Aimee Mullins: A Very Self-reliant Wonder Woman

Aimee Mullins: A Very Self-reliant Wonder Woman

She’s a critically acclaimed actress, a gorgeous high fashion model and cover girl, a record-breaking track and field athlete and the youngest-ever Pentagon aide with top secret clearance. She’s also something of a role model for both women and men, who find her philosophy appealing: Don’t let fixed ideas and social constraints dictate what is or isn’t possible. Who is this wonder woman? She’s Aimee Mullins, who lost both her legs from just below the knee when she was a year old, and never let it slow her down for a minute. Aimee Mullins was born with fibular hemimelia, a birth defect in which the fibulae - the slender bone behind the shin bone - are missing. Doctors told the family that little Aimee would never walk, that she’d require a wheelchair for the rest of her life. But on the outside chance that she might achieve independent mobility with prostheses, doctors amputated both of her legs below the knee on her first birthday.

As drastic and shocking as that might sound, it was the best decision the family could have made for Aimee. By the age of two, Aimee was walking on her tiny prosthetic legs. And as her childhood and teenage years flew past, and new prosthetics were fitted to match her growth, Aimee was racing, swimming, playing soccer and baseball, bicycling, skiing - and not just keeping up, but often exceeding the athletic accomplishments of the so-called able-bodied kids. Aimee was born in 1976, in Allentown, Pennsylvania, and graduated from Parkland High School in Allentown. As well as an excellent athlete, Aimee was a top student, and graduated from high school with honors. In 1993, she was one of three students in the U.S. chosen for a full academic scholarship to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., by the Department of Defense. She studied history and diplomacy, and at just 17 years old, became the youngest person ever to hold a top-secret security clearance at the Pentagon, where she worked (for Colin Powell among others) as an Intelligence Analyst during her summer breaks. “It was surreal,” she said in a Rolling Stone interview years later. “Reading Jane’s Defense Weekly and writing for Military Intelligence Digest.

We all corresponded over secure email connections. So when I actually had meetings, you could see people turn red, thinking, ‘How old is this ... kid?’” While she was at Georgetown she rekindled her love for competitive sports. She was on the dean’s list at the prestigious School of Foreign Service, but she set her sights on making it onto the U.S. Team for the 1996 Atlanta Games. Aimee is not the kind of person to make idle wishes. She enlisted the help of Frank Gagliano, a highly-respected track coach. And never one to do things by half-measure, Aimee outfitted herself with light-weight, carbon-graphite prostheses, shaped roughly like the hind legs of a cheetah. The relationship with Gagliano, and the amazing high-tech prototype running prosthetics, were a total success. Aimee became the first woman with a “disability” to compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), with Georgetown’s nationally-ranked Division I track team, where she set World Records in the 100 meter, 200 meter and the long jump.

But those outrageous prosthetic legs sparked furious debates across the country. And the media was in a frenzy, unable to get enough of this outrageously beautiful blonde athlete with the outrageously shaped prosthetics. When a profile in Life magazine pictured her in the starting blocks at Atlanta, the world was utterly captivated. Almost overnight, Aimee Mullins was in a 10-page feature in the inaugural issue of Sports Illustrated for Women, invitations poured in for speaking engagements at international design conferences, and Aimee became personally enthralled by issues relating to body image, and how fashion advertising impacted societal notions of femininity and beauty. In 1998, Aimee appeared in the avant-garde magazine Dazed & Confused, and in1999 she was in London, striding coolly down the runway on a pair of hand-carved wooden legs made from solid ash with integral boots for celebrated British fashion designer Alexander McQueen.

She was in the Kenneth Cole anniversary campaign, and she recently was named Global Brand Ambassador for L’Oréal. Meanwhile, she has appeared in a half dozen films and TV shows - a cheetah woman in Matthew Barney’s trend-setting Cremaster 3, a reporter in World Trade Center, and as herself on the Comedy Central news and interview show, The Colbert Report, where she declared she has had at least 12 pairs of prosthetic legs, “some in museums”. And Aimee was named one of the “50 Most Beautiful People In The World” by People magazine, named one of Esquire’s “Women We Love”, one of Jane magazine’s “10 Gutsiest Women”, one of Sports Illustrated’s “Coolest Girls in Sports”, and was celebrated as the “Hottest Muse” in Rolling Stone’s annual Hot List. Aimee speaks regularly at global conferences like TED and TEDMED, and serves on the boards of numerous non-profits.

One, the Women’s Sports Foundation, to which Aimee was elected President for two years, was founded by tennis legend Billie Jean King. For years, Aimee has been a Vice-President for J.O.B., the nation’s oldest non-profit employment service for persons with disabilities, founded in 1947 by Eleanor Roosevelt. She is a founding member of the Leadership Board to SPIRE Institute, the world’s largest and most diverse athletic development center. And she’s an in-demand corporate speaker at dozens of Fortune 500 companies, from Pepsi, Merrill-Lynch and Bloomberg to Bank of America, Adidas and Oppenheimer Funds.

Her likeness appears in exhibits at such institutions as the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the NCAA Hall of Fame, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Tate Modern, the Track and Field Hall of Fame, and the Women’s Museum, where she was honored for her contribution to sport among the “Greatest American Women of the 20th Century.” Aimee Mullins has helped change how the world sees “disabilities”, and she continues to influence the way we think about ourselves and our lives in other ways. Interest in this marvel of American womanhood is all-embracing - fashion industry, advertising industry, arts organizations, corporate and sales divisions, news media, entertainment industry - there’s simply too much to cover here.

In her Rolling Stone interview, Aimee’s comment on growing up with prosthetic legs in small-town Pennsylvania offers a brilliant insight into how to deal with heavy odds against us. “I was raised to be very self-reliant,” Aimee said. “The leg thing was SO not a big deal.” Here at Novus, our patients are dealing with addiction to drugs and alcohol - what might seem to be crippling odds against them. But their decision to rely on their inner strength and overcome the odds carries them through to their goals. We are deeply gratified to be able to help them rediscover their lives, free from substance dependence and abuse.

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