Stephanie McCusker flies through the air during the Class C state track and field championship meet in 2002 at the University of Maine-Orono. (Sun Journal file photo)
Stephanie McCusker never gave up.
It didn’t matter the obstacle, the sport nor the circumstance. It wasn’t in her vocabulary.
Competing in gymnastics at a young age taught the Lisbon native to compose herself, to be in control of all aspects of herself, to perform the best she could.
“I think it’s helped a lot, especially with the pressure and perfectionism that you have to have with gymnastics,” McCusker said.
A back injury in seventh grade forced McCusker to take some time off. That’s when she discovered track and field.
“I ended up doing track and field and ended up being quite good at it, so it kind of just changed my mentality,” McCusker said. “Instead of doing 100 percent gymnastics like I was doing before, I tried to just do the seasons. I started with just doing the running portion, but then I realized I really liked doing the jumps.”
As a freshman at Lisbon High School, McCusker exploded onto the scene. Her sister, Erica, a senior, won the Class C long jump state title in 1999. Stephanie won the triple jump.
“That was kind of the start of it for me,” McCusker said. “I did soccer and continued to do gymnastics throughout the winters, but it was always about wanting to get back out on the track.”
The perfectionism fostered by gymnastics carried over to the pits.
“The thing, talent-wise, that sticks out more than anything was, she might have fouled four or five times in four years,” Lisbon jump coach Doug Sautter said. “The girl just knew how to handle her body. Whether she was going to be short or long, she knew how to shorten her stride coming in and she knew how to lengthen her stride. She just never fouled.”
From 1999 to 2002, Stephanie McCusker was the talk of the Maine track and field community. A multi-time state champion in the triple and long jumps — and also a New England triple jump champion in 2002 — McCusker, now 34, was the stuff of legends.
Like the time McCusker jumped onto the scene for Lisbon at an early-season meet in Jay.
“The runway was the parking lot and the pit kind of went off the parking lot at the end,” Sautter said. “She was about a 30-foot triple jumper at the time, which was great. She jumped, like, 33 feet and we were like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good.’ And then she jumps 35 feet, and I told Coach (Dean) Hall, ‘She just jumped 35 feet in the parking lot.’ We knew she was destined for greatness.”
At the Class C state meet in 2002 — her senior year — McCusker and the other athletes had to compete through torrential downpours. McCusker soared to a new Class C state record of 37 feet, 5½ inches. That record still stands.
“We were getting marks and one of the boards in the middle of the runway they had to jump over,” Sautter said. “All the other girls were landing on it and slipping, so they were shortening up because they were worried about slipping and breaking their ankle. We just told her that she had to jump over it. She did and beat everyone by two feet. If you told her to raise the bar she would raise the bar and do it.”
And she did it cleanly, which was a trait borrowed from her time as a gymnast.
“In order to not fly off the mat in floor, she had to have great body control so she was always aware of what she was doing,” Sautter said. “Some kids get their mark in but are a foot behind the board, she was always in the white.”
To her coaches, it seemed like she never got tired; she never gave up.
“At Cape (Elizabeth) … there was a girl who had the best jump in triple and sure enough, the other girl was passing her jumps,” Sautter said. “We told Stephanie to just keep jumping and sure enough, her last jump ended up overtaking her.”
McCusker was so talented in the jumps and as a member of Lisbon’s 4×100-meter relay that Lisbon head coach Dean Hall tried her in other events, to more success.
“One time, just fooling around, we said, ‘Why don’t you try pole vaulting?’ And she almost cleared 8 feet,” Hall said. “How do you put all those things together? Her senior year, we tried high-jumping and she set the school record (5 feet, 2 inches). It was amazing, a once-in-a-lifetime athlete … We have boys on the team now that can’t come close to what she jumped.”
McCusker capped her senior season with a triple jump victory at the New England championships with a jump of 37 feet, 5 inches, and earned the honor as Maine Gatorade Player of the Year in track and field.
The next step
Once in college, McCusker continued to work harder than many. Her environment changed, but the athlete stayed the same.
“Right away when she came in, she loved track and field,” University of Maine jumps coach Roland Ranson said. “Very competitive, very determined, and always on time. She was usually early, up and ready to go. She stayed as long, and probably longer, than many of the other athletes. First in, last out kind of thing.”
At UMaine, she pulled off perhaps her most memorable performance.
McCusker had been battling knee pain in her right leg — her jumping leg — that turned out to be patellofemoral syndrome. Always battling through it, McCusker was about to finally give up — resting because of injury is normal, many athletes do it.
But McCusker didn’t give up. She couldn’t.
“I had to jump with the other leg,” McCusker said. “Usually, with the triple, I would jump with my right leg first, that’s how I would do it every time. But, it was so bad at that meet and I really didn’t want to stop that I switched with my other leg and started jumping off my left. I ended up jumping better off my left than I was off my right leg at that point because I was in so much pain I couldn’t do anything.”
McCusker won the “toughest competitor” award on the track team that season.
“She had that ability and perseverance,” Ranson said. “She had that kinesthetic awareness. Giving up is not even in her vocabulary.”
One morning at the beginning of her junior year, McCusker was going through the motions, half-awake, in the weight room. During a power clean, McCusker tore tendons in her wrist. She didn’t injure a leg — key for a jumper — but she needed a cast that reached above the elbow.
“It was really frustrating,” McCusker said. “I had a class where I had to work with kids with needs, and had to be in the pool with a cast on my arm. Having that injury, I had to do a lot of adjusting. That was when I had a bit of empathy for people who couldn’t be active or exercise the way they wanted to exercise.”
