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'You can overcome anything': Amputee runner plans to make history at Boston Marathon

Jami Goldman Marseilles is the world's only double below-the-knee amputee woman to finish a full marathon. She runs in Boston on Monday.
/ Source: TODAY

Jami Goldman Marseilles is currently the only double below-the-knee amputee woman in the world to have successfully completed a full marathon after finishing the Chicago Marathon last fall. On Monday, the 47-year-old kindergarten teacher from Orange County, California, will run in the Boston Marathon, hoping to become the first female double amputee to finish that race. She is running in honor of her friend Celeste Corcoran, who lost both of her legs in the Boston bombings in 2013.

Marseilles shared her story with TODAY’s A. Pawlowski.

Jami Goldman Marseilles, a double amputee runner.
Jami Goldman Marseilles is a double amputee runner.Courtesy Allan Helmick Photography

The ironic twist of being a girl with God-given legs, then losing them and becoming a runner is really powerful. I think the message shows people out there that you can overcome anything that life’s journey throws at you.

I lost my legs to frostbite when I was 19. I was a sophomore in college and coming home from a ski trip with a friend. We were driving back to Arizona, took a back route and got lost in the White Mountains during a snow storm. Our car hit a snow bank, then got stuck on a patch of ice and would not move. We lived in our car for 11 days.

We got lost on Dec. 23, 1987, and we were found on Jan. 2, 1988. Over that time, my feet, hands, nose and ears all had frostbite. Everything came back but my feet. I contracted gangrene so both my legs were amputated about 4 to 6 inches below my knee.

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Growing up, I was never athletic, but I did ski. That was the one sport I really enjoyed. But I never ran; I did not participate in physical education.

When I lost my legs, I felt that was something that had to change. Even before the amputation, the physical therapist and the nurses explained how I needed to strengthen and exercise my body to make up for what I was going to be missing from the surgery.

That’s what I did and I actually liked it. I enjoyed going to the gym, watching my body change and getting strong, and it really gave me a wonderful sense of empowerment and self-confidence.

I started running in 1997. After the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta, Georgia, I had seen video of athletes — people like me, amputees — running and I thought, "Oh my gosh, how are they balancing? How are they not falling down?" What an incredible way to live your life.

Jami Goldman Marseilles double amputee runner
Courtesy Allan Helmick Photography

At that time, my grandfather had just passed away. I had a very special relationship with him. I’ll never forget when I was in the hospital and it was time to exercise, he was not afraid to give me tough love.

“It wouldn’t be so hard if you had exercised your whole life,” he said.

I really appreciated his honesty because he always got on my case about not exercising.

So after he passed away, when I had this opportunity to learn to run, I thought it would be a beautiful way to contribute to his legacy by embracing a healthy lifestyle full of exercise.

Related: Dancer who lost a leg after Boston Marathon bombings plans to run race this year

I’ve run five half-marathons and I thought that was tough, but training for a marathon really takes it to the next level. I ran the Chicago Marathon in October. That was to qualify for Boston.

When I’m out on a run, I’m constantly adjusting my legs. I might be running at a really good pace, but it’s going to take me a little bit longer because I do stop. Whether a limb is swelling or a prosthetic sock is rubbing, or things just don’t feel right and I have chaffing — I really listen to my body. I don’t want to risk injury; I don’t want to get blisters.

That’s something that I mentally had to force myself to do because when you’re out training, you just want to run as fast you can and challenge yourself.

Jami Goldman Marseilles lives in Orange County, California, with her husband Beau and two children.
Jami Goldman Marseilles lives in Orange County, California, with her husband Beau and two children.Courtesy Jami Goldman Marseilles

Everyone asks, "What’s your time going to be in Boston? What are you going to do?"

And I have a pretty simple answer: I’m going to finish. I’m just so honored to be a part of history and to share my journey by participating in the marathon on Monday.

I've developed strong relationships with some survivors of the Boston bombing, and I feel like it will be a way to pay it forward to them.

They’re still trying to figure out their lives and their future. Tragedy is going to strike everybody; it’s just a matter of when. If I can provide people with inspiration and motivation, I feel like it’s given me a purpose of why I was saved on that mountain.

You’ve got to find that passion and that drive from within to want to do something that’s challenging. I believe it creates a strong character, especially when you can defy odds. It gives you such a beautiful sense of satisfaction.

If you’re a recent amputee and want to run, start by going for a walk around the block. Start off by embracing a healthy lifestyle, by moving your body at a little quicker pace. Ask for help. Seek out others who have done this and ask questions. That’s what I did when I first ran track in the late ‘90s. I met other amputees — it’s a beautiful community.

The human spirit is such a genuine competitive machine.