LIKE A CHEETAH: Mullins recruited prosthetic maker Van Phillips to help develop new prostheses for her sports career. He employed material engineers to invent the “cheetah leg,” woven carbon-fiber prostheses that were modeled after the hind legs of a cheetah. It became the prototype of the standard prostheses used now by all amputee runners. (Photo by Howard Schatz/Schatz Ornstein Studio)
Being born without fibulae didn’t stop Aimee Mullins; neither will expectations, competition, sexism or anything else.
by Michael Bold
When California Gov. Gavin Newsom issued his shelter-in-place order in mid-March, athlete/innovator/model/actress/advocate Aimee Mullins and her husband, English actor Rupert Friend, were in Los Angeles working on a project that she would produce and he would direct. They couldn’t get back to their apartment in New York, so a friend offered them a cabin on a 400-acre ranch north of Los Angeles, and they’ve been there since.
On the day in mid-April that Army AL&T spoke with her, Mullins had spent the morning daydreaming that she was a hawk, flying over the valley and the mountains that surround her temporary home. “I used to have a recurring dream like that when I was a little girl,” she said. “And again, you know, you don’t have to be a licensed psychologist to kind of figure that one out. When you’re in a hospital bed and your legs are in full plaster casts and stuff, the idea of flying …”
Mullins was born without fibulae, one of the bones in the bottom half of the leg. Her doctors in Allentown, Pennsylvania, told her parents that she would never walk and that her life would be spent in a wheelchair. At age 1, doctors said she might have a chance at mobility using prosthetics. Her legs were amputated below her knees. She quickly adjusted to her prosthetic legs, walking by age 2. More surgeries followed until she was 8. Then it was on to a childhood of swimming, skiing, biking, softball and soccer.
She graduated high school with honors and then won a full scholarship sponsored by DOD in Washington, D.C., graduating from the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. Mullins worked four summers as an intelligence analyst intern at the Pentagon, holding a top-secret security clearance.
AN ATHLETIC TURN
She learned two major lessons at the Pentagon. The first was about hard work. She’d had jobs since she was 12—paper route, frozen yogurt shop, babysitting, mowing lawns—but at the Pentagon, she learned how long a workday could last. “I remember thinking as a teenager, ‘Wow. If I even spent half this time every day on schoolwork, I’d be like a genius.’ It was the kind of thing where it really made me value time. It also made me understand something about myself, which was that I am a self-starter, like a leader. I like teams. I like to play on a team.”
The second lesson she learned was that she chafed under bureaucracy. “There are certain elements of bureaucracy which are necessary to run an organization that huge, but some of them really didn’t—it didn’t make me happy. … I just knew, wow, I’ve got to do something else with my life.”
Her scholarship included a five-year commitment to DOD, but “my life took such a different turn, so I paid the whole thing back with interest.”
That different turn began her sophomore year at Georgetown, when someone suggested to the very active Mullins that she participate in the National Disabled Sports Championships in Boston. At first the idea didn’t appeal to her—it seemed like an exercise in building self-esteem, which she didn’t lack. But she decided to give it a try. To prepare, she went to a nearby track, where someone had to explain to her that the 100 meters was the part of the track that was the straightaway. Her first effort left her exhausted after 50 meters. A couple more tries, though, and she felt ready. By this point, she had only met one other amputee in her life.
AIMEE MULLINS’ HONORS
She arrived in Boston to find a world she never knew existed. Athletes wearing carbon-graphite-rubber composite prosthetics were competing in every event. Her clumsy, wood-plastic composite legs appeared to be no match, but she ran the 100-meter sprint anyway. And beat the American record holder. With a new American record.
Then she decided to compete in the long jump—after learning no women were signed up for the long jump, she saw another 1st place medal was there for the taking. While waiting her turn to jump, a fellow athlete pointed out that as a BKDA—below-knee double amputee—she wasn’t supposed to long jump. All long jumpers needed one flesh-and-bone leg to use as their plant leg. “Well, nobody told me that, and I’ve already jumped twice, so I might as well keep doing it,” she recalled in her commencement address to Northeastern University graduates in 2018.
When Mullins returned to Washington, she called legendary Georgetown track coach Frank “Gags” Gagliano, asking for a spot on the track team. Gagliano had never coached an athlete with a disability before; Mullins had never been coached. But he admired her nerve, and Mullins became the first woman with a disability to compete in track and field at the NCAA Division I level, entirely against able-bodied athletes.
Her next goal was to compete on the United States team at the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta. But she realized her old-fashioned prosthetics wouldn’t cut it. Rather than basing a prosthetic on a human leg, “I want to be the fastest women on prosthetics in the world. Why aren’t we looking at the fastest thing that runs if I don’t have to have a shin and a foot below this knee?” she said in the interview with Army AL&T.
