When we make mention of disabled athletes, it’s usually to applaud them for overcoming an affliction and for having the courage to compete. They’re sources of inspiration in the motivational sense, but what happens when they’re weakness becomes their greatest strength? What happens when the very difference that makes them “disabled” is what makes them extraordinary? Right here are adaptive athletes who’ve fashioned their disabilities into competitive edges and catapulted themselves from biological underdogs to forces of nature. These are the superhuman disabled athletes.
In 1989, Mark Wellman was the first paraplegic to climb El Capitan. Wait, did you get that? Paraplegic! Climbing El Capitan! After losing his legs in an accident in the Sierra Nevadas, Wellman not only had the wherewithal to continue climbing, but also had the talent to set records doing it. Using a device called an adaptive pull-up bar, he hoists himself up mountains by making a pull-up motion, relying on only the (considerable) strength in his upper body to move him upward. With each pull-up, he ratchets one notch higher on his mountainside course. Check out this video of Wellman in action and you’ll understand why his tactics are nothing short of heroic. He’s climbing all the distance of able-bodied athletes with half the man-power, and on some of the toughest ascents in the world.
If you were to look up “adaptive athlete” in the encyclopedia, you’d see a picture of former MLB pitcher, Jim Abbott. Born without a right hand, Abbott played ten seasons of professional baseball (from 1989-1999), contributing to some of the most storied bullpens in baseball history, from the California Angels to the New York Yankees to the Chicago White Sox. How does a pitcher wind up, throw, and field, all with only one hand? By using one of the most technically complex maneuvers in all of professional sports, that’s how. After throwing the ball with his left hand, Abbott would quickly slip it back into his glove to field, and, after catching a ball batted-in, would slip his hand out again, in order to throw a runner out. Though it sounds precarious, Abbott had the routine down to such a science that rival teams’ frequent efforts to exploit his disability failed almost every time.
Nick Newell’s no stranger to the e-pages of The Adrenalist. In fact we lovingly profiled this superstar, 26-year-old, one-armed MMA fighter not too long ago, singing praises of his determination and skill. In case you didn’t read that article and don’t know who Newell is, we’ll fill you in. A lightweight, mixed martial artist with an already impressive professional record of 7-0 and a tenacity feared by able-bodied fighters up and down the MMA circuit, Newell makes it on this list because he was born without a left hand or forearm and competes at a level akin to any two-armed fighter. Beyond reports that some fighters have been intimidated or “psyched out” by Newell’s disability, the star may benefit from his disability in a very technical sense. To that end, some have pointed to the possibility that oft-used MMA moves like the “heel-hook,” where competitors are required to grab hold of their opponent’s forearm, put Newell at a natural advantage.
From 1969-1979, Tom Dempsey was an NFL placekicker for the New Orleans Saints, the Philadelphia Eagles, the Los Angeles Rams, the Houston Oilers and the Buffalo Bills. Some might say he was fated to do the job. Born without toes on his right foot (the foot he kicked with) he wore a custom-made shoe with a broad, enlarged flattened surface where his toes would have been. Some said this gave Dempsey, who’s best known for kicking an NFL record-setting 63-yard field-goal, an unfair advantage. Dempsey felt otherwise. On at least one occasion, he reportedly responded to the criticism, saying, “unfair eh? How about you try kicking a 63 yard field goal to win it with 2 seconds left and your wearing a square shoe, oh, yeah and no toes either.” Despite investigations conducted by ESPN that found Dempsey’s shoe to provide no discernible advantage (and may have actually increased his kicking margin of error), the NFL added a Dempsey-inspired rule in 1977 that stated, “any shoe that is worn by a player with an artificial limb on his kicking leg must have a kicking surface that conforms to that of a normal kicking shoe.”
A list of disabled athletes performing superhuman feats just wouldn’t be complete without prominent mention of South African sprinter Oscar Pitorius, AKA “Blade Runner,” AKA “the fastest man with no legs.” Even if you know nothing about Pitorius, it’s clear, with monikers like these, that the man’s got some serious skills. A double-amputee, Pitorius has caught his share of criticism for using Ossur-manufactured carbon fiber transtibial artificial limbs that look more like Bocking extensions than traditional prosthetics. In fact, in 2008, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) ruled him ineligible to compete in competitions governed under its rules (including the 2008 Beijing Olympics) because his “legs” flew in the face of a new IAAF rule banning mechanisms that “[incorporate] springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device.” Later in 2008, the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) reversed the decision, thereby allowing Pitorius to achieve the “A” quality standard needed to compete in the Olympic Games and become the first amputee to win an able-bodied world track medal.