Running On Instinct
August 23, 2016
Ahead of her fourth Paralympics, the world record-breaking T44 sprinter1 reflects upon the internal drive that propelled her to gold.
Right when I put my foot on the train, it started to move. I slipped and fell underneath the platform. I remember looking down and instead of seeing my leg seeing the train. I tried to get up and realized that I couldn’t move. The paramedics came. They were standing up on the platform with my boyfriend, all of them hollering at me, trying to keep me talking. Since it was January in Philadelphia and snowing, I started making snowballs, throwing them wherever — just to keep my mind off of what they were doing.
When I got inside the ambulance, I heard someone ask: “Did you get her leg?” And I thought that I must have lost my mind. Why would somebody ask: “Did you get her leg?”
In the hospital, the doctor started bringing me magazines featuring disabled athletes. I just thought he was crazy, then I started to look through one and saw something on the Paralympics. I’d never heard of it before, but ever since I was a little kid, whenever the Olympics were on, I was glued to the television.
I started running track when I was five years old and my mother told me from a young age that she expected me to go to college, but that I was going to have to use athletics to pay for it. So that was my mindset: Use sports to get a degree. I was good enough to earn a scholarship to Norfolk State. I ran track there for four years, graduated and thought: It’s been real, college. Track paid for my education, but after college, I didn’t want to see a track, drive by a track, step on a track.
My first thought after my accident was that I’d never be able to run again, but the more Paralympians I saw in this magazine the more I started to believe that it might be a possibility. Then I dialed in, because I wanted to see who had won the 100 meters and the 200 meters. I’ve always been competitive and have always tended to size people up; it’s part of my DNA.
When I saw the girl who won gold, I only had one thought: She doesn’t even look like a sprinter. None of them did. Sometimes you just look at someone else and think to yourself: They can’t beat me. As soon as I saw the sprinters in the magazine and saw their times, I was confident I could beat them.
So when I saw the doctor the next time I told him I had found my three dreams. I said: “I want to represent the United States at the next Paralympic games. I want to be the fastest in the world. And I want to win gold medals. These are my dreams. Now, I need a leg and I need it quick.” He said, “OK, let’s wait a minute. We haven’t even started rehab yet. We’ve got some work to do.” I told him that that was fine — this was just the start of my journey.
That was January 2001. I went home at the beginning of February and had my first walking leg by the end of March. I didn’t have a running leg until the following April. Once I hit the track with that leg, I thought: OK, this is a little more difficult than I thought, but that’s fine — I just have to work for it.
I used to always hear: God doesn’t give you anything he knows you can’t handle — you might not be able to see it now, but everything that happens happens for a reason. So I used to have conversations with God, where I’d say, “God, you must think I’m an awfully strong person. I don’t know why you chose me to lose my leg, but since you did we’re going to make the best of it.” I didn’t mind telling people about my new dreams, because I was confident.
I called my club coach and told him: “Listen, I need to run. Can you help me out?” And a couple days a week he would meet me [at the track]. The other days, I was out there by myself. I had the confidence and the technique — what I lacked was trust. For the first year or two, I just didn’t trust my leg. I was thinking about whether it was going to be there every time my left foot went to strike the ground. And when you run 100 meters, you don’t have time to be thinking. When you’re sprinting, it has to be instinct. You can’t be afraid — you can’t be bracing yourself to fall. Once I convinced myself that my leg was going to be there, that’s when I started to really run.
I participated in the 2004 Athens Paralympics two years after I had begun training and I walked away from the Games with world records in both the 100 meters and 200 meters.
1. T44 is a disability sport classification for disability track and field athletics, applying to single below-knee amputation or an athlete who can walk with moderately reduced function in one or both legs.