In this post, we look at six athletes with limb difference who left a lasting impact on their sport and whose stories inspire others to do amazing things.
Bethany Hamilton (1990 – )
Photo Credit: Noah Hamilton via bethanyhamilton.com
Bethany Hamilton is a professional hall-of-fame surfer from Hawaii who has won several competitions. Despite losing her arm to the ocean, she never lost her edge.
At the age of 13, Hamilton had already won two major surf competitions. In October of 2003, she was surfing with a friend when a tiger shark neatly bit off her left arm just below the shoulder. She had lost 60% of her blood by the time she reached the hospital but managed to pull through.
After a month of recovery, she was back in the ocean. She learned to compensate for the loss of her arm and continued to surf – and win. She wrote a book about her experience in 2004 entitled Soul Surfer: A True Story of Faith, Family, and Fighting to Get Back on the Board, and has been the subject of both documentaries and a feature film.
She continues to surf and runs her annual Beautifully Flawed retreat for young women aged 14-25 with a limb difference or who have undergone limb loss.
Tom Whittaker (1948 – )
Photo Credit: PA via Metro News
Tom Whittaker has the distinction of being the first person with limb loss to successfully scale Mount Everest. He lost his right foot as a result of a car accident in 1979 but didn’t let that deter him from being active. He made use of a prosthetic specially designed for climbing by the sports prosthetic company Flex-Foot.
He founded the Cooperative Wilderness Handicapped Outdoor Group while living in Pocatello, Idaho – a group that is still active to this day. He trained for his attempts on the tallest mountain in the world by exercising with his daughter strapped to his back.
His first attempt was in 1995, and though he didn’t make it that time, or the time after, he finally made it to the peak in 1998. He was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2006 and runs motivational summits to encourage people to find courage within themselves.
Jim Abbott (1967 – )
Photo Credit: Milwaukee Record
Jim Abbot is a former MLB pitcher who was born without a right hand. He was athletic all through high school, playing both baseball and football. He played baseball for the University of Michigan, and In the 1988 Olympics he pitched the final winning game.
Only having one hand didn’t present an issue when playing baseball. When pitching, he would rest his glove on his right forearm, and then quickly slip it on to his left hand after throwing the ball.
His MLB career spanned 1989 to 1999 where he played for The California Angels, New York Yankees, Chicago White Sox, and Milwaukee Brewers. His autobiography entitled Imperfect: An Improbable Life was published in 2012, and he currently works as a motivational speaker.
Terry Fox (1958 – 1981)
Photo Credit: Toronto Star
Terry Fox is a Canadian hero who attempted to run across Canada to raise money and awareness for cancer research after his right leg was amputated due to osteosarcoma in 1977.
Fox played basketball and competed in cross-country running throughout high school. After losing his leg, he won three national titles playing with the North American Wheelchair Basketball Association.
Inspired by Dick Traum, the first amputee to complete the New York City Marathon, Fox came up with the idea for his Marathon of Hope – an attempt to run all the way across Canada for charity. He was discouraged by how little funding there was for cancer research at the time, and hoped this would inspire people to contribute.
He started on April 12, 1980, in St. John’s, Newfoundland, running for 143 days and 3,339 miles with signature prosthetic gait before having to stop in Northern Ontario due to cancer spreading to his lungs.
Terry Fox never finished his run, but his legacy of hope lives on. The Terry Fox Run has been held annually every year since his death and is the world’s largest one-day fundraiser for cancer research.
Alex Zanardi (1966 – )
Photo Credit: BMW Blog
Alex Zanardi is an Italian professional race car driver and gold medal-winning Paralympic hand cyclist.
Between 1991 and 2001 Zanardi raced in Formula One, various sports car racing events, and the CART Championship series. He lost both of his legs in a Formula One racing accident in 2001.
He very soon resumed his racing career, at different points using cars with special foot pedals designed for his prosthetics or hand-operated brake and accelerator controls. He continues to race today.
He started competing in the adaptive sport of hand cycling in 2007, winning two golds and a silver at the 2012 London Paralympic games, and another two golds and a silver at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro games.
Aimee Mullins (1975 – )
Photo Credit: Icon Magazine
Aimee Mullins is a true renaissance woman, making her mark in sports, fashion, television/film and politics.
She was born with fibular hemimelia, requiring both of her legs to be amputated below the knee at one year old. As a young woman, she was passionate about both sport and acting.
While at college she was the first amputee to ever compete in NCAA Division I track and field events. She later set three world records in the 100m, 200m and long jump at the 1996 Paralympics.
She retired from professional track and field in 1998, going on to intern at The Pentagon and then launching a modeling career in 1999. She started acting in 2002, recently appearing as a recurring character in Stranger Things on Netflix.
Mullins is a role model to many, and in 2012 was both the Chef de Mission for the U.S. 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, and appointed to the State Department’s Council to Empower Women and Girls Through Sports.