McCusker points to that incident as that which solidified her choice of getting a degree in kinesiology.
McCusker chose to attend the University of Maine because of its kinesiology program, the degree McCusker wanted from the start. However, her father didn’t let her forget which climate she was choosing.
“I really fell in love with the campus and staying in state,” McCusker said. “I saw their program for kinesiology and I thought that would be a good fit for me. My dad gives me a hard time because I didn’t want winter, but I ended up going 100 miles up north.”
After graduation she flew to Los Angeles for an internship with Velocity Sports Performance.
“Starting there, I was able to go right into strength and conditioning coaching, then I branched into personal training,” McCusker said.
“When I went out to L.A., I was getting people of all backgrounds, and I realized that a lot of people don’t function very well,” McCusker said. “A lot of people are in pain. What I found myself doing was problem solving and fixing people’s aches and pains, just treating and making them stronger.”
While working at VSP, McCusker met a doctor of osteopathy, Guy Voyer, from Marseille, France. Voyer specializes in the ELDOA (Étirements Longitudinaux avec Décoaptation OsteoArticulaire) method that relieves back pain.
McCusker was introduced to Voyer through a trainer she met in California who had attended one of his conferences in Montreal. He conducts seminars in New York City, Los Angeles, Montreal, and other locations. McCusker learned from Voyer and started to teach other trainers and athletes the treatment methods.
Also while in Los Angeles, McCusker, through another trainer, met Henry Whyte, who was on his way back to New Zealand, where he’s from, after spending 10 years in Montreal.
Being from Maine, McCusker found she had a lot in common with Whyte.
“It was just happenstance that he met me,” McCusker said. “What was nice was, he wasn’t just a strange Kiwi (a nickname commonly used to describe people from New Zealand). Because he had lived in Canada for so long, we actually had things in common. We had a few things that we could relate on — ice hockey and all the fun stuff. It’s worked out quite nicely having that background.”
McCusker secured a work visa in part because of her degree from the University of Maine, and after just six weeks of spending time with Whyte, the Lisbon native moved across the ocean to start her new life.
They are now married.
In New Zealand, Whyte helped McCusker get into different sports outside of purely running. As a sprinter and jumper, anything more than 100 meters for McCusker was long distance. She used to play soccer, and still played in California, but as an adopted Kiwi, McCusker was introduced to multi-sports.
“We took on this race called Coast to Coast,” McCusker said. “It’s an international, multi-sport event. It goes from the west coast of the south island all the way into the Southern Alps, then finishes. You need to run — and by run I mean scramble up a mountain. Then you kayak, and it’s about 250 kilometers in distance. It was much different mindset I had to have.
“To experience New Zealand through the countryside with hundreds of other people, it was incredible,” McCusker added. “People were getting helicoptered out because of twisted ankles or cracked shins. It was a completely different world from what I was used to. I loved the experience.”
Coast to Coast took place in February 2017. Nine months later, McCusker gave birth to a daughter, Piper. For any family, adding a member is a huge adjustment. However, Piper presented an even bigger challenge for McCusker and Whyte.
Piper was delivered via emergency C-section nine weeks premature when doctors were worried about McCusker’s size. Piper was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis, a hereditary disorder affecting the exocrine glands.
Time after time in McCusker’s life, she’s made adjustments on the fly. This was yet another, albeit bigger adjustment for her to handle.
“It was new to me,” McCusker said. “I had never really come across cystic fibrosis and until she was diagnosed with it … She was barely alive when she was born and it was quite scary. She had surgery the day after she was born to fix part of her bowel that had twisted and ruptured.”
Both partners need to be carrying the non-functional CF gene for their child to inherit it. According to the University of California San Francisco, the offspring then has a one-in-four chance of inheriting CF.
“Neither Henry or I knew we had it in our families,” McCusker said. “The lungs and the pancreas are the most affected and become sticky and matted. Instead of having the nice liquid to help move things, it actually makes things stop. For the pancreas, the digestive enzymes aren’t able to be released because the mucus doesn’t let them. For the lungs, unfortunately, they get so sticky that they collect any bacteria that gets in there. For you and I, we are able to cough and remove any junk in our lungs, whereas with cystic fibrosis you’re not able to just cough out the mucus and get rid of the bacteria. It’s only if both parents are carriers of this mutation … We just pulled the unlucky card.”
Giving up isn’t in McCusker’s vocabulary. Nor, it appears, is it in Piper’s. McCusker’s daugher fought through her early hardship. Though not out of the woods entirely, the prognosis is good — and certainly better than it used to be for those diagnosed with CF.
“(The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation) is really well-established in the United States and New Zealand is really good in support of these kids,” McCusker said. “She had her surgery to close up her bowel and we were able to bring her home in February. It’s just a matter of getting her food and growing and all those good things.”
According to Cystic Fibrosis News Today, life expectancy is now at about 37 years, “with many living much longer,” according to its website.
“We have had a lot better idea of how to manage it,” McCusker said.
Moving forward, McCusker hopes to get back into running 10k races and Coast to Coast races with her husband, while continuing to give lessons on the ELDOA method — all while helping her daughter grow the best she can.
If there’s one thing her past has proven, it’s that she will tackle these and any other obstacles head-on, with a good chance of success.
Stephanie McCusker competes for the University of Maine.Stephanie McCusker launches into the air during track and field practice at Lisbon High School in 2002.