“The first time I put on a blade and started running,” Femita Ayanbeku tells us, “I felt like I had two legs again.” Which is kind of ironic, because a running track is one of the last places you would have found her when she did have two legs. “I thought it was the dumbest thing ever,” she laughs. “People running around in circles? Come on.”
The blade wasn’t even Ayanbeku’s own idea. Her prosthetist nudged her into attending a mobility clinic sponsored by the Challenged Athletes Foundation and Össur back in 2015, more than a decade after the childhood injury that claimed Ayanbeku’s right leg below the knee. “I didn’t identify as an athlete at all,” she says. But when she tried on the running prosthesis, the effect was as much mental as physical.
“I stopped having to think about every step,” she says. “I have a pretty good walking gait, but I’m still very careful. When I’m running, my mind just blacks out. I can just let go.”
Jerome Singleton, a Paralympic medalist, spotted Ayanbeku’s talent at that mobility clinic and put her in touch with his coach. In less than a year, she was representing Team USA in the 2016 Paralympics and making the finals of the 200 meter dash. It was only the sixth track meet she’d ever attended, and Ayanbeku finished a more-than-respectable sixth, beating numerous world-class racers with far more experience. Even then, it took a while for her identity as an elite competitor to fully sink in. “[An athletic career] wasn’t really the plan,” she remembers thinking shortly after Rio. “But now I’m here, and I need to get more serious.”
She’s all business heading into Tokyo. In addition to being the world’s second-ranked sprinter in the 100 meter dash, Ayanbeku is a member of Team Össur and a high-profile ambassador for the US Paralympic team. She stars in the “Show the World” ad campaign that’s helping to introduce adaptive athletics to American sports fans. We talked with Ayanbeku last month after the Paralympic Trials, where she set a new US record in the 100 meters for her classification (T64). Our conversation is edited for clarity and length.
When did you start to embrace the identity of being an elite athlete?
It was after World Championships in 2017 where I false-started. I was just so upset. I traveled all this way, I trained all this time, and my one shot was gone. And so I kind of just told myself, “If we’re doing this, we need to do it.” Up until then I was still working an overnight job, and I’d be going to practice really, really tired, and then trying to go to the gym. It was just too much. I thought if my coach is investing his time, and Jerome is working with me, and people are sponsoring me—you know, a lot of people helped me get that point, and it was up to me to take it to that next level and prepare myself, physically and mentally, to be a full-time athlete. That’s when I quit my job.
By then, sports had already changed my life, and not just professionally. Before I started running, I didn’t have a community of people with physical disabilities where I was so comfortable in my own skin. Just being around that whole community gave me confidence that goes way beyond sports.
And then you ended up being one of key ambassadors in the “Show the World” promo. How did that come about?
I honestly don’t know. I just got an email one day, and they sent me the script and asked me how I felt about it. I thought it was a really good concept, because a lot of people really don’t understand what the Paralympics is on a basic level. We’re still trying to break down so many doors of equality and just being recognized as equal, but a lot of people don’t put it on that level. When NBC wasn’t showing us before, it sent the message that the Paralympics are probably just not worth watching. So with the commercial coming out and the increase in coverage, it’s validation. I think we can definitely grow our fan base and get more support.
Are there other runners around the world who you view as prime competition for the podium?
I don’t think anybody faster than me. I’m second in the world right now, and the girl that Spurs where like, you know, hundredth of a second off. I’ve never worried about my competition. I don’t even think, or like look about what they’re doing, or what’s going on. I just like to trust my training page. I like to talk about that. I am the fastest, so all I need to do is get in those blocks and do what I know and everything else will speak for itself.
Who do you identify with as a role model?
April Holmes. I met her at Trials and 2016, and she was really, really nice. We were direct competitors, so I wasn’t expecting her to teach me anything on the track, but she was very warm and welcoming. And then her whole history that she has gone through with the Paralympics. April has been running for a very long time, and for her to have stuck around and make some of the changes that brought the Paralympics to where it is right now—the athletes coming up now don’t even know the struggles that we had to deal with in the beginning. As a woman, as a Black woman, and as an amputee, she covers all the bases. She opened so many doors, and I just look up to that. I want to be a part of the change in the way the Paralympics are viewed and the way it’s run, and she did it first. So now I want to kind of just take that torch and hopefully open up more doors.
You’ve become a role model yourself to younger runners such as Noelle Lambert. How would you describe your relationship with her?
She was coming from an athletic background, so I knew she had a chance to compete at a high level. She was coming into it from a very advanced starting point. We clicked and it worked out really well. She’s like a little sister to me, so it was easy to spend time with her and get her ready to train. At the first competition, she was just sitting around waiting for the competition to start and I told her, “You need to warm up.” She was like, “Really?” That’s how inexperienced she was. So I said, “Just do my warmup with me,” and I took her through my whole warmup so she would be ready for the competition. And she ended up winning.
Look into the future for a moment. When the Games come to Los Angeles in 2028, what what would you like to see?
I want to see people with physical disabilities getting more attention and more support. Toyota did this amazing thing. They just started a Paralympic fund to sponsor a bunch of athletes this year. That was a huge deal, just to acknowledge us. And then during the Superbowl when Jessica Long, the swimmer, was in an advertisement. I want people to see us as athletes first without feeling they need to feel bad [for me] because I’m an amputee. I just want them to say, “Wow, that girl can run really fast.” I want that narrative to change. It’s just about creating that story where people can understand. That’s what I really, really, really want to be a part of.