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By Adena Andrews
April Holmes may have lost part of her leg, but the Paralympics star refuses to be seen as handicapped. She's on a quest to finish what she started in 2008 and come home with two medals in London. Follow more journeys to London on espnW.com.
April Holmes was in first place during the 200-meter final at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing when the spike on her prosthetic left leg got caught on the track, causing her to fall to the ground. Another competitor stepped on Holmes' face with a track spike. Holmes also caused Marie-Amelie le Fur of France to fall. Despite a right eye filled with blood and a bruised leg, Holmes hobbled to the finish line to complete the race. "I have this thing about finishing whatever you start, so despite my condition I was going to cross the finish line," she wrote in her blog.
Five days later, despite being sore and tired, Holmes raced in the 100-meter final. Her leg and hips hurt so much she could barely warm up. She even told her competitors they were going to win the race. "I could barely lift my leg, but I never let [my family] know," Holmes said. "They would be too concerned and I didn't need the pity party. Instead, I needed energy and God." As Holmes likes to say it was "by the grace of God," that she crossed the finish line to win gold in the 100 in 13.72 seconds. That's three seconds slower than the able-body Olympic record held by Florence Griffith-Joyner. Holmes would later discover she did it all with a labral tear in her left hip.
Holmes was elated with her first gold, but on the flight home she couldn't help but think she should have two medals around her neck. That's why she began training two months later for the 2012 Games. Her goal is to claim the 200 medal that eluded her in Beijing.
Before the Paralympics — where she became the fastest amputee in her class, holding world records in the 100, 200 and 400 — Holmes was an All-American in the 400 and 4x400 relay at Norfolk State. After graduation she started working and gave up competitive athletics.
Read on for how April ended up competing in the Paralympics.
"I absolutely hated my job in communications as a project manager," Holmes said. "I would walk into work asking, 'God could you speak a little louder? I don't know why you have me coming through this door every day and dealing with these people.'"
Holmes' world soon changed in way she couldn't have imagined.
In January 2001, Holmes lost her left leg in an accident while boarding a train from Philadelphia to New York. She was the last person to board and slipped and fell onto the track. The train conductor heard her cries too late and pulled out of the station onto Holmes' leg. Rescue workers tried for hours to lift the train to possibly save her limb. "I was awake the entire time, singing every gospel song I knew," Holmes said. "I kept thinking 'God this is not how it's going to end. I have so much more in life I want to do.'" The train couldn't be lifted and Holmes' leg couldn't be saved. Hours later she woke up in the hospital with one thing on her mind. "Although I hadn't played sports in a while, my first thought was, 'I'm never going to run or play basketball again,'" Holmes said.
Her surgeon thought different. He handed her a pamphlet about the Paralympics and encouraged Holmes to look into it. Holmes hadn't heard of the organization but it would soon become her outlet to be active again and achieve the job she always wanted. "I would always ask God for a job in sports or entertainment where I could travel and meet different people," Holmes said. "Viola! I got it. My only thing was I wasn't specific in my prayer. I never said, 'God can I have 10 toes, too.'"
Holmes received her first walking prosthetic three months later. One year after the accident, she participated in her first race at Disney's Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Fla., where she currently trains. In 2004, three years after the accident, she set an American record of 4.65 meters and won bronze in the long jump at the 2004 Paralympics.
Holmes is now a recognizable face in the disabled community, but she does not let that define her. Unlike some Paralympians, she trains with able-bodied runners. She has developed under 2010 USTAF Coach of the Year Brooks Johnson and former gold medal Olympian Al Joyner, husband of the late Florence Griffith-Joyner and brother of Jackie Joyner-Kersee. "Coach never adjusts the workout for her. What we do she does," able-bodied training partner Connie Moore said. "Just her existence is an inspiration to me. If I'm tired after a practice set, I just look over at her with one leg and think 'If she can do it, I have no excuse.'"
"Once I lost my leg I knew I had to keep my mechanics the same as able-body people, that's why I train with them," Holmes said. "Sometimes it's discouraging to get beat by [my training partners] in practice but I always tell them 'If you lost your leg, we would have a race going.'"
She also refuses to park in handicapped spots. "There are people who actually need that," Holmes said. "I don't." When out and about, Holmes proudly displays her artificial leg in shorts. Her flesh-colored limb starts at her knee with a foot-long black sleeve surrounding the point where it connects to her thigh. "I have such a strong gait that most people don't even notice my limb and they just think I'm wearing a knee brace," Holmes said. Johnson said, "If you watch her run from the far side of the track, her stride and mechanics are so fluid you can't tell she has a prosthetic."
People not noticing her disability is just fine for Holmes. Similar to the 200 race in 2008, Holmes doesn't want pity. She also doesn't want her story to be one of overcoming tragedy. Like any athlete, she wants her legacy to be one of winning. "Somebody's got to be great and win the gold medal," she said. "If you know someone has to do it why can't it be you? I've not been afraid of that. I have not been afraid to be great."
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