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TIFF TIFF 2017: Stronger recounts Jeff Bauman’s marathon of courage

Jeff Bauman attends the Stronger premiere during the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival at Roy Thomson Hall on Sept. 8, 2017.

Rich Fury/Getty Images

On April 15, 2013, Jeff Bauman was standing with a crowd at the Boston Marathon, waiting for his then-girlfriend Erin Hurley to cross the finish line. It was a gorgeous day, and Bauman remembers a guy bumping into him, overdressed in a heavy jacket, dark sunglasses, and carrying a knapsack. Bauman turned to keep an eye out for Hurley, but looked back quickly. The stranger was gone. His knapsack was still on the sidewalk.

The next thing Bauman remembers was a flash of light and a terrible noise. He woke up on the ground, covered in soot – blood, people and body parts around him. He looked down and realized one leg was gone. The other had flesh and cartilage blown off.

Three people were killed that spring day in the terrorist attack, and several hundred were injured, including 16 who lost limbs after the detonation of two pressure-cooker bombs filled with nails, ball bearings and black powder. A photograph of Bauman being pushed in a wheelchair – homemade tourniquet on his right leg, his hand clenching his left – was broadcast around the world. Bauman became a celebrity. A hero to the people of Boston because he survived.

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It was a role thrust upon him, and one that Bauman says messed him up. "Everyone kept saying, 'The terrorists didn't win. You won! We won! You survived!'" says Bauman, in Toronto last week to promote Stronger, the Hollywood film about his life. (It stars Jake Gyllenhaal as Bauman, Tatiana Maslany as Hurley and Miranda Richardson as his tough-on-the-outside/soft-in-the-middle Irish Catholic mother.)

"That's just weird to me," says Bauman, rubbing the top of his thighs where his prosthetics start. "Nobody wins in these situations. I don't see winners and losers in tragic events."

The first year following the bombing was largely a blur, a flurry of operations, lots of pain pills and the struggle to walk. Bauman's emotions were all over the place. Gratitude one moment, anger the next.

He resented demands on his time (which non-stop rehabilitation required), but hated being alone. "I accepted [the loss of my legs] pretty early on. Right when I was lying on the ground and saw my legs, I didn't think first, 'I'm going to die.' I was thinking, 'I'm not going to run again. I can't play basketball. I'm not going to skate.'"

Everything deeper down he masked with humour. "I kept everything bottled tight. I didn't want to open that Pandora's box. I put on a good show so that everyone would accept it – the new me. But inside, I was always questioning, 'Will they accept me the way I am now?'"

Hurley, he adds, was one of the first (along with his mom) to embrace his disability. "She would come and sit on my legs. It didn't bother her. She was one of the biggest ones I needed to accept it."

Bauman and Hurley had a child and were married. The marriage ended in February. Bauman doesn't talk specifics, but says both he and Hurley have struggled with depression. "Erin handles it in a healthy way. She's always done therapy. It matters to her that she's healthy, and she works out."

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Bauman started missing rehab appointments. The poster boy for "Boston Strong" didn't want to admit he was struggling with the side effects of severe trauma: fear, anxiety, panic, irritability, anger, and feeling out of control. "Mentally, I couldn't cope. I'd go to the bar with my buddies, party, and get all messed up. Then I'd wake up in the morning, get more depressed, and do it all over again.

"It took me until just over a year ago to see a therapist for the first time. I started going four times a week and since then I've cut it back to three. I realized I had to work on all aspects of my recovery, the spiritual, mental and physical," says Bauman who, with Bret Witter, co-wrote in 2014 the book Stronger on which the film is based.

He also gave up alcohol. Now 15 months sober, he's grateful for the clarity, especially with a young daughter. "It's tough to admit, 'I have a problem,'" Bauman says. "I think I kind of pinched it before I did any harm to anyone else, or a lot of harm to myself. Sometimes I think, 'Maybe I could have a drink or two.' But then I think about it, and I just don't want to. It's just not in the cards. I know what I feel like now that I don't drink. I know what it feels like not to be hungover, trying to put my legs on."

Last week at the movie's TIFF premiere, he watched Stronger for a second time. Reliving the bombing wasn't that difficult, he says. The hardest part was watching the scene in which Gyllenhaal and Maslany embrace in the hospital. "It crushed me because I remembered it – how they looked at each other. Hindsight is 20-20, but seeing it again all I could think was, 'I know I can do better.'"

The bombing gave him a new kind of courage, he says.

"The kind to walk around all day on new legs. They get sore sometimes – and I do have trouble accepting I can't play one-on-one basketball with my brother, stuff like that – but I've already found ways to play with my daughter. Today, it's all about finding the courage to adapt, and try new things."

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