Not many people realize this, but I’ve been inspired by amputated and disabled athletes since the second I learned that the terms “amputated athlete” and “disabled athlete” weren’t necessarily oxymorons. I was fortunate enough to be raised by parents who would be damned had they let me grow up believing myself to be any kind of invalid, and one of the ways my father kept letting me know that my deformed arm wasn’t a crutch was to point out professional athletes with worse defects than me sticking their middle fingers at those who kept telling them they couldn’t. Or at least swearing at them; not all of them had middle fingers. But physically deformed athletes have long been a source of fascination to me because the way they overcame their deformities is always unique. I’ve found a number of ways to cope with my arm during strenuous physical activities, but it’s still a source of frustration for certain things I do. When I ride my bicycle, I can’t steer properly because my right arm is so much shorter than my left arm. I can’t do anything about it, and I’m just stuck facing the reality that my right arm is only there for leverage. When I ride one-handed, my left arm is always the one that gets left on the handlebars; riding no-handed is out of the question. When I do pushups and yoga, I have to prop my right arm up under a foam block or a book.
Although I look pretty unkindly at the Olympics, I of course did develop a certain instinct to cheer for Oscar Pistorius, a sprinter from South Africa. His nicknames probably tell you everything about why I like the guy so much. The first is Blade Runner, which I like because it’s short, punchy, and also the name of one of the greatest science fiction movies ever made. But the second is the more obvious of the two: The Fastest Man on No Legs. Pistorius became a double amputee when he was only eleven months old, and received his first pair of prosthetic legs at 17 months. Now that he’s won the affections of the rest of the world simply by qualifying for the Olympics, it’s list time! This time, I’m writing about athletes who competed and excelled at sports, thus showing off a complete mastery of their bodies the norms only wish they had.
We might as well start with the obvious guy everyone is thinking about right now. When he was born, he had fibular hemimelia – congenital absence of the fibula – in both legs, so he had to be amputated before he was even a year old. His prosthetic legs mean a bunch of scientists had to reassure several groups of prissy sports committees that no, prosthetic legs are NOT an unfair advantage. Pistorius holds a 45.44 time in the 400-meter dash, to compare to Michael Johnson’s all-time Olympic record of 43-49. I’m sure those numbers would appear even more impressive to me if I knew anything about track and field.
My favorite part of the Oscar Pistorius story, though, is the fact that he actually took up running in 2004 as a way to rehabilitate a knee he shattered while playing rugby. For those who don’t know, rugby is about the closest thing the planet has to fully legalized murder right now. He also played tennis, wrestling, and water polo.
Garrincha is the popular name of the great Brazilian soccer player Manuel Francisco dos Santos. He’s regarded by a lot of people as the greatest dribbler in football history, a skill which he had developed by age 18 to such an extent that at his first training session, he was able to dribble the ball literally right between the legs of Nilton Santos, a key Brazilian defender in three World Cups. After getting embarrassed by Garrincha, Santos basically told his superiors, “Sign this guy.” He did most of his damage with Brazil’s club Botafogo, and bounced around through other Brazilian clubs once that gig was over. It wasn’t as if the rich European clubs didn’t try to scoop him up, being the world’s greatest dribbler and all; he attracted considerable attention from some of the biggest guns across the pond – most notably the Italian club Juventus, but also Real Madrid, AC Milan, and Inter Milan. For the record, Real Madrid is the greatest club soccer team in the world, better than even Manchester United. The other three are the most dominant teams of Serie A, Italy’s top league and one which is competitively right on par with the Spanish La Liga and English Premier League.
Garrincha saved his most impressive performances for the World Cup in 1958 and 1962. The 1962 World Cup saw him emerging as Brazil’s best player, and he was the most outstanding player of the tournament. During performances against Chile and England, he scored four goals. It’s pretty impressive no matter what, but when you’re doing this good despite being born with a deformed spine, a right leg which is bent inwards, and a left leg six centimeters shorter than the right and bent outwards and playing on the same team as freaking Pele, you’re making one hell of a statement. Garrincha came to be known as Anjo de Pernas Tortas (Angel with Bent Legs) and Alegria de Povo (Joy of the People) and today, the home team locker room in Rio de Janeiro’s Estadia de Maracana bears his name.
