On Dec. 13, Greg Wagner will speak about the power of persistence via the story of his pursuit of a career playing major league baseball and his successful running of the Boston Marathon at the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce Luncheon in Westminster. It is a talk that many believed he would never be able to give.
At the age of 3, Wagner suffered a brain aneurysm that required 14 hours of surgery to repair, after which he was left with persistent neurological impairment.
"My entire right side is permanently stroke-affected," Wagner said. "I'm impaired physically and physiologically; vision, motor control and speech are all impaired to some degree."
After his initial recovery, Wagner began the physical therapy that would fill the next seven years of his life. At 9 years old, with a year of therapy left in his future, Wagner discovered baseball.
"I saw a baseball game where Jim Abbot was pitching for the New York Yankees and he was a one handed pitcher. I watched him balance the glove on this nub on his right side," Wagner said. "I talked to my dad and said, 'If he can do this, I can do this.'"
Wagner learned to pitch with his left hand and then transfer his glove from his right to his left hand in order to field. When he was 12, Wagner's father built a pitcher's mound in their backyard where he could practice.
Now 28, Wagner said that the years of therapy and athletic training have made it difficult for all but physicians and the best personal trainers to realize he has a disability, but that his physical struggles were not the sole challenges he faced along the way.
Despite being invited to practice with the Damascus High School varsity baseball team as a freshman, Wagner was never given the chance to play. He made the team at McDaniel College but saw little playing time.
"Throughout my baseball career, I dealt with repeated forms of discrimination. The fact that I played different. There was a combination of factors," Wagner said.
After graduating from McDaniel College in 2007 and feeling frustrated, Wagner sent a video of himself pitching sent it to every team in major league baseball.
"Four teams wanted to scout me, but since I didn't play anywhere, nothing came of that," Wagner said. "I couldn't get the time on the mound to be able to tell them, 'hey, come watch me play here.'"
Faced with the end of a dream, Wagner decided on a new path: running. In 2007, after a little more than a year of training, he finished the Baltimore Marathon in three hours and 46 minutes, a time that qualified him for the mobility impaired division of the Boston Marathon.
At mile 21 of the 2008 Boston Marathon, Wagner was on pace to finish in three hours and 30 minutes when he was knocked over by another runner, injuring his leg. Hobbling the next five miles, he finished in four hours and seven minutes and was feeling depressed about this time until he got a call from a friend.
"My friend called me and was ecstatic and told me, 'Greg, you just won the mobility impaired division of the Boston Marathon,'" Wagner said. "This sort of switched the perspective. Instead of it being about me, it was what I have done for everybody else."
Wagner began speaking about his struggle and success in overcoming what was expected to be a debilitating, lifelong disability after he graduated college, and recently spoke at the annual Goodwill banquet in Frederick. It was there that he was introduced to Mike McMullin, president of the Carroll County Chamber of Commerce.
"I thought [Wagner] had such an inspirational story. You don't have to have the type of disability he has to learn from the type of courage he used to overcome the issues in his life," McMullin said. "Pretty much everybody has something that they struggle with in their life and he really just addresses how you deal with it head on."
The Chamber of Commerce holds a regular monthly luncheon for members and the public and McMullin said that he knew right away that he wanted Wagner to speak at one of the events.
"For this year, we had a theme of courage that we tried to weave into each of our luncheons. That's where Greg fits in, overcoming adversity and courage in overcoming adversity," McMullin said. "It's cool that he's local too. When I heard that he graduated from McDaniel. I thought, 'This is a perfect person to bring into town.'"
The luncheon will be held from noon until 1:30 p.m. at The Portico at St. John's Catholic Church in Westminster. Tickets for Chamber of Commerce members and their guests will be $22 and non-members will be $32, which includes lunch.
McMullin said that those interested in purchasing tickets should call the Chamber of Commerce at 410-848-9050.
"If they go online, it will say that we're sold out, but if they call the office, we will make sure to get them in," he said.
Wagner is no longer training for marathons. Instead, he's lifting weights and hoping to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Paralympics team in the shot put and discus.
Wagner said that in his talk, he will discuss how committing to persistent, small improvements each day has allowed him to transcend barriers and lead him to the mantra that helps guide his life: "Without doubt, impossible is nothing more than an undefined word."
"I work out at the gym six days a week and ... I will see people lifting where before they even pick up the weight, they say, 'I can't do this.' Each time, they couldn't lift it," Wagner said. "It's the idea that if you are already doubting what you can potentially do, you're never going to achieve it."