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'Blade runner' gains traction in her second chance at life

By Teryl Zarnow / The Orange County Register / Published: September 2, 2012

 

Jami GoldmanJami Goldman-Marseilles wears running shorts for our interview and – in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of way – that sets the tone for everything to follow.

Her thighs are great; the rest of her legs grab your attention. From calf to foot is clearly an Erector-set construction.

Jami, a bilateral below-knee amputee, changes to one of her three sets of legs as routinely as you empty the dishwasher. She demonstrates how the screw attached to the liner on her leg locks into her prosthesis. It's as practiced, and as intimate, as a soldier assembling a weapon. Something to rely on.

Like Olympian Oscar Pistorius, Jami is a "blade runner." Yet only after her amputations did Jami become an athlete.

"Before I lost my legs, I didn't use them."

Jami was 19 in 1988 when she had surgery to amputate her legs about 6 inches below each knee. They were cut in such a way that she could still dance and ski and wear high heels.

"I wanted a sense of security that there would be a life afterward."

She almost didn't live at all.

Jami and her friend were driving home from a ski trip in New Mexico when they got lost and stranded for 11 days in a snowbank during a blizzard in Arizona. The back road they had mistakenly taken was closed behind them when travel became unsafe.

The storm raged for three days, and they were stuck in the car for 11 nights – freezing, hungry and dehydrated. When rescue finally came from a father and son on snowmobiles, Jami was less than 48 hours away from death.

For three weeks, she endured agony as her feet, with no pulse, began to blacken. They had frozen and thawed and frozen again too many times.

Amputation was a decision made without much debate.

"I have been given a second chance at life. Big deal, I lost my legs. That's nothing compared to losing my life."

Of course, the girl she describes in her 2001 book, "Up and Running," wasn't so accepting. She screamed and cried and cursed her fate. With tough love from her family, including her beloved grandfather, she learned to live with it.

"I was forced to grow up real quick."

Jami was no athlete, but she needed to strengthen her body because moving requires 50 percent more energy now. First, she learned to walk. Running came later.

At the London Olympics this summer, Pistorius threw a spotlight on challenged runners.

But it was the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics that first showcased blade runners using carbon-fiber feet. Jami was watching.

There is nothing discreet about these limbs shaped like parentheses with the spring of pogo sticks. They are function over form. Pistorius wears a Flex-Foot Cheetah. It's made by Ossur, an Icelandic firm with U.S. headquarters in Foothill Ranch.

After the death of her grandfather, Jami needed inspiration. Her prosthetist suggested running.

Jami got her first Cheetahs in 1997. "I fell down … a lot."

She improved – setting a world record in 1999 at the Paralympic Revival in Germany for the 100-meter race. In Australia, she set a world record in the 200 meter.

She calls running the purest form of exhilaration she's ever known.

After Jami began running, she noticed other amputee athletes had no reservations about changing body parts in public. She became less concerned about cosmetic appearances – how her "toes" looked. She embraced her prosthetics for what they help her accomplish, not for how they look.

"My prosthetics were an asset, not a liability," she writes. "They helped define who I was."

She did not compete in the Paralympics, but she's met Pistorius and draws inspiration from him.

"Watching Oscar … was just astounding. He's a true example of what the Olympic spirit means."

Jami herself has trained with able-bodied runners.

"When I beat someone with two legs, it was incredible."

She has switched to long-distance running. Her running feet have rubber tread on the bottom instead of spikes.

Jami says she is the only female bilateral below-knee amputee in the world to run a half-marathon. Next month, she's running 10 miles as part of the San Diego Triathlon Challenge supporting the Challenged Athletes Foundation.

The Paralympics, which opened last week in London, don't draw nearly the attention of the Olympics. Still, she says awareness of challenged athletes has never been higher.

Jami has crossed a mental finish line about her former life. She concentrates on what she has.

Yes, it takes longer to do everything; she starts her morning by crawling into the shower. But she says the only limitations are the ones you place on yourself.

So, of course, I ask: What can she no longer do?

Tiptoe.

Today, Jami, 43, is a wife and mother of two in Huntington Beach. She's substitute-teaching at Enders Elementary School in Garden Grove.

And she doesn't much think about what happened to her trapped inside a car in Arizona.

"The past is the past."

She seems comfortable in her life. When Jami taught adaptive physical education for older kids with special needs, she wore shorts and ran with them.

"I showed them it didn't matter. And they didn't make it matter, either."

She's part-robot, but why cover it up?

Just by walking around, she says, she can change public perception of what it means to have a disability.

"Kids will ask me if I want my feet back. I tell them: 'No, not right now.'

"This is who I am. This is the life I've been given. … I think this has been my calling."

The girl with no feet runs for the sheer joy of it.

Information: iamjami.com.

The Paralympic Games run through Sept. 9. Highlights will be shown on NBC Sports Network and in a 90-minute special Sept. 16 on KNBC.