Sheryl Shade: Hi, Aimee. Aimee Mullins: Hi.
SS: Aimee and I thought we'd just talk a little bit, and I wanted her to tell all of you what makes her a distinctive athlete.
AM: Well, for those of you who have seen the picture in the little bio — it might have given it away — I'm a double amputee, and I was born without fibulas in both legs. I was amputated at age one, and I've been running like hell ever since, all over the place.
SS: Well, why don't you tell them how you got to Georgetown — why don't we start there? Why don't we start there?
AM: I'm a senior in Georgetown in the Foreign Service program. I won a full academic scholarship out of high school. They pick three students out of the nation every year to get involved in international affairs, and so I won a full ride to Georgetown and I've been there for four years. Love it.
SS: When Aimee got there, she decided that she's, kind of, curious about track and field, so she decided to call someone and start asking about it. So, why don't you tell that story?
AM: Yeah. Well, I guess I've always been involved in sports. I played softball for five years growing up. I skied competitively throughout high school, and I got a little restless in college because I wasn't doing anything for about a year or two sports-wise. And I'd never competed on a disabled level, you know — I'd always competed against other able-bodied athletes. That's all I'd ever known. In fact, I'd never even met another amputee until I was 17. And I heard that they do these track meets with all disabled runners, and I figured, "Oh, I don't know about this, but before I judge it, let me go see what it's all about." So, I booked myself a flight to Boston in '95, 19 years old and definitely the dark horse candidate at this race. I'd never done it before. I went out on a gravel track a couple of weeks before this meet to see how far I could run, and about 50 meters was enough for me, panting and heaving. And I had these legs that were made of a wood and plastic compound, attached with Velcro straps — big, thick, five-ply wool socks on — you know, not the most comfortable things, but all I'd ever known.
And I'm up there in Boston against people wearing legs made of all things — carbon graphite and, you know, shock absorbers in them and all sorts of things — and they're all looking at me like, OK, we know who's not going to win this race. And, I mean, I went up there expecting — I don't know what I was expecting — but, you know, when I saw a man who was missing an entire leg go up to the high jump, hop on one leg to the high jump and clear it at six feet, two inches ... Dan O'Brien jumped 5'11" in '96 in Atlanta, I mean, if it just gives you a comparison of — these are truly accomplished athletes, without qualifying that word "athlete." And so I decided to give this a shot: heart pounding, I ran my first race and I beat the national record-holder by three hundredths of a second, and became the new national record-holder on my first try out.
And, you know, people said, "Aimee, you know, you've got speed — you've got natural speed — but you don't have any skill or finesse going down that track. You were all over the place. We all saw how hard you were working." And so I decided to call the track coach at Georgetown. And I thank god I didn't know just how huge this man is in the track and field world. He's coached five Olympians, and the man's office is lined from floor to ceiling with All America certificates of all these athletes he's coached. He's just a rather intimidating figure. And I called him up and said, "Listen, I ran one race and I won ..."
"I want to see if I can, you know — I need to just see if I can sit in on some of your practices, see what drills you do and whatever." That's all I wanted — just two practices. "Can I just sit in and see what you do?" And he said, "Well, we should meet first, before we decide anything." You know, he's thinking, "What am I getting myself into?" So, I met the man, walked in his office, and saw these posters and magazine covers of people he has coached. And we got to talking, and it turned out to be a great partnership because he'd never coached a disabled athlete, so therefore he had no preconceived notions of what I was or wasn't capable of, and I'd never been coached before. So this was like, "Here we go — let's start on this trip."
So he started giving me four days a week of his lunch break, his free time, and I would come up to the track and train with him. So that's how I met Frank. That was fall of '95. But then, by the time that winter was rolling around, he said, "You know, you're good enough. You can run on our women's track team here." And I said, "No, come on." And he said, "No, no, really. You can. You can run with our women's track team." In the spring of 1996, with my goal of making the U.S. Paralympic team that May coming up full speed, I joined the women's track team. And no disabled person had ever done that — run at a collegiate level. So I don't know, it started to become an interesting mix.
SS: Well, on your way to the Olympics, a couple of memorable events happened at Georgetown. Why don't you just tell them? AM: Yes, well, you know, I'd won everything as far as the disabled meets — everything I competed in — and, you know, training in Georgetown and knowing that I was going to have to get used to seeing the backs of all these women's shirts — you know, I'm running against the next Flo-Jo — and they're all looking at me like, "Hmm, what's, you know, what's going on here?" And putting on my Georgetown uniform and going out there and knowing that, you know, in order to become better — and I'm already the best in the country — you know, you have to train with people who are inherently better than you.
And I went out there and made it to the Big East, which was sort of the championship race at the end of the season. It was really, really hot. And it's the first — I had just gotten these new sprinting legs that you see in that bio, and I didn't realize at that time that the amount of sweating I would be doing in the sock — it actually acted like a lubricant and I'd be, kind of, pistoning in the socket. And at about 85 meters of my 100 meters sprint, in all my glory, I came out of my leg. Like, I almost came out of it, in front of, like, 5,000 people. And I, I mean, was just mortified — because I was signed up for the 200, you know, which went off in a half hour.
