The Challenged Athlete: An Amputee’s Quest to Get Active Again

Everyone said losing a leg didn’t have to slow me down, but it did. Did I do something wrong?

By Diana Theobald

I was never a top-tier athlete before the climbing accident that took my left leg, but I ran a good number of half-marathons and sprint triathlons. When I became an amputee eight years ago, everybody expected me to do three things: write a memoir, get a machine gun leg like Rose McGowan in Planet Terror, and run in the Paralympics.

I’m not exaggerating when I say those subjects came up in nearly every conversation, even from the very beginning. That first night in the hospital, an orthopedic surgeon told me, “Welp, you’re probably not running any more marathons.” But I didn’t listen to him, and neither did my family and friends. Everybody reassured me that if I wanted to run a marathon, I would run a marathon. 

After I had my leg amputated, I connected with another amputee who had recently completed a marathon after recovering from injuries like mine. “How’d you do it?” I asked. “Lots and lots of ibuprofen,” he responded. But he assured me that it was worth it.

That’s all I needed to hear. I excitedly applied for a grant from the Challenged Athletes Foundation for a running blade, and I received a shiny new Össur Flex-Run with beefy Nike tread. At last, I was ready to run.

Those first few strides in the blade felt amazing. The next few…didn’t.

Before I lost my leg, running could be sublime. Taking off down a hill at full speed, feeling the power in my legs, the energy bouncing back with every pound of the pavement, and the wind, oh the wind! It was like flying.

Running post-amputation does not feel like flying. I don’t feel power; I feel pain. After 14 surgeries, my salvaged ankle is severely lacking in cartilage. And while my running blade is bouncy-good-fun, my carbon fiber socket is hardy-grr-hard.

That orthopedic surgeon was right: I’m probably not running any more marathons. The upside is that I won’t have to shuffle around the city for hours every weekend in gaudy neon compression wear, downing GU energy gels that look and taste like something from sci-fi dystopia. But the downside is that sometimes I feel like I’m failing at being an amputee. I’m not meeting everyone’s expectation that nothing, not even limb loss, could stop me from reaching my goals. I’m letting down a whole community, disappointing a world that wants me to be defiant and strong.

The reality is that I’m not going to become a superhuman athlete, achieving amazing feats on one leg. But I don’t want to feel helpless, either. I want to get back to being active. There needs to be middle ground between extreme success and total failure. There’s got to be a sweet spot. 

We all have to find that place for ourselves, and the struggle to find it can be lonely. It can also be painful, annoying, embarrassing, frustrating, depressing, disappointing, shameful, and sometimes very funny. The emotional exertion can be as exhausting as the physical effort. 

I’m still searching for my sweet spot when it comes to exercise, but here’s what I’ve gained so far.

Inspiration Bombs

There’s an old Twilight Zone episode about a guy who dies and goes to heaven. In heaven, he wins every game at the casino. Beautiful women fulfill his every fantasy and cater to his every whim. It’s great at first. But the more he wins without even trying, the less it feels like success and the more it feels like something else. It’s then that he learns he’s not in heaven; he’s in hell.

Inspiring strangers at the gym is my hell.

I call this phenomenon “inspiration bombing.” When I’m chugging along on the stationary bike or the treadmill, just doing the bare minimum, and someone singles me out and tells me I’m killing it, that does not feel like success.

One of my worst inspiration bombs dropped when I tried to start a swimming habit at LA Fitness. This particular location was a hot spot for the over-65 community. The spa was stuffed with grandpas slowly boiling themselves alive, while grandmas swarmed the lanes near the stairs in the shallow end of the pool.

By then, I’d learned that getting into and out of a pool as an amputee is physically demanding. Paralympic swimmers make it look easy; I made it look like a separate Paralympic event. To get in, I would perch on the edge of the pool, take off my prosthetic leg and liner and wrap them in a towel, scooch my butt down the steps, then paddle over to an empty lane. I’d keep my leg-towel burrito nearby throughout my workout because I was terrified of hoodlum snots running away with it. When I was ready to get out, I’d make my way back to the stairs and scooch my butt back out, step by step. Then I’d dry off my limb, don the prosthesis, and use the rail to carefully pull myself up to standing.

My first day at the LA Fitness pool, my getting-out routine attracted the notice of one grandma. She raptly watched the whole performance. I had a brief impulse to throw my arms up like a gymnast who just stuck the landing, but I just smiled politely and went on my way.

The next day, the same grandma was there, joined by all her friends who’d heard about the spectacle and wanted to see it for themselves. As I started to exit the pool, the entire lane stopped to witness the miracle of an amputee getting out of water. I tried to ignore them, but when I stood up, the crowd applauded. 

I’ve never gone back.

I switched to Equinox for a few months. It was insanely expensive, but the cost (and the chilled eucalyptus-scented towels) motivated me to show up semi-regularly. One week, when my salvaged foot was giving me trouble, I limped through a ten-minute walk on the treadmill, trying to ignore the shooting pain that came with every step. I must have been giving off “hardest thing I’ve done in my life” vibes, because after I finished, a man came up to me and asked to shake my hand. 

“It’s so inspiring to see you here,” he said. 

“All I did was walk,” I responded.

His admiration couldn’t be stilled. “You got out here and did that,” he beamed. If there’d been a ribbon within easy reach, he would have pinned it on me. 

I later learned that my bone was infected, and that the ten-minute walk I’d earned such adulation for had broken it into three pieces. “What did you do?” my surgeon asked, exasperated by the damage to an ankle he’d spent the past year repairing. 

“All I did was walk,” I responded. 