American Football Player
Dempsey was a journeyman placekicker in the National Football League who bounced around five teams in a career which lasted from 1969 to 1979. His longest stint was with the Philadelphia Eagles, and it only lasted from 1971 to 1974. But it was with his first team, the New Orleans Saints, that he made his imprint on the league. He made the Pro Bowl in 1969, his rookie year. In 1970, he followed that up with a game-winning field goal kick against the Detroit Lions that flew for an ungodly 63 yards. That was a record. And considering the only two kickers who ever even equalled it are Jason Elam (Denver, 1998) and Sebastian Janikowski (Oakland, 2011), the two greatest kickers in the history of the league, it’s a fairly significant record.
Dempsey was born without fingers on his right hand or toes on his right foot, and unlike most kickers, he began kicks by running straight up to the ball as opposed to the angled soccer style. When he was asked if the special kicking shoe he wore gave him an unfair advantage, Dempsey replied “Unfair eh? How ’bout you try kickin’ a 63-yard field goal to win it with two seconds left an’ yer wearin’ a square shoe, oh, yeah and no toes either.” ESPN Sport Science eventually ran an analysis of the kick and concluded that the modified shoe gave him no advantage, and that the smaller surface area of it actually increased the margin of error. Gee, ya think?
Upon getting up one morning way back in 1993, my father told me that a pitcher named Jim Abbott had thrown a no-hitter the previous night. It was only in time that I came to fully appreciate that feat; my being a baseball fan was still seven years down the road, and Abbott was born with nothing but a stump for use as a right hand. He played by resting his glove on his right arm while throwing the pitch, then quickly jamming his left hand into the glove so he could field. If he had to field, he would again hold his glove between his right arm and chest, yank his left hand out, grab the ball, and throw it. Abbott was a natural athlete, and even though opponents tried constantly to exploit his birth defect by bunting at him, it’s a testament to his athleticism that bunting at him never worked. Batting was never an issue, since he was a pitcher who spent all but his final year in the American League. In his last year – spent with the Milwaukee Brewers – he went a total of two for 21, both of which came off Jon Lieber. Abbott’s career batting average is .095. But he did manage to triple off Rick Reuschel in a 1991 spring training game, and his old Yankees teammate Mariano Rivera claims to have seen Abbott hit homers during batting practice.
I’m not a fan of the asterisk or the abridged statistic. But all things considered, Abbott’s career record of 87-108 and career ERA of 4.25 are actually better than they appear from the outside. By any other standard, those are respectable statistics anyway, and no matter what, he’ll always have that no-hitter.
Brown’s nickname, Three Finger, was a little bit misleading. It should have actually been something more akin to Four and a Half Finger. His defect was the result of his playing an unwitting game of tag with a farm feed chopper, and that severed his index finger and damaged the nerves in one of the others so much that it was useless. Later, while his hand was still healing from that accident, he fell and broke several fingers in the same hand, and they never reset properly. While this may have sucked for Three Finger, it sucked even more for those burdened with the task of facing him in the batter’s box. The way he gripped a baseball resulted in an unusual amount of spin, making his fastball and change-up deceptive as hell and his curve one of the nastiest weapons in the history of the sport. When Ty Cobb is calling anyone’s curve the most devastating pitch he ever faced, what chance does any batter have against him?
Brown’s statistics and accomplishments reflect Cobb’s feelings: In a 13-year career which went from 1903 to 1916, Three Finger went 239-130, struck out 1375 batters, and picked up a career ERA of 2.06. And no, that last one is not a typo. He was with the Chicago Cubs from 1904 to 1912, where he won at least 20 games a season from 1906 to 1911, led the league in saves from 1908 to 1911, and pitched the Cubs to four Pennants and their two most recent World Series titles.
Bethany Hamilton began surfing at a young age. By 2002, she already had a couple of big accomplishments under her belt. The next year, as she lay on her board during a lull in the waves, a tiger shark mistook her dangling left arm for its dinner. But someone who has been surfing her whole life naturally wouldn’t let her favorite sport go that easily, and Hamilton was back on the board less than a month after the accident. She initially used a custom board which was longer, thicker, and easier to paddle with, but is now back to using traditional competitive short boards.
According to her Wikipedia page, her best year was 2002, but her major achievements, like Brown’s up there, all happened after her accident. She’s a top-five regular in a lot of international competitions, and a couple of movies have been made about her. I have a friend who shares Hamilton’s name and is currently threatening to dress up as her for Halloween one of these days. (It would actually work. Both are blondes, and both are good Christians, and both work in uncommon fields: Hamilton as an athlete and Hamilton, my friend, as a professional singer. Sadly, though, my friend has all her limbs.)