VP of Club Running overcomes chronic health issues to pursue passions



Wyatt Noble

Sophomore Matt McClelland has two passions: prosthetic design and long distance running. At first–glance he seems just like every other student: participates in club running, studies engineering and hails from the east coast. But as is the case with all Villanovans, there’s more to McClelland than meets the eye.

Just before he started the third grade, McClelland moved to Singapore, where his story begins. 

A few months into his family’s stay, McClelland came down with a bad case of food poisoning. This food poisoning triggered an autoimmune response that caused rheumatoid arthritis in his left ankle and left hip.

“I couldn’t walk for about a year when we were in Singapore,” he said. “Day to day for me was get up, couldn’t go to school, stay in bed most of the day and hop around the apartment. That was pretty much it.”

Doctors in Singapore struggled to properly diagnose him.

“The pain was probably a good nine out of 10, and my ankle was about as swollen as my head,” McClelland said. “At first they thought it was a tumor, then they thought it was some broken bones that weren’t healing.”

In both cases the doctors were wrong, but eventually McClelland was referred to the one rheumatologist in Singapore at the time and she was able to pinpoint the cause of his pain. Shortly thereafter, McClelland began chemotherapy and steroid treatment to deal with his rheumatoid arthritis. Throughout the end of third grade and all of fourth grade, he needed shots twice a week and a weekly trip to the hospital for his chemotherapy. Luckily for McClelland, he didn’t need chemotherapy for much longer.

“It all started to simmer down a little bit,” he said. “I could go to school and play sports, but not competitively. My ankle just wouldn’t hold up under that kind of stress.”

Fast forward to the beginning of fifth grade, and his family moved back to the  United States where he began receiving treatment from doctors at Duke University Hospital. The doctors felt that his joint had sustained enough damage to warrant reconstructive surgery, and he was once again put out of action.

“There were titanium plates added to the outside and inside of my left ankle, and a balloon added that was filled with timed release medication that now is just a shock absorber in my ankle,” McClelland said.

Post-surgery, McClelland did well. He was progressing quickly with his physical therapy, and everything seemed to be getting back on track, but then his left hip began causing problems.

“It felt like an air bubble was in my hip joint, and the inflammation was getting really bad,” McClelland said. “It actually popped my hip out of its socket about a good inch and a half, so I was super lopsided for a couple months, and they couldn’t get it under control with the drugs. So I had another surgery, but this time is was non-anesthetic, just numbing medication, and I was awake for that one, which was terrifying.”

Not the average life of a sixth grader.

This time it took him a little longer to recover, but by the time seventh grade rolled around, he was back out on the fields. Playing tennis and soccer, McClelland refused to let his problems sideline him permanently despite having to self administer injections to keep his hip from flaring up.

“I just kind of got used to the pain,” he said. “It was like a sharp burn in both body parts, and I couldn’t progress in any sport I wanted to.”

Eventually, doctors had him taper off the weekly injections until he was only supposed to inject himself if he experienced a flare up.

“It really started to get better when I was halfway through tenth grade and then into eleventh,” McClelland said. “And that’s when I could really start working on my athletic performances, which is when I started playing soccer more seriously.”

But instead of continuing to play soccer throughout the rest of high school, McClelland switched over to running cross country and track during his junior year. In fact, it was McClelland’s high school soccer coach who first recognized his potential as a long distance runner and spoke with the cross country and track coach, who welcomed the promising addition to his roster with open arms.

In his first season ever, McClelland ran a mile in 4 minutes and 58 seconds. Not bad for a first timer with titanium plates in both his left hip and left ankle.

Following his early successes, McClelland was able to devote himself to running with his ankle and hip only giving him moderate aches and pains throughout his final year of high school.

“From the start of high school on, I realized I was very math and science based,” he said. “I enjoyed math, so I started looking into the engineering field. I saw Villanova had a really good engineering program, and my mom went here.”

But for McClelland, his studies are about more than just getting some cushy job straight out of school–he’s got his eye on the big picture.

“I was thinking about all the the reconstructive aspects of my surgeries and how they took me from being completely immobile for almost a year to being an extremely competitive long distance runner,” McClelland said. “It got me thinking how they were able to help me with my treatment and surgeries, so I want to be able to do that for somebody else. Somebody who has lost a limb or just needs reconstructive joint surgery like I’ve had.”

And competitive he is. Currently serving as Vice President of Club Running, McClelland attends local meets and the famous Penn Relays with the club and was even training with the Varsity Cross Country team at the beginning of his freshman year. Despite suffering another unfortunate setback in the form of a broken fibula, McClelland bounced back again and can still run a mile in well under five minutes.

“Just making a part or making a whole prosthetic, that’s what led me into the prosthetic field,” McClelland said. “Being able to give that experience that I’ve had to someone else would be a huge reward and that’s one of my main driving points of going to school and taking all these extra credits.”

With everything he’s been through, from Singapore to Villanova, there’s not much left that can stop Matt McClelland.