Daphne Hegreness: On the Right Track
March 2011 Issue
On a rain-dampened high school running track, under an overcast sky, Daphne Hegreness took her first few sprinting strides on her new prosthetic running foot. The date was November 10, 2010, and by all other accounts, it was an ordinary Texas day—the weather was warm and muggy, and in the background a team of young men practiced football. What made this day extraordinary was that against this backdrop, almost three years after her left leg was amputated six inches below the knee and one of her biggest questions was whether or not she would ever run again, 23-year-old Hegreness was doing just that—running. Watching was her husband Jeff, as well as Ben Falls, CP, TMC Orthopedic (TMC), Houston, Texas, and Limbs of Love Founder Joe Sansone.
"I felt like Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. I was just bouncing through the air," Hegreness says about running on her new Cheetah Flex-Foot (Össur, Reykjavik, Iceland). "Compared to my walking prosthesis, it's bouncy. It felt almost like having two real legs again...."
That short jog on the long track signified the final step in Hegreness' battle with cancer, and it also marked her first step as a Paralympic hopeful.
In November 2007, Hegreness was diagnosed with epitheloid sarcoma, an aggressive cancer that invaded her foot and lower leg. She decided to undergo a transtibial amputation, and after her January 2008 surgery, she spent nine months in physical therapy learning how to walk again, determined not to let the amputation hold her back.
"In physical therapy...they asked me if there was anything else I wanted to work on, and I said I wanted to be able to run," she explains. "So they put me on the treadmill, and it just wasn't coming. I watched videos, I knew how it was supposed to happen, my brain knew [how my body was supposed to move], but it wasn't translating down to my legs.... I kept trying, but it didn't work out." Hegreness says her frustration at not being able to run turned into stubborn determination.
"When I lost my leg, I was told by the doctors 'you're going to be able to do anything you want,' and I took that to heart," she says. Always active before the cancer and amputation, Hegreness says she became even more active after her successful treatment. She mastered skiing, rock climbing, and wakeboarding. Running, however, was another story. So, Hegreness says that despite all she could do, she became more focused on overcoming what she couldn't do, even though the sport had never crossed her mind prior to her amputation.
Her breakthrough came in February 2009. Hegreness and her husband had recently moved from Maine to Ohio so that Jeff could pursue a doctor of physical therapy degree at Ohio State University (OSU), Columbus. Jeff says that one night he came home from a clinical group in which he had learned how to teach people with lower-limb amputations to run. He told Hegreness that he could teach her how to understand and apply the techniques he had learned, and that she could learn how to run. Jeff says that by the end of the night, they took their training session from their apartment-sized living room to the balcony circling the apartment courtyard, and Hegreness proceeded to run around it.
"I took off at the fastest sprint [possible] at the time...," Hegreness recalls. "I had never loved running before, but that day I felt...like I just got the golden ticket."
From that day on, Hegreness began to run as often as possible. "Running gave me a freedom [that] I did not feel with any other form of recreation," she says. "There is just something about feeling the wind in your face and going fast!"
Several months after her running breakthrough, Hegreness and her husband took a road trip out west and spent a week in Colorado, where she met Cathy Sellers, associate director, track and field high performance, Paralympic Division, United States Olympic Committee. "We were waiting for a tour [of the U.S. Olympic Training Center]. I was wearing shorts, and a man...[approached] me," Hegreness recounts. "He ended up being one of the head guys at the Paralympics, and he introduced me to Cathy." Hegreness says that Sellers gave her a few pointers and encouraged her to keep in touch. So when Jeff had an opportunity to complete a three-month internship in Colorado later that year, the couple jumped at the chance, and that's when Hegreness' training began in earnest.
"I was expecting her to maybe meet with me once and tell me what to do and different things...[but instead] we met four or five days a week...[and] trained for an hour and a half to two hours [each time]," Hegreness says. "Coach took me...from a person that wanted to be an athlete [but] was out of shape, to a person [who is] in shape and can actually be an athlete."
Sellers says that Hegreness has progressed very nicely. "We had her doing a variety of sprint drills to get her used to the prosthetic leg—in a sense to become one with her leg.... We focus a lot on sprint mechanics and strengthening the core and hip flexors. That helps in balance and maintaining positions." Sellers had Hegreness practicing the same drills as the elite U.S. Paralympic track and field athletes.
However, despite the excellent training, Hegreness says her prosthesis was holding her back because it was not meant for running. Sellers "would say how much it would help me to have one, but I already knew my need for one," Hegreness says, adding that she and her husband were unable to afford a proper running foot, and their insurance company would not cover it.
Hegreness says that a good friend from her sarcoma support group soon got involved and spearheaded a fundraising event on her behalf. Then, an OSU Internet article detailing Hegreness' plight and promoting the fundraising event found its way into Sansone's e-mail inbox.
"Daphne's story got me thinking...," Sansone says. "This brave young athlete had the talent to make it all of the way to the Paralympics, and the technology that would allow her to make it there is available, but her insurance would leave her behind." Sansone says that Limbs of Love offered to provide Hegreness with the limb she needed to have a legitimate chance at making the U.S. Paralympic team. Five months later, Hegreness was in TMC's patient care center in Houston, where Falls fitted her with a new Cheetah Flex-Foot. After a test spin, a few quick sprints around the parking lot, and a few modifications, Hegreness was ready for the next day's test runs on that Houston-area high school running track.
The Track Ahead
After three days in Texas, Hegreness returned to Columbus, where she trains diligently while her husband attends classes. Hegreness says that ever since returning from Colorado, she keeps in contact with Sellers every few months, reporting on her progress and asking for additional pointers. Jeff is her current coach. "He's my number one cheerleader and my physical therapist at the moment," she says. "He's kind of everything rolled into one."
As she continues training, Hegreness has her immediate sights set on competing in local track and field events so she can qualify for Nationals. "This summer I'm hoping to...get the qualifying times I need to get to the next step." Meeting standards at the national level will place her on the World Ranking list, making her eligible to compete at the 2011 U.S. Paralympic National Track and Field Championships or the U.S. Paralympic Trials in 2012—logging qualifying times at either of these venues opens her for consideration to be on the U.S. Paralympic track and field team.
Hegreness says her ultimate goal is to qualify in the 100m and 200m events for the 2012 Summer Paralympic Games in London. "I've been breaking [the leg] in and getting used to it. I have a chance, but I have a lot of work ahead of me—training and getting faster...."
It may be a far cry to travel from a Houston football field to the grandeur of a Paralympic stadium, but Hegreness' determination and top-flight rehabilitative team make those far away cheers seem well within her reach.
Leslie O'Donnell is the director of communications at The Amputee & Prosthetic Center (TAPC), Houston, Texas. Laura Hochnadel can be reached at