Fastest Amputee Looks to Paralympic Gold, Further Career

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By Judith Philipps Otto

Last summer, Marlon Shirley set a new men's amputee record in the 100m sprint at the Utah Summer Games, and also took second place in a competition with able-bodied athletes. His time of 10.97 seconds made him the first amputee to break the 11-second barrier in the 100m event, just slightly more than one second behind the current able-bodied world record holder.

As a Paralympic sprinter and jumper, and a member of Team Ossur, Shirley sets an inspirational example of what amputees can achieve through a combination of ability and tireless effort. At age five, he fell under a lawnmower and lost his left foot, but still played high school football and competed successfully against able-bodied athletes in the high-jump event.

Striving for the Top

What is it that drove Shirley to excel? Where did he discover the commitment to become as good as he is? "The ability to just be active came from being so young and wanting to learn and be like everyone else," Shirley reflected. "But later in my life when I became very competitive, a lot of people didn't think I would be able to do what I was capable of doing, yet I knew I had the ability to do so. I never settled for just showing up and being there. I wanted to be the best at what I could do. That's how I wanted people to remember me.

"The jumping is just a natural ability of mine--I never jumped with a prosthesis before, so when I got into high-jumping, it was all a matter of not wearing a prosthesis, run at the bar, and jump it. But with the sprint team, it came later on, after years of training and competition. I definitely wasn't a very good sprinter; it took a long time to get to that point."

Why choose something that required so much effort?

"Sprinting is the glamour event of the games," Shirley explained. "It decides who's the fastest in the world. And it's where my abilities are most relevant."

He is often asked if his injury motivated him to become a sprinter, or if he would have been a great sprinter, anyway. "Of course I would have been fast, given that I run 10.9 seconds without a foot. I don't know if I would have chosen track and field. I never had a foot, so it really isn't possible for me to speculate. Where might you be if you didn't have a foot? Nobody knows. It's unfathomable."

It's not in Shirley's nature to settle for being second best, he admits, and he is confident of where his drive to succeed has its roots: "I do it for myself. I'm the one that's on the track, going through the pain. I'm fortunate to have the ability to go on the track and do something really profound in the sense that it will make a difference for my sport and for other people, whether they are amputees or not. It's selfish, certainly, because I'm the only one that's out there when the gun goes off. I love sport--it's my living, my career, and my ambition."

Helping To Develop New Products

Currently, Shirley is assisting Ossur, one of his sponsors, with its research and development of products. He has recently returned from a trip to Ossur's headquarters in Iceland, where he designed a new sprint foot--the one he is currently using. His work with developers is done primarily via phone, however, since he is training full time with the high-performance sprint team in Chula Vista, California. He also credits Sabolich Prosthetics & Orthotics, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, for helping him further his life through sports.

Future Plans

Future plans involve the Paralympic games September 17-28 in Athens, Greece, where he plans to earn the gold medal he believes he is capable of winning.

"I do have ambitions of taking my career further and possibly competing on the able-bodied circuit over in Europe in one form or another. In the long term, I see a good chance of staying involved in the prosthetic industry. I have a lot of good ideas and a lot of good connections where I think I could be very valuable in that field. I've dedicated so much of my life to it that it would be almost a sin for me not to continue it," he laughs. "Being an amputee has been a vital factor in my life; I was able to use that to create the lifestyle that I want to live," he says. "I encourage all to take what they consider their misfortunes and turn them into fortunes by grasping and acquiring the things they want to acquire in life, because those things are obtainable.

Sports Can Be for Everyone

"Sports can really bring health and quality to one's lifestyle--via golf, via exercising, via anything that keeps a person active. Those are the things many amputees feel they cannot do --to be active and mobile, which is not the case at all. I'm an extreme case, and I hope that people don't shy away from sports because I perform at a level they don't believe they can ever reach. That's not the idea. The products we're developing for me are the same products that Grandma and Grandpa are going to use playing with their grandkids. I just take it to the next level."

Check out his website at

Shirley Shows "the Right Stuff"

An experience that showed Marlon Shirley's spirit and determination was a much-publicized race against the man touted as the world's greatest athlete: 1996 Olympic decathlon gold-medal winner Dan O'Brien. As reported in the summer 2003 issue of Challenge, published by Disabled Sports/USA (DS/USA), a puzzled O'Brien asked an official before the race, "Am I supposed to jog?"

"Marlon answered with his feet, breaking the previous time of 7.15 established by amputee sprinter Tony Volpentest and setting a new 55m indoor record of 7.05," reported Challenge.