Last week, I announced a series of posts inspired by a visit with Nicole Ver Kuilen. Since Nicole has chosen to use running as the vehicle for her advocacy on behalf of her fellow amputees, I’d like to start with a couple of impressive amputee athletes.
The Blade Runner
Oscar Pistorius got a lot of attention for being the first amputee to make the transition into the regular Olympics, and that’s probably appropriate. He didn’t run particularly well though, and he stirred up a bit of controversy over his poor sportsmanship. He’s also serving a 13-year prison sentence for killing his girlfriend. Not the most inspiring stuff. Everyone seems to forget that Aimee Mullins was also at the 2012 Olympic Games, and that the Flex-Foot Cheetahs provided to Pistorius by OPGA partner Össur out of Iceland were originally designed for her.
Mullins wasn’t in London to run. She was too busy serving as the Chef de Mission for the United States. That’s the highest honor the U.S. Olympic Committee gives out, and Mullins earned it after a lifetime of barrier-breaking athletic achievement that was accomplished without the use of her legs.
Aimee was born without fibula bones, leading her parents to make the difficult choice to amputate both of her legs below the knee when she was only a year old. Had she kept them, she would have been wheelchair bound for the rest of her life. The amputation allowed her to learn to walk using prosthetics, but Aimee wasn’t satisfied with walking. By the time she got to high school, she’d learned to run. Fast. Mullins participated in high school track and field events while wearing a pair of clunky wooden legs. As she did so, she set records.
Aimee went to college at Georgetown University, where she became the first amputee to compete in standard NCAA Division 1 track and field events. She became a Paralympic phenomenon, setting world records for the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, and the long jump while competing at the 1996 games in Atlanta. She was named the USA Track & Field Disabled Woman of the Year in 1997, and her athletic prowess brought her world-wide fame.
Her stunning good looks and competitive spirit were an inspiration to legendary fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who invited Mullins to be the first down the runway at one of his fashion shows in 1999. She’s been challenging our standards of beauty ever since as a model and Hollywood actress, often posing proudly in her running blades.
The Rock Climber Turned Biophysicist
Hugh Herr was born the youngest of five siblings to a Mennonite Family in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. I’ve read that being the lastborn in a family can have a big effect on your personality as you grow up. Being the youngest means that you’re always surrounded by people who are older, bigger, faster, and smarter than you are, which means that you’ve got to try pretty hard to differentiate yourself. Some kids do it by being rebellious. Hugh Herr did it by being amazing. By the time he was eight years old, he’d climbed almost 12,000 feet to the top of Mount Temple in the Canadian Rockies. By the time he was set to graduate high school, he was considered one of the best climbers in the U.S.
In January of 1982, Herr was climbing with a friend in New Hampshire when a blizzard stranded them for three days in temperatures well below freezing. Both men were eventually rescued, but not before they had suffered severe frostbite. Both became amputees, with Herr losing both of his legs below the knee. Herr’s doctors told him that he would never climb again. He proved them wrong in a matter of months, designing and building an ingenious pair of prosthetic legs that allowed him to firmly stand on even the narrowest and most slippery of surfaces.
Herr’s new legs gave him the distinction of being the first professional athlete that could actually perform better at their sport than a non-amputee, and his success at rebuilding himself after his brush with death gave him a new interest in biomechanics. He earned a bachelor’s degree in physics, a master’s in engineering, and finally a Ph.D. from Harvard in biophysics. Armed with his new knowledge, he secured himself a position at MIT, where he serves as the head of their biomechatronics program. His work there has led him to boldly and controversially declare that the end of disability as we know it is close at hand.