Cheers of team camaraderie echoed across the football field of Catholic University Cardinals Stadium in N.E. Washington, DC, during a ÖSSUR Running and Mobility Clinic presented by Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) on June 23. The clinic represents one in a series being held around the country this year.
The collaborative efforts of the two organizations benefitted approximately 50 DC-area adults and youth with lower limb loss by introducing them to new physical skill sets to increase confidence and develop greater independence during the daylong clinic.
During the free clinic, several volunteers helped acclimate new prosthesis users learn proper walking form and perform effective, high-intensity drills led by Dr. Robert Gailey and Peter Harsch, Certified Prosthetist Orthotist (CPO), two of the nation’s leading gait (walking form) specialists.
Prior to the start of the clinic, Scott Wren, a 15-year-old amputee was surprised with a CAF grant presentation of a Flex-Run Junior prostheses-running blade with Nike sole. Wren lost his leg in 2015 after being diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a bone cancer.
Overwhelmed with the generous gift, Wren stated, “The new running blade is really fast. Before, everyone would pass me, but now I’m able to either stay equal with someone or even pass them,” said Wren, a resident of Aldie, VA.
With the technology available to him now, Wren thinks he’ll have a better chance at making the basketball team, Lacrosse or track. “It’s nice to see everyone come together and work hard, because they see everybody else doing it,” he said. “Today, I learned just how to do everything better on a prostheses, whether it’s running or just everyday walking. Wren says after the day’s event, he has plans to test out his prostheses at a local teen dance.
Gailey, a University of Miami professor and physical therapist, shared his thoughts on guiding the participants through various physical maneuvers across the field aided by volunteers.
“I specialize in people with limb loss. I’ve been doing this for 30-some-odd years,” said Gailey, who first encountered athletes playing basketball on dated wooden prostheses.
After a couple of hours of intense drills, Gailey readied the participants — ranging from age 5 to 70 — for the final test of endurance and agility using their newly learned skills. Dividing them into two teams, he shouted, “This is the final test to see how well you use your new skills on this obstacle course.”
Rallying each team with “high fives” and competitive chants, he joined family members and volunteers in urging the participants on as they navigated the challenging course; running zigzag through cones, high-stepping stepping through multiple rings, jumping over ropes both forward and backwards.
“It really wasn’t me motivating them. They were motivating each other. All I was doing was just giving them the exercise,” Gailey said. “It wasn’t my words but seeing each other getting constantly better that motivated them.”
Gailey noted, despite having only fifty people in attendance, “Thousands of people will be helped over the next 10 years because of what these people did here today.”
The drills will help them achieve their mobility goals of walking with confidence and also run again beyond the clinic instruction.
For some participants, it would be their first challenge in learning to use the new running blades. The newly learned skills would also serve to aid the self-assurance of longtime amputees who honed their speed skills for sprinting.
Among the featured Rock Star Amputees participating in the clinic were Army veteran Col. Greg Gadson, an Army veteran and amputee athlete, motivational speaker; SCUBA diver and actor, Nicole Ver Kuilen, aka “Forrest Stump,” who has taken her message to the U.S. Congress; retired Army Col. Patricia Collins, amputee, and two-time W100K participant. Other guests included John Hattingh, CPO – Wren’s prosthetist of Prosthetic Care Facility of Virginia and Elizabeth Vanderweerd, Program Manager, Össur America.
Throughout the event each amputee ambassador gladly shared the thrill of competition and their personal stories of recovery and triumph with the new and longtime amputees.
Gadson, a bilateral, above-knee amputee who earned three Bronze Stars, the Purple Heart, two Distinguished Service Medals and the Legion of Merit for his service stated, “The real heroes are the ones on this field today.” Gadson is a 26-year Army veteran, who lost both of his legs to a roadside bomb in Iraq in May 2007.
“The Challenge Athletes Foundation and ÖSSUR come together to put this running clinic together and it provides knowledge, understanding and capability; but it’s also a network of folks that have been on the journey that you’re going to go on if you’re a new amputee. So you get to see the possible and understand that you’re not limited ... only by yourself,” Gadson said.
One of the most vibrant athletes competing in the event was Benny Storniolo, a 14-year-old multi-limbed amputee who attacked the obstacle course with gusto. “I’ve had my disability for my whole life,” Storniolo said.
“I’ve gone to these ÖSSUR events twice before and I love being an amputee. I’ve had so much fun and I’ve met so many interesting people from being disabled,” Storniolo said, relishing the strong bonds he’s made attending other camps. “I’ve gone to two different disability camps; the Paddy Rossbach Youth Camp and an Unlimbited Teen Amputee Camp in Salt Lake City funded by Shriners,” Storniolo said. “I love this event and I’ve learned some new ways to run,” said the Bethesda resident.
Veteran athletes like Nicole Ver Kuilen was joyful about the friendships and sportsman competition she has found with other amputees during her journey.
“This is just an incredible event and for me, because I basically spent maybe 20-plus years of my life going without knowing any other amputees; these type of events are amazing,” said Kuilen, founder of FORREST STUMP, a 501c3 non-profit advocacy organization geared toward raising the standard of care for all amputees.
“I think a lot of people are nervous to come to these events, because they’ve never pushed themselves that hard or they’re afraid of falling or being embarrassed,” said Kuilen, who lost her leg to bone cancer at age 10 and ran 1,500 miles down the West Coast. “What I want to say to them is don’t worry about that, we’ve all been in that position. Since I’ve been running, I’ve fallen and scraped my knees and had other embarrassing moments like when my leg fell off and I fell down a flight of stairs,” Kuilen said laughing.
“One of the biggest things learned is that a lot of atrophy occurs on your amputated side. I learned that there are some important movements, stretches and strengthening that you have to do on a daily basis. The stuff we’re doing out here could apply to every American about being physically active,” Kuilen concluded.
Travis Ricks, Amputee athlete and Challenge Athletes Foundation Associate director of programs, ran and completed the course to conclude the event.
“We’ve held these events with ÖSSUR for the past 20 years. But we hold about seven annually right now. We’ve help over 300 amputees be able to get mobile.” Ricks was diagnosed at the age of 17 with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer. He fought to keep the leg, but after several staph infections he decided to get it amputated at age 23.
“We have a beginner/intermediate group and an advanced group that we’re running through drills that will help them get to the next level,” Ricks said. “We’ll take someone that kind of knows how to use their prosthetic, but doesn’t quite know how to totally use it. We teach them how to get to that next level, whether their goal is to run across the street, play ball with their kids or run in a marathon. The day is really for everybody at every level,” Ricks said.
Ricks stated that CAF gave out $3.7 million dollars in grants out to 2,806 grantees this year for adaptive prosthetics, adaptive equipment like hand cycles, training funding and travel comp funding for people to be able to get out and do sports for all physical disabilities.