Every once in a while you come across someone who appeals to your senses in a special way and in my reading about a young woman named Aimee Mullins, I found my most recent inspiration.
Mullins challenges her listeners to reassess their typical view of paralympic athletes, breaking all the social definitions of appearance and beauty as she shares her accomplishments and perspectives as an athlete and as a person in society, living as a female double amputee.
Being born without her fibula, her legs were amputated at the age of one. This did not stop her from living a very active life as an athlete, successfully participating competitively in sports such as skiing and softball. Once she started college, however, her athletic lifestyle took a dive, something she did not take too kindly, and therefore started to explore her options to become active again.
For some reason, she was drawn to track and field and having discovered the existence of track meets for disabled runners in Boston, she booked herself a ticket to participate, as a start. It turned out that at this meet in 1995 at the age of 19, with no training, no form and no special prosthetics, she outran the national record holder.
So began her journey to see how far she could take her career in the sport of track and field, becoming a member of the women’s track team at Georgetown University, Washington, DC under the guidance of the well-accomplished track coach, Frank Gagliano.
Within the span of 15 months she not only became the first disabled runner to participate in the NCAA Division I against able-bodied athletes, but she qualified for the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Although she placed last in her heat, which initially upset her, she shifted her mindset to appreciate that a year and a half prior, she had never even thought of being a track athlete far less an Olympian, yet there she was, an Olympian.
Since then, Mullins has gone on to achieve a great many things. Aside from being a fantastic motivational speaker she became a fashion model and actress. She breaks all the traditional social norms and she does it effortlessly and with flair. Her sense of humour makes you fall completely in love with her character as she inspires you to realise that many times, it is really just about perspective.
One of the cool things she mentions about being a double amputee is the fact that she can change her height. A funny story she gave was with reference to Patrick Ewing who was attending Georgetown the same time she was there and she joked with him while they were both receiving treatment in the athletic training room, him on his foot and told him, “Just get ’em off… you can be eight feet tall!” and the audience thundered with laughter.
Through her accomplishments and personal pursuits, she came to see the absence of her legs as a space that she could fill with anything and so, some of her legs have been actual works of art being artistically carved out of wood, transparent or animal designed, a natural flow and maybe inspired from her running legs which are called “cheetah” legs created by Össur. It is truly amazing how she came to view her physical being.
She mentions a talk with a group of young children, where she allowed them to view her legs that were out on display, without the supervision of any adults, so that they could be honest about their reactions and questions without fear of reprimand. Her intention was to break their pre-trained notions created subconsciously and completely harmlessly by adults, to over-emphasise her “abnormalcy” of having fake legs.
She opened her discussion asking the children if she wanted to jump a house, what type of legs they would build for her. Shouts of “kangaroo,” “frog” and super hero characters came fast and furious until one child broke stride and asked her why she would not want to fly instead. In a few seconds, Mullins completely changed their view of her from being disabled to having the potential to be “super-abled.” Amazing!
I chose to write about Aimee Mullins not just because she is a Paralympian but because I found her to be a refreshing way to challenge the social norms as she did with her own life through sport. She shows that even within our boundaries, we should always strive to define ourselves to be who we want to be.
Asha De Freitas-Moseley is a certified athletic trainer with the National Athletic Trainers’ Association of the USA. Athletic training is practised by athletic trainers, healthcare professionals who collaborate with physicians to optimise activity and participation of patients and clients. Athletic training encompasses the prevention, diagnosis, and intervention of emergency, acute, and chronic medical conditions involving impairment, functional limitations, and disabilities. (www.nata.org)