By Jessica Bagley
The Tonawanda News
KENMORE — A young man with a big personality and a whole lot of perseverance made an appearance at Kenmore Mercy Hospital Monday afternoon.
Cameron Clapp, now 26, lost both his legs and his right arm when he was hit by a train at the age of 15 in his home state of California.
And in 2008, his twin brother died of a drug overdose.
But despite his many struggles, Clapp is now thriving — and walking. He came to Kenmore Monday to share how he carried on.
“I’ve had a lot of bad things happen to me,” Clapp said. “But the important part is that I got back up again.”
The accident occurred just a few days after the Sept. 11 attacks, and Clapp and his friends had built a shrine of candles in memory of the victims at a beach across the street from his California home.
“I didn’t know how to emotionally deal with it all, and I was drinking pretty heavily,” Clapp said. “I was standing on the train tracks, looking at the memorial and thinking about how much those people had lost, but I had no idea the loss I was going to experience that night.”
Clapp passed out on the track, and just a few moments later, a train came. Thanks to first responders, Clapp’s life was spared, but the locomotive took three of his limbs.
Clapp said he remembers waking up in the hospital bed, wondering what his life would be like.
“I was full of fear,” he said.
Three weeks later, Clapp was released from the hospital in a wheelchair. Doctors told him he would never walk again.
“We weren’t going to take that answer,” Clapp said.
Clapp was determined to walk and set himself upon the goal. He swam to build up upper body strength and walked around on his amputated legs for five months.
“At first, I was insecure walking around like that,” he said. “ But I eventually got over that negativity, and think ‘what does it matter what others think when I’m trying to achieve my goal.’”
He eventually upgraded to taller legs with advanced technology that react to his movements. It took two years from the time of the accident for Clapp to feel comfortable walking, and he doesn’t write off how difficult that process was.
“It’s probably one of the hardest things on the face of this planet to get up and walk on two metal legs,” he said. “I can’t tell you the number of times I fell, because I lost count.”
Now, Clapp is more active than most people that have all four limbs. He surfs, skis, runs, swims, golfs and even drives a car. He is training for the swimming portion of a half ironman and has competed in the Endeavor Games, a tournament for those with physical disabilities.
And Clapp has also taken on his dream of acting. He’s appeared in TV sitcom “My Name is Earl” and starred in the motion picture “Stop Loss.”
Despite his athletic passions and motivational speaking, Clapp still finds the time to volunteer through Wounded Warriors and Camp Without Limits, where he is a counselor for kids that have lost a limb.
Clapp’s presentation included photos and videos of him both walking and falling, and getting back up again — a symbol of determination that impressed many members of the audience, including some fellow amputees.
“It’s a reminder than you can still find pleasure in life,” Kevin Degnan, who lost his leg two years ago, said. “He is so inspiring.”
Degnan, of Kenmore, is an avid runner himself and was hit by a car in 1986 while competing for Canisius College. He kept his leg for 25 years, but after numerous surgeries and the constant battle with infections, Degnan and his doctors made the difficult decision to amputate.
Six months after the amputation, Degnan competed in a 5k race, and he has also started Move Forward, a local amputee support group.
Clapp’s overall message rang true for Degnan, other amputees in the audience and anyone who’s encountering a daunting struggle.
“It’s not what happens to you,” he said. “But what do you about it that matters.”
Contact reporter Jessica Bagley at 693-1000, ext. 4150.