Instead of a ribbon, I got an external fixator that I had to wear for seven months. I also got guff from Equinox about canceling my membership so soon. This is when I learned that yelling “I lost my leg!” shuts down most arguments.

The dumbest time I got inspiration bombed was at restorative yoga. Restorative yoga is a slow practice where you arrange yourself into comfortable positions supported by props such as pillows and blankets. If that sounds like a nap to you, you’re right—it is a nap. A fancy yoga nap. A woman came up to me and called me an inspiration for napping.

Unfortunately, inspiration-bombing is a fact of life. My boss used to say, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” That’s the approach I’ve adopted. Now when I go to the gym, I think, “These people are in for a treat. They’re about to see an amputee working out. Get ready to be inspired, jerks.” And then I put in my AirPods and tune everyone out.

Crashing and Burning

Remember the Daffy Duck short where he’s Robin Hood? He swings from a rope, shouting, “Yoiks, and away!” and starts to sail gracefully through the air, only to crash into a tree. He takes off again, and crashes into another tree. He takes off, crashes, takes off, crashes. He chops down every single tree and tries one more time. It looks like he’s finally going to succeed. And then he slams into a boulder.

That’s me in spinning class. I crash, remount, crash again. I clear away old obstacles and crash into new ones.

Spinning should be good for somebody like me. It’s low-impact, and it doesn’t need a special leg. It should be safe and health-promoting. Yet I find new ways to hurt myself every time I go. One time while I was riding out of the saddle, my sweaty limb slid out of my liner, and I crashed onto the bike crotch-first. Now I take special care when I’m riding out of the saddle. I also take breaks to wipe down my liner.

Then I started slipping on my cycling shoes—easy to do with a real foot, nearly impossible with a prosthetic one. The front desk introduced me to Tiem cycling shoes. No protruding clip! Another problem solved.

Earlier this year, my prosthetic foot broke during class. I duct-taped it together until I could get to the prosthetist. In the same class, my fancy new cycling shoes slipped off my prosthetic foot, causing me once again to crash onto the bike crotch-first. I duct-tape the cycling shoe now, too. 

I’m very happy to report that last week I survived an entire spinning class with zero limb shenanigans. The trick was to keep taking off. I just pray there’s not a boulder up ahead. Wait, what’s that? Is that a blister on my stump? Uh-oh. Crash!

Physical boulders are one thing. For the most part, you shake it off and try another approach. Emotional boulders are far more complicated.

Just after my accident, my dad, in his grief, said to me: “Diana, if you don’t come back from this, if you become inactive, I will be very disappointed.” I should be able to handle disappointing my father by now. I mean, I totaled his car twice before I finished college, and then I graduated with a degree in film! The man has experienced disappointment with me and lived to tell the tale—frequently, to every boyfriend I bring home. 

Today he won’t hesitate to say he’s proud of the woman I’ve become. But I can’t help but think that he’d be much prouder if I finished a marathon—or, at this point, even just a 5K. And I can’t help but feel ashamed that I haven’t done it yet. I can’t help thinking I’ve let down all the loved ones who assured me, right after my accident, that I’d get back to running races.

As the years have gone by, and my weight has gone up, the cheers from family and friends have swung the other way. They encourage me to rest, not to push myself. They see what I’ve endured, and they’re letting me off the hook, not just from racing, but from activity in general.

People who love you are happy to make excuses for you. They do it because they see you suffering, and they want you to feel better. It’s easy to accept their excuses because they come from a place of love, and because you no longer feel like you’re letting them down. You’re doing exactly what they expect of you now: nothing.

But that’s worse. It’s so much worse.

Reframing the Story

Even when I was training for half-marathons, before I lost my leg, working out wasn’t a habit that came naturally to me. I had to develop a set of tricks to make sure I got out of bed for early-morning sessions. I put my alarm across the room instead of right next to the bed. I packed my gym bag the night before. I even slept in my gym clothes. Everything was streamlined so that when that alarm went off, all I had to do was crawl into my car.

When I needed extra motivation, I used to imagine my 80-year-old self still hitting the trails, bounding downstairs with ease, and jumping in the pool with grandkids. Exercise was supposed to guarantee a future without limits. But so far, it’s done the opposite. The morning of my climbing accident, I didn’t want to get out of bed, but I used all my tricks, and I got up. And because I did, my spine is fused, my right ankle is pre-arthritic, and my left ankle is gone. I should have stayed in bed.

My therapist refers to these stories I tell myself as just that—stories. They’re not the truth; they’re only things I make up in my mind. And if I can frame the stories one way, I can reframe them another way. A good reframe is to think about the amazing things I can only get once I’m out of bed. Like coffee. Another effective reframe is to think about what I’d look like if I never got out of bed ever again for the rest of my life. Probably like Jabba the Hutt. That gets me out of bed.

They’re all part of the new set of tricks I’m building to keep myself active as an amputee. Because that’s what we have to do after losing a limb. That’s undisputed. Our physical and mental health depends on it. We must keep taking off, crashing, and taking off again.

So that’s what I’m doing. I’m going to physical therapy twice a week. I’m spinning the pedals with my duct-taped shoes. I’m swimming again (at a different pool—zero spectators). I even have plans for that Össur running blade—to run that 5K. 

I’ve been down this route before and failed. But failing in the past doesn’t mean I can’t succeed in the future. I’m not inspiring anybody, and I’m not trying to live up to anyone else’s expectations. I’m pushing myself, for however long I can, and I’m grateful for the struggle. Yoiks, and away!

Diana Theobald is a freelance writer and diversity consultant. She has held roles in creative development and diversity & inclusion at Warner Bros. Discovery, Marvel, DreamWorks Animation, and NBCUniversal.
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