. Even people at school can see that I’m a lot happier, a lot friendlier. I talk to everybody. If they say hi to me, I’ll talk to them. I hardly ever get mad anymore. That’s what I try to explain to my friends who aren’t members of the Church. It’s not that we’re out to convert you just to have another member of the Church. We want to make you happier.”

In the end, Spence learned what everyone has to learn for themselves—it doesn’t matter what you have to deal with in this life; if you turn to the Lord, He will listen and guide you in your decisions. And that’s why Spence packed his extra leg and made the commitment to serve the Lord for two years on a mission.

Oh, yes, he finally thought of something he can’t do. Being from Wyoming, it’s a little bit bigger deal to Spence than if he were from somewhere else.

He can’t wear cowboy boots.

Another Fine Example

With a basketball in his hand and his naturally quick feet, Dax Crum from Kirtland, New Mexico, is a fine shooting guard. He also serves as a great example to other young people in how to deal with obstacles.

When basketball commentators say that Dax Crum of Kirtland, New Mexico, is single-handedly leading the offense, they are telling the truth. Dax was born without a right hand, yet when he was growing up he refused to listen to those who said he would never play basketball. As a high school junior, he scored 22 points in the game leading up to the 2002 state championship and 17 points in the final game. He also has not listened to those who said he wouldn’t be able to play baseball (he hopes to earn a college scholarship as a pitcher). In addition, he was the leading scorer on his soccer team, and he runs sprints and anchors the relay team in track.

Dax is a priest in the Kirtland Second Ward in New Mexico and is the fourth of six children. He’s a straight-A student, loves to be with his friends, and enjoys playing his guitar. His parents, Richard and Valerie, have always encouraged their son to overcome obstacles, and they saw their son become relentless in learning to do things. Dax says, “I don’t let my hand embarrass me. I guess if people feel sorry for me, they can. But I don’t feel sorry for myself.”

Dax is the perfect person to talk to young kids about facing hard problems. Just like the advice he gave to one young boy, also born without a hand, “I just said, ‘You can do anything. Don’t let anything get in your way.’”

Photography by Janet Thomas, the Lovell Chronicle, and courtesy of the McArthur family

Playing on a state championship basketball team was one of Spence’s dreams. He was the captain and starting guard for Lovell High School in Wyoming.

Posing with his friends and his sister, Shalane (second from left). Spence was also a starting linebacker on the football team. At four, he learned to run on his crutches. (Below, right) Spence and his parents, Steven and Susan, outside their Wyoming home. Following page: (Left) Spence uses the things he has learned about overcoming adversity to talk with children. (Top) Elder McArthur with Elder Grunig at the Missionary Training Center.

Photography by Brett Butterstein/The Daily Times