“That was always a big problem,” she said. “It’s like a shin and a foot, it’s going to be a fixed 90-degree angle. No matter how great your stride length or whatever, you’re always re-striking with that heel, and it’s a clunky way to run.”
She enlisted the help of a visionary prosthetic maker, Van Phillips, who employed material engineers to invent the “cheetah leg,” woven carbon-fiber prostheses that were modeled after the hind legs of a cheetah, the fastest animal on land. As a human guinea pig, Mullins was the first person to test them and get them to a place where they worked well enough for her to wear them to compete. The cheetah leg became the prototype of the standard prostheses used now by all amputee runners.
Heading into the Atlanta Paralympics, Mullins held national records in the 100- and 200-meter sprints and in the long jump. She expected to win in Atlanta. But 20 minutes before the 100, she saw her competitors’ times in the time trials—all at least two seconds faster than hers. When she stepped onto the bus that would take her and her fellow competitors to the Olympic Stadium, she understood why. All of her competitors were missing hands. She was the only competitor on prosthetic legs. She came in last.
That was not the first time, nor was it the last, that Mullins faced adversity.
CHANGING AN IMAGE
“Adversity in general is just a natural part of life,” she said. “We have words like ‘speed bumps’ and ‘hurdles’ and other words which help people visualize challenges—however we choose to see them, just know that they’re coming. And that’s OK. The waves of challenges will keep coming, so let’s get better at surfing.”
But Mullins had caught people’s notice. After profiles in several magazine and TV news shows, Mullins began speaking at international design conferences. Her discussions of changing the way we think about disabilities, body image and beauty attracted the attention of renowned fashion designer Alexander McQueen, who in 1998 put her on a London runway—in 6-inch heels on handcarved wooden “boot” prosthetics—with supermodels from around the world. She signed a contract to become the face of L’Oréal Paris, the largest cosmetics company in the world.
More press followed—Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, W, Glamour, Elle. She was named one of People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” and celebrated as one of Sports Illustrated’s “Coolest Girls in Sports.”
“There was no template for me,” she said. “There was no trail that I could follow, no amputees in sports, fashion, the arts, you name it.”
But it was her TED Talks that really electrified her growing audience. She is one of TED’s most popular speakers and was named a TED All-Star. Her talks have been translated into 41 languages and have been seen by millions of viewers worldwide.
She did her first in 1998, at age 21, trying on different pairs of legs for the audience. In February 2009 she talked about “My 12 Pairs of Legs.” And then there’s her devastating October 2009 talk, where she reads the synonyms for “disabled” found in her 1982 Webster’s New World Thesaurus: crippled, helpless, useless, wrecked, stalled, maimed, wounded, mangled, lame, mutilated, run-down, worn-out, weakened, impotent, castrated, paralyzed, senile, decrepit, laid-up, done up, done for, done in, cracked up, counted out. See also hurt, useless, weak.
In the meantime, she became an actress—“I started acting professionally when I was 27, which is like you may as well be 90.” She is in the cast of the Emmy Award-winning Netflix series “Stranger Things” (she’s Eleven’s mother).
In 2018 she delivered the graduation commencement address at Northeastern University in Boston and received an honorary doctorate. “Oh, that was such a—you know, really only the second time in my speaking career where it’s been 20,000-plus staring back at you,” she said. “You don’t forget those.” (Full disclosure: The author’s daughter was among those graduating.)
Her message to the grads was that they should embrace what many would call shortcomings. “I’d like you to remember that naiveté, curiosity and daydreaming are tools for building a better life, and you should be reaching into your toolbox for them often,” she told them.
PAVING THE WAY
Curiosity and daydreaming sparked her imagination, she told Army AL&T, along with pop culture. “Stan Winston built the Terminator. It has an articulated ankle and knee, and I was seeing it. I was seeing these things happening in pop culture that just felt like, ‘Why isn’t that being used for people who need to have legs built, or arms?’
“There’s been an extraordinary evolution in the last two decades in the field of prosthetics, not least because of … the research dollars for all of our veterans of the wars of the last decades that have come back with changed bodies.” Nearly all of the Soldiers were familiar with video and computer games, she noted. “So the idea of having an avatar, the idea of imagining yourself as another being moving through a world, was a muscle they had been flexing their whole life. They never stopped it. … I think veterans from Afghanistan, Iraq, the Persian Gulf War, they were very adaptable to their new bodies. You see people absolutely claiming their changed body; they can remain athletic and they also assert their creative power to make their prostheses the aesthetic representation of what they want their leg or their arm to look like.
“I see that with kids, when you meet 5-year-olds who, for whatever reason, become an amputee. I met this girl at SXSW, and she created an arm that had a glitter rocket mechanism. It had this internal slingshot, and she could kind of raise her arm toward the sky and pull this little lever mechanism, and glitter would come flying out. It made her the belle of the ball! She was 6 or 7 when she came up with this.”