I went to my coach: "Please, don't make me do this." I can't do this in front of all those people. My legs will come off. And if it came off at 85 there's no way I'm going 200 meters. And he just sat there like this. My pleas fell on deaf ears, thank god. Because you know, the man is from Brooklyn; he's a big man. He says, "Aimee, so what if your leg falls off? You pick it up, you put the damn thing back on, and finish the goddamn race!"
(Laughter) (Applause) And I did. So, he kept me in line. He kept me on the right track.
SS: So, then Aimee makes it to the 1996 Paralympics, and she's all excited. Her family's coming down — it's a big deal. It's now two years that you've been running?
AM: No, a year.
SS: A year. And why don't you tell them what happened right before you go run your race?
AM: Okay, well, Atlanta. The Paralympics, just for a little bit of clarification, are the Olympics for people with physical disabilities — amputees, persons with cerebral palsy, and wheelchair athletes — as opposed to the Special Olympics, which deals with people with mental disabilities. So, here we are, a week after the Olympics and down at Atlanta, and I'm just blown away by the fact that just a year ago, I got out on a gravel track and couldn't run 50 meters. And so, here I am — never lost. I set new records at the U.S. Nationals — the Olympic trials — that May, and was sure that I was coming home with the gold. I was also the only, what they call "bilateral BK" — below the knee. I was the only woman who would be doing the long jump. I had just done the long jump, and a guy who was missing two legs came up to me and says, "How do you do that? You know, we're supposed to have a planar foot, so we can't get off on the springboard." I said, "Well, I just did it. No one told me that."
So, it's funny — I'm three inches within the world record — and kept on from that point, you know, so I'm signed up in the long jump — signed up? No, I made it for the long jump and the 100-meter. And I'm sure of it, you know? I made the front page of my hometown paper that I delivered for six years, you know? It was, like, this is my time for shine. And we're at the trainee warm-up track, which is a few blocks away from the Olympic stadium. These legs that I was on, which I'll take out right now — I was the first person in the world on these legs. I was the guinea pig., I'm telling you, this was, like — talk about a tourist attraction.
Everyone was taking pictures — "What is this girl running on?" And I'm always looking around, like, where is my competition? It's my first international meet. I tried to get it out of anybody I could, you know, "Who am I running against here?" "Oh, Aimee, we'll have to get back to you on that one." I wanted to find out times. "Don't worry, you're doing great." This is 20 minutes before my race in the Olympic stadium, and they post the heat sheets. And I go over and look. And my fastest time, which was the world record, was 15.77. Then I'm looking: the next lane, lane two, is 12.8. Lane three is 12.5. Lane four is 12.2. I said, "What's going on?" And they shove us all into the shuttle bus, and all the women there are missing a hand.
So, I'm just, like — they're all looking at me like 'which one of these is not like the other,' you know? I'm sitting there, like, "Oh, my god. Oh, my god." You know, I'd never lost anything, like, whether it would be the scholarship or, you know, I'd won five golds when I skied. In everything, I came in first. And Georgetown — that was great. I was losing, but it was the best training because this was Atlanta. Here we are, like, crème de la crème, and there is no doubt about it, that I'm going to lose big. And, you know, I'm just thinking, "Oh, my god, my whole family got in a van and drove down here from Pennsylvania." And, you know, I was the only female U.S. sprinter. So they call us out and, you know — "Ladies, you have one minute." And I remember putting my blocks in and just feeling horrified because there was just this murmur coming over the crowd, like, the ones who are close enough to the starting line to see. And I'm like, "I know! Look! This isn't right." And I'm thinking that's my last card to play here; if I'm not going to beat these girls, I'm going to mess their heads a little, you know?
I mean, it was definitely the "Rocky IV" sensation of me versus Germany, and everyone else — Estonia and Poland — was in this heat. And the gun went off, and all I remember was finishing last and fighting back tears of frustration and incredible — incredible — this feeling of just being overwhelmed. And I had to think, "Why did I do this?" If I had won everything — but it was like, what was the point? All this training — I had transformed my life. I became a collegiate athlete, you know. I became an Olympic athlete. And it made me really think about how the achievement was getting there. I mean, the fact that I set my sights, just a year and three months before, on becoming an Olympic athlete and saying, "Here's my life going in this direction — and I want to take it here for a while, and just seeing how far I could push it."
And the fact that I asked for help — how many people jumped on board? How many people gave of their time and their expertise, and their patience, to deal with me? And that was this collective glory — that there was, you know, 50 people behind me that had joined in this incredible experience of going to Atlanta. So, I apply this sort of philosophy now to everything I do: sitting back and realizing the progression, how far you've come at this day to this goal, you know. It's important to focus on a goal, I think, but also recognize the progression on the way there and how you've grown as a person. That's the achievement, I think. That's the real achievement.
SS: Why don't you show them your legs?
AM: Oh, sure. SS: You know, show us more than one set of legs.
AM: Well, these are my pretty legs.
