“Running was something that was always there,” said Amy Palmiero-Winters, who is missing her left leg below the knee and who is the first amputee to be named to the USA Track and Field team.
Amy ran competitively in high school in Meadville, PA. She ran the day before delivering her son Carson. When she was five months pregnant with her daughter Madilynn, she tackled California’s Silver Strand Marathon and came in second place in her division. Two months after Madilynn was born, Amy competed in her first triathlon, placing third in her division. In 2006, two days after a hospital stay for anaphylactic shock, she set a new world record for a female below-the-knee amputee, finishing the Chicago Marathon in 3:04:16.
But for three years following her amputation, Amy didn’t run at all. Amy, now 37, was 21 when she severely damaged her left foot in a motorcycle crash. Doctors performed 25 operations over the next three years, but in the end, she lost her left leg below the knee. Later, the bone in her left leg grew infected, and doctors had to remove another portion. Eventually, Amy found prosthetist Erik Schaffer of A Step Ahead Prosthetics and Orthotics in Hicksville, N.Y. He became an immediate ally in her quest to conquer the running world. “I told him, ‘I want to run 100 miles,'” Amy said. Schaffer, whose challenging client base includes numerous Paralympic athletes and members of the U.S. Special Forces, didn’t bat an eye. “He said, ‘OK, let’s get to work.'”
Amy experienced a psychological shift at that moment, from an individual mentality to a team mindset. “One of the hardest things in life is to believe in yourself. When you step into a situation where someone else believes in you and your abilities, it makes things so much easier.” Amy took on the running world. On New Year’s Eve 2009, she ran 130 miles in 24 hours during Race to the Future, qualifying for a spot on the national 24-hour team. In April, she received the prestigious Sullivan Award, naming her the country’s top amateur athlete. What Amy has accomplished with admission to the Track and Field team is historic. “It’s sort of like Jackie Robinson breaking the racial barrier in professional baseball,” Roy Pirrung, president of the American Ultrarunning Association and the U.S. team leader for worlds, told USA Today. “I think it’s that high of an impact.”
Three years ago Amy moved from Meadville to Long Island to head up A Step Ahead’s junior sports program, which matches young amputees with elite athletes such as herself. Through sports, she hopes to instill in children a sense of self-confidence they might lack as a result of losing a limb at such a young age. “I set up activities for them, whether it be climbing or skiing or doing a triathlon,” she said. “They might not want to do it, but at the end of the day, they decide who they are, not the loss of their leg.” The children learn to choose their own path, rather than deferring to their disability. And they might just find a passion that pulls them through, as running has pulled Palmiero-Winters. “Everybody has something that makes them happy and makes them feel good,” she said. “If you can focus on that when you go through tough times, it helps you take the steps to keep moving forward.”