And her naiveté? “If you call someone naïve, it’s usually not a compliment.” But it was naiveté that allowed her to think anything was possible, even for a girl missing half her legs. She credits her large family, especially the women.
“My mom is one of 11 kids, nine girls and two boys,” she said. “There were many great things about having that kind of an army of family around. But one of the best things is this extraordinary network of women, very matriarchal. My grandmother was the head of the gang. She was 96 when she died, and just an extraordinary—you know, that generation of people just lived—she saw horse-pulled carts and she saw somebody land on the moon. So the competition that I think a lot of young girls grow up with, that they see amongst women, I never had that. … The fact with our family—my mom and her sisters, it was like they really pooled their resources. Any victory for one of them was a victory for all of us.”
Did she ever feel discouraged, or picked on by other kids or their parents? That she shouldn’t be on the same playing field as “normal” kids?
“I think they said it more to my parents. … I really didn’t hear it. I just was not going to let anybody tell me what I couldn’t physically do. I really believed in my own capability. It was something—I think it was because my parents didn’t shelter me from people staring, pointing, making fun of, that kind of stuff. They really made me fight those battles on my own, and I had to learn how to stand up for myself from the get-go.”
Her mother, in fact, was a Franciscan nun for five years, leaving the order just before taking her final vows. But giving up all her worldly possessions and taking a vow of poverty did leave some gaps in her daughter’s life. Her mother “definitely missed the ’60s,” Mullins joked. “Like, the only album we had in our house, we had Simon & Garfunkel and we had like an eight-track tape of Helen Reddy. I was like, ‘This sucks.’ My friends had the Beatles. The Stones. Zeppelin. My parents had none of that.
“But one of the really good aspects of that is that she really had no vanity, my mom. … I remember when people would kind of vocally notice somebody’s body part. ‘You have really nice shoulders,’ or, ‘You have really nice whatever.’ There was something about someone’s feet, ‘Oh, they’ve got beautiful feet.’ I was like, ‘What do ugly feet look like?’ I mean, in my case, ‘Hey, you’ve got feet!’ … I feel very, very, very fortunate that my mom did not size me aesthetically, and I do think a huge foundation of me being confident comes from that.”
As she’s moved from athlete to innovator to model to actress to Hollywood producer, what has given her the greatest adversity: her physical disability or being a woman in a business run mostly by men?
“In my life thus far, I would say the first half, it would have been definitely the physical disability, if you want to call it that. But, man, I’ll tell you. As a working actor. … For decades, for a century of moviemaking, most women’s roles were just ancillary to tell the story of the men.” She tells of a meeting for the production she’s working on, that her husband will direct. They’d given the studio executives the names of the actors they wanted to play the male and female leads. The executives balked at the female lead, concerned she was too old. “She was two years younger than the male!
“When you’re an actor, you’re never privy to these conversations, because they don’t say that to your face. When you’re on the other side and you get to make these decisions because this is how you get financing for your projects, it is galling to see how women are talked about.”
In addition to her Hollywood career, Mullins works with a number of women’s organizations, including the Women’s Sports Foundation, founded in 1974 by tennis great Billie Jean King. Mullins served as president from 2007 to 2009, and remains a trustee.
“It’s galvanizing to see that we do in society value our daughters, and that’s been the most extraordinary thing in my work with the Women’s Sports Foundation,” she said. “We have the first generation of dads now who grew up under Title IX. They’re dads with daughters, and they call the foundation because they’re horrified that their son gets a brand-new uniform for baseball from the school budget and plays on a beautifully manicured field, while their daughter has to have bake sales and car washes to raise money for her new uniform, and gets the lesser-quality playing field. They’re shocked and upset that their daughters would get less funds from the institutions that they pay their tax dollars to than their son does. And so we see the needle move much more quickly when it’s not just women raising their hand saying, ‘Hey, this isn’t fair,’ but when you have everyone in society saying, “Hey, this isn’t fair.’ ”
In one of her TED Talks, Mullins said that, perhaps now, she didn’t wish that she’d been born with complete legs.
“If you’d asked me when I was 15 if I wanted to exchange my prostheses for legs of flesh and bone, I wouldn’t have hesitated for a second. But if you were to ask me today, I’m not so sure. And this isn’t despite the experiences I’ve had with my legs, but thanks to them.”
For more information, contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MICHAEL BOLD provides contract support to the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center. He is a writer-editor for Network Runners Inc., with more than 30 years of editing experience at newspapers, including the McClatchy Washington Bureau, The Sacramento Bee, the San Jose Mercury News, the Dallas Morning News and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. He holds a Bachelor of Journalism from the University of Missouri.
Read the full article in the Summer 2020 issue of Army AL&T magazine.
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