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A tragic accident took her leg, but not her winning spirit.
"I will never be able to run again." The thought gripped 27-year-old April Holmes on that bleak day in January 2001.
The former college track star had just woken up in a hospital room, where all the horrifying details of the train accident flooded her mind: Being the last person to board a train from Philadelphia to New York, slipping and falling under the icy platform, being stuck with her leg trapped under the train, crying for help and realizing it was too late, the train pulling out of the station and crushing her leg.
As she looked down at her body, she could see she’d lost her leg. “I kept telling myself, I can’t cry over the fact that I lost my leg because I’m still alive,” she says. “I knew there must still be something for me to do with my life.”
Holmes discovered her brand-new purpose in life just two days later, when her surgeon handed her a pamphlet about the Paralympics and encouraged her to look into it. The Paralympic Games is the second largest sporting event in the world, after the Olympic Games, with disabled athletes earning medals in 19 sports that include track and field, cycling, powerlifting and wheelchair basketball. Even though she had never heard of the event before, a bold new vision of her life as a world-class runner took hold: “From that moment on, I had three goals in life,” she says. “One, to wear the USA uniform at the Paralympic Games. Two, to become the fastest in the world. And three, to win gold medals.”
Before Holmes could run, first she needed to learn to walk. “That was very difficult for me because I can be impatient at times,” she says. But even her rehabilitation was on a fast track: Three months after the accident, she received her first walking prosthetic. And one year after becoming an amputee, she bolted off the starting block during her first race at Disney’s Wide World of Sports.
Her dramatic transformation took focus, determination and an iron-clad will as she juggled a full-time job, grueling workouts and coursework for a University of Phoenix master’s degree in business administration. After working a full day as a Verizon project manager, she went to track practice from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m., followed by a quick dinner and online homework that began at 9 p.m. and often extended into early morning hours. She believed her MBA degree would be her key to a successful career beyond athletics. “Your time as an athlete is going to come to an end, and you will need to be relevant in some other area of your life,” she says.
Until then, there were world records to break and gold medals to win. Holmes broke IPC World records 14 times and IPC American records 18 times in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter dash and the long jump. Seven years after the accident, her dream of wearing the USA uniform at the world’s second largest sporting event was about to come true: She was chosen to represent the United States in the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.
Little did she know, but her extraordinary resilience would once again be tested during the event’s 200-meter final. She commanded the lead in the race until a spike on her prosthetic left leg got caught on the track, causing her to trip and fall. As another competitor tried to hop over her, she stepped on Holmes’ face, grazing her eye with her shoe’s spike. With a right eye filled with blood and bruised leg, Holmes hobbled to the finish line. “People asked me whether I was disappointed that I didn’t win the 200 meters,” she recalls. “I told them I was happy I could open my eyes and see them—and to have another chance.”
Five days later, she got her second chance during the 100-meter final. With five stitches in her eyelid and legs and hips so sore she could barely warm up, she was determined to give it her all. “By the grace of God,” she says, she crossed the finish line to win the gold in 13.72 seconds.
Today, Holmes looks back on that day as her “gold medal” moment. But there have been many others that aren’t related to athletics. She’s attended White House state dinners, teamed up with First Lady Michelle Obama for “Let’s Move” events to end childhood obesity and given inspiring keynote speeches as a motivational speaker. One of her most special “gold medal” moments has been putting her MBA to good use by launching the April Holmes Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps give scholarships and medical equipment to people with physical and learning disabilities.
As Holmes trains in her hometown of Orlando, Florida, for another gold at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, her story teaches us about the power of hope, determination and the willingness to get up after a devastating fall. “Everyone falls down in life,” she says. “But it’s up to you to get back up if you’re still interested in living, achieving your dreams and going forth and doing excellent things in the world.”
Lori K. Baker is an award-winning journalist who specializes in human-interest profiles, business and health. Her articles have appeared in Ladies’ Home Journal, Family Circle, Arizona Highways and Johns Hopkins Health.