No, these are my cosmetic legs, actually, and they're absolutely beautiful. You've got to come up and see them. There are hair follicles on them, and I can paint my toenails. And, seriously, like, I can wear heels. Like, you guys don't understand what that's like to be able to just go into a shoe store and buy whatever you want. SS: You got to pick your height? AM: I got to pick my height, exactly.
Patrick Ewing, who played for Georgetown in the '80s, comes back every summer. And I had incessant fun making fun of him in the training room because he'd come in with foot injuries. I'm like, "Get it off! Don't worry about it, you know. You can be eight feet tall. Just take them off."
He didn't find it as humorous as I did, anyway. OK, now, these are my sprinting legs, made of carbon graphite, like I said, and I've got to make sure I've got the right socket. No, I've got so many legs in here. These are — do you want to hold that actually? That's another leg I have for, like, tennis and softball. It has a shock absorber in it so it, like, "Shhhh," makes this neat sound when you jump around on it. All right. And then this is the silicon sheath I roll over, to keep it on. Which, when I sweat, you know, I'm pistoning out of it.
SS: Are you a different height?
AM: In these?
SS: In these.
AM: I don't know. I don't think so. I may be a little taller. I actually can put both of them on.
SS: She can't really stand on these legs. She has to be moving, so ...
AM: Yeah, I definitely have to be moving, and balance is a little bit of an art in them. But without having the silicon sock, I'm just going to try slip in it. And so, I run on these, and have shocked half the world on these.
These are supposed to simulate the actual form of a sprinter when they run. If you ever watch a sprinter, the ball of their foot is the only thing that ever hits the track. So when I stand in these legs, my hamstring and my glutes are contracted, as they would be had I had feet and were standing on the ball of my feet.
(Audience: Who made them?)
AM: It's a company in San Diego called Flex-Foot. And I was a guinea pig, as I hope to continue to be in every new form of prosthetic limbs that come out. But actually these, like I said, are still the actual prototype. I need to get some new ones because the last meet I was at, they were everywhere. You know, it's like a big — it's come full circle.
Moderator: Aimee and the designer of them will be at TEDMED 2, and we'll talk about the design of them.
AM: Yes, we'll do that.
SS: Yes, there you go.
AM: So, these are the sprint legs, and I can put my other...
SS: Can you tell about who designed your other legs?
AM: Yes. These I got in a place called Bournemouth, England, about two hours south of London, and I'm the only person in the United States with these, which is a crime because they are so beautiful. And I don't even mean, like, because of the toes and everything. For me, while I'm such a serious athlete on the track, I want to be feminine off the track, and I think it's so important not to be limited in any capacity, whether it's, you know, your mobility or even fashion. I mean, I love the fact that I can go in anywhere and pick out what I want — the shoes I want, the skirts I want — and I'm hoping to try to bring these over here and make them accessible to a lot of people. They're also silicon. This is a really basic, basic prosthetic limb under here. It's like a Barbie foot under this.
It is. It's just stuck in this position, so I have to wear a two-inch heel. And, I mean, it's really — let me take this off so you can see it. I don't know how good you can see it, but, like, it really is. There're veins on the feet, and then my heel is pink, and my Achilles' tendon — that moves a little bit. And it's really an amazing store. I got them a year and two weeks ago. And this is just a silicon piece of skin. I mean, what happened was, two years ago this man in Belgium was saying, "God, if I can go to Madame Tussauds' wax museum and see Jerry Hall replicated down to the color of her eyes, looking so real as if she breathed, why can't they build a limb for someone that looks like a leg, or an arm, or a hand?" I mean, they make ears for burn victims. They do amazing stuff with silicon.
SS: Two weeks ago, Aimee was up for the Arthur Ashe award at the ESPYs. And she came into town and she rushed around and she said, "I have to buy some new shoes!" We're an hour before the ESPYs, and she thought she'd gotten a two-inch heel but she'd actually bought a three-inch heel.
AM: And this poses a problem for me, because it means I'm walking like that all night long.
SS: For 45 minutes. Luckily, the hotel was terrific. They got someone to come in and saw off the shoes.
AM: I said to the receptionist — I mean, I am just harried, and Sheryl's at my side — I said, "Look, do you have anybody here who could help me? Because I have this problem ... " You know, at first they were just going to write me off, like, "If you don't like your shoes, sorry. It's too late." "No, no, no, no. I've got these special feet that need a two-inch heel. I have a three-inch heel. I need a little bit off." They didn't even want to go there. They didn't even want to touch that one. They just did it. No, these legs are great. I'm actually going back in a couple of weeks to get some improvements. I want to get legs like these made for flat feet so I can wear sneakers, because I can't with these ones. So... Moderator: That's it.
SS: That's Aimee Mullins.
In this TED archive video from 1998, paralympic sprinter Aimee Mullins talks about her record-setting career as a runner, and about the amazing carbon-fiber prosthetic legs (then a prototype) that helped her cross the finish line.
A record-breaker at the Paralympic Games in 1996, Aimee Mullins has built a career as a model, actor and advocate for women, sports and the next generation of prosthetics.
A record-breaker at the Paralympic Games in 1996, Aimee Mullins has built a career as a model, actor and advocate for women, sports and the next generation of prosthetics.