Even as she was lying under a commuter train, her left leg crushed by its wheels, April Holmes never felt sorry for herself. And when she woke up from surgery without the leg, she viewed it as both a blessing and a calling.
“I realized just in a blink of an eye, I could have lost my life,” Holmes told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Thursday in New York. “God kept me alive for a reason. I realized I had work to do. I couldn’t just sit there and be stagnant.”
Holmes turned her loss into a career as a world-champion amputee sprinter and an inspirational speaker who has her own foundation and travels the country talking to kids in school about the importance of being active and overcoming obstacles.
This Saturday, Holmes’ story will be featured on NBC Sports’ critically acclaimed “2008 Paralympics Special” spotlighting the games that were held in Beijing immediately after the Olympics. When the program first aired on Nov. 6, it won rave reviews across the country.
After watching it, Richard Sandomir of The New York Times was moved to write: “I have finished crying inside my cubicle after watching NBC's documentary about the Paralympics in Beijing. It is a 90-minute, continuous ‘Oh my’ journey with amputee sprinters and swimmers, wheelchair basketball players and racers, a paralyzed shot-putter, a sailor with Lou Gehrig's disease, and Marin Morrison, a swimmer devastated by a brain tumor.”
Holmes is a big part of the special, which follows her from 2001, when she lost her leg, to Beijing, where she survived being spiked in the eye after falling during the 200-meter sprint to come back and win the 100-meter dash in a thrilling photo finish.
After that race, Holmes gathered all eight women who had run the race and insisted that they all take a victory lap with her. “It didn’t matter who won and who didn’t win,” she explained to Vieira. “I was just happy to be there.”
In a separate interview with a TODAYshow.com reporter, Holmes said that for her, it’s not about winning medals. But, she said, getting a gold medal in Beijing after winning a bronze in the long jump at the Athens Paralympics four years earlier does make a difference to others.
“It meant that I worked hard,” she said. “It meant that I could now go and share my experiences with people and have another platform to stand on. People listen to me more because now I can say I won a gold medal.”
The gold medal gets attention when she speaks to kids. But the highlight of her talks is when she takes off her prosthetic leg and passes it around the class. The boys are more fascinated than the girls, she told Vieira, calling her “the bionic woman.”
“I applaud parents of kids with disabilities that don’t raise them as if they are disabled,” she said. “[A] huge problem is people with disabilities who don’t do anything. We have a huge problem with obesity.”
Under the train
Even today, Holmes, 35, can’t remember exactly how she ended up under a commuter train’s wheels seven years ago in Philadelphia.
“I remember being at the train station. I was with my boyfriend at the time,” she told a TODAYshow.com reporter. They were going to New York, and the train was late arriving at the station. Her boyfriend left the platform to do something, and while he was gone, the train arrived.
Holmes yelled for him to hurry up, and he just made it as the train was getting ready to pull out of the station. He clambered aboard just ahead of her.
“He was the next-to-last person to get on the train. I was the last person to try to get on,” she said. “Before I knew it, I was underneath the train and the train was resting on my leg.”
Rescuers tried to lift the train’s wheels off Holmes’ trapped left leg. After several failed efforts, they finally backed the train off her leg and rushed her to a hospital.
A fateful choice
Holmes told TODAY that the doctor who operated on her might have saved the leg, but he knew that if he did, she would never walk normally again and would have to endure many surgeries to regain some mobility. The doctor told her that he could see that she was an athlete and decided to amputate the leg below the knee, knowing that she would be able to run competitively with a prosthetic leg if she wanted to.
After the surgery, the doctor visited Holmes in her room and gave her information about the Paralympics. She had never heard of the international organization for disabled athletes and did not immediately decide to start running again.
Holmes had been a champion 400-meter runner in high school and won a track scholarship to Norfolk State University in Virginia. When she graduated from college, she quit running as she started working on a master’s degree at Drexel University. She was working for Verizon when she lost her leg.
Holmes started running again on a prosthetic leg in 2002, working with the legendary track coach Al Joyner in California. She quickly became the world’s premier below-the-knee female amputee sprinter, and holds world records in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter sprints.
She’s not sure whether she will be able to compete in the 2012 Paralympics in London, but that’s her goal.
“I’m training with London in mind. Put it that way,” she said. “I’m hopeful I’ll be there.”