Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Amputee runner Amy Palmiero-Winters becomes first disabled person to qualify for U.S. national track and field team

From USA Today:

HICKSVILLE, N.Y. — When Amy Palmiero-Winters (pictured) was in high school, she would work the closing shift at her family's drive-in restaurant in Meadville, Pa., then head out for a run, with her friend Stacy Hatzo driving alongside.

"We would talk about anything and everything, solve all the world's problems," Hatzo says.

But never could they have conjured the story line that has Palmiero-Winters, now a 37-year-old divorced mom, still running in the late-night hours, her two sleeping children at home with a babysitter, her prosthetic lower left leg and determination carrying her beyond limits anyone would dare suggest.

At 9 a.m. on Jan. 1, Palmiero-Winters finished first overall in the "Run to the Future" 24-hour race in Glendale, Ariz. — and crossed a barrier. By covering 130.4 miles in a day's time, she became the first amputee to qualify for a U.S. national track and field team. She will compete in the 24-hour world championships May 13-14 in Brive, France, with 11 teammates.

"What it means to me goes beyond what I could express with words," says Palmiero-Winters, who recently won the 2009 Sullivan Award as the nation's top amateur athlete.

What it means to sports history is that Palmiero-Winters has done what eluded South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee who tried to qualify for the 2008 Summer Olympics.

"It's sort of like Jackie Robinson breaking the racial barrier in professional baseball," says Roy Pirrung, president of the American Ultrarunning Association and the U.S. team leader for worlds. "I think it's that high of an impact."

Pistorius' attempt was clouded by debate over whether his carbon-fiber "Cheetah" limbs gave him an edge. Before naming Palmiero-Winters to the team, USA Track & Field made certain that international officials didn't have similar concerns, USATF spokeswoman Jill Geer says.

Palmiero-Winters has a schedule that could overwhelm the most hard-core ultrarunners. IIn June, she plans to compete in the Western States Endurance Run, 100 miles of trail running through the Sierra Nevada (she is the third amputee to qualify). In July, she will run the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135-miler in California from Death Valley to Mount Whitney — spanning three mountain ranges — in temperatures reaching 130 degrees.

"It helps me show people that we all face obstacles," says Palmiero-Winters, who lost her lower left leg after a motorcycle accident at 21. "Me being out there helps them see that you can overcome (them)."

She discovered running at 8, when, in borrowed shoes she had to stuff with toilet paper for a better fit, she crossed her first finish line. In last place.

"I didn't feel bad because I came in last," she says. "It sparked something inside of me."

She ran to keep up with her two older brothers. She ran track and cross country in high school. She ran while making deliveries for the restaurant.

"Every place she went, she'd run," says her dad, Larry.

After a car pulled into her right of way, crushing her left foot and ankle in the 1994 motorcycle crash, she tried everything to keep her leg intact for running, enduring skin and artery grafts among nearly 30 surgeries over three years' time. Her ankle began to fuse and her foot was barely functional. She opted for an amputation, but not before she ran a marathon. She finished in a little more than four hours.

"When I had my accident, they said I'd never run again," she says. "It was more of proving them and myself wrong."

Palmiero-Winters had run her first marathons in the months before her accident. After the amputation, she set out on a path that's taken her through countless marathons (her personal-best finish is 3 hours, 4 minutes, 16 seconds), triathlons, Ironman triathlons and, in the last two years, some of the world's most extreme races.

She competed in 10 ultra-distance races last year, including the Heartland 100 Mile, where she finished first among women.

"She's just built for them," Hatzo says. "She can run forever."

Only in recent years has Palmiero-Winters had prosthetic limbs built to match her ambitions. She heard about Erik Schaffer, owner of A Step Ahead Prosthetics (ASAP) in Hicksville, at a race, and three years ago she quit her job as a welder in Meadville and moved to Hicksville to train and work for him. He provides her running blades, which can cost at least $25,000 each.

She is sports program director at ASAP, where the motto is "Live Life Without Limitations," helping clients that range from small children to elite athletes imagine and reach their athletic goals.

She says if she could "rub the magic genie lamp and take it all away and have my leg back, I wouldn't. Because my life is much better the way it is."

She gives motivational speeches at schools. She runs marathons pushing wheelchair-bound children, trying to inspire them to push beyond their obstacles.

"She's twice the person she was before she lost the leg," says her mom, Pat.

Palmiero-Winters' ever-expanding athletic aspirations constantly present Schaffer with new design challenges.

For the 24-hour race at worlds, Schaffer designed a blade with a split down the middle to help her handle the impact of the turns on the 1,200-meter circuit course. He also has precisely calibrated the stiffness of the blade to properly bend with the force she will exert as she attempts to travel more than 150 miles (more than 6 mph) in the race.

Palmiero-Winters ran the Badwater course last summer to prepare for this year's race but stopped just short of 100 miles because the heat from the road rose through her prosthetic and caused third-degree burns on her residual limb. Schaffer has designed a cooling system, using water that will drain, for this year's race.

For Western States, he has extended the piece of car tire he normally attaches to the foot of her blade to give her stability and traction as she runs downhill.

Bob Otto, an exercise physiology professor at Adelphi University in Garden City, N.Y., has designed her training program for worlds.

"She has such focus that it can actually lead to her demise," Otto says, noting that Palmiero-Winters ran 10-12 miles last summer after the third-degree burns developed. "At the expense of her body, she'll continue to push. That's what makes her successful. We try to temper that."

Many ultrarunners train by doing 20- to 50-mile runs on back-to-back days. Palmiero-Winters cannot, because she must give her residual limb a rest from the pounding and friction that running inflicts. To make up the mileage, she has been doing one 70- or 80-mile training run a week, leaving her house at 8 or 9 p.m. and finishing just before starting work the next morning.

"I don't want my kids to suffer because of my training," she says of son Carson, 6, and daughter Madilynn, 4. "I give up a night's sleep. That's good training, too, because in a 24-hour race you don't sleep."

You run all night — and maybe you solve at least some of the world's problems along the way.