Before the 2001 accident that led to the loss of her left leg, April Holmes had only dabbled in athletics. The remarkable thing about her story is that Holmes didn’t just get by after her amputation—she thrived, becoming a star Paralympian and a tireless advocate for people with disabilities. The years since her accident have been about opportunity, she says, not loss.
Author Chris Wright Illustration Dragon76
DURING THE 2008 BEIJING PARALYMPIC GAMES, American track star April Holmes tripped and fell during the 200-meter sprint, suffering a bad hip injury and almost losing an eye to another runner’s spikes. Her response was to get up, limp over the finish line and start preparing for the upcoming 100-meter event, in which she would win a gold medal.
This, of course, wasn’t the first time Holmes had overcome adversity. In 2001, the New Jersey native was involved in a train accident that resulted in her losing her left leg below the knee. A year later, she was on her way to becoming one of the world’s most formidable Paralympians. Today, she has more medals to her name than she can count, and almost as many world records.
Now 40, Holmes shows no sign of slowing down. When she’s not running, she’s heading up her charitable foundation, which provides scholarships and other forms of support to people with disabilities. Her most valuable work, though, gets done on the track. Holmes in full flight is an absolute rebuttal of the idea that disability represents inadequacy.
This month, Holmes competes in the IPC World Championships in Lyon, France. When asked if a nagging Achilles problem might hold her back, she waves the question away. “Every athlete has something bothering them,” she says. “Nicks and scrapes are a part of what we do.”
Hemispheres: Can you tell me a little about your background?
Holmes: I grew up in New Jersey in a typical family, I guess. I have two sisters. Our mom had this mentality that the way to stay out of trouble was to stay busy, so there were piano lessons, ballet lessons, tap dancing. Then I discovered sports, which was pretty fun. Our little track team would travel to different areas every weekend. I ended up doing that through high school and college.
Hemispheres: So you were a sporty kid.
Holmes: Anything to get away from the piano lessons.
Hemispheres: You studied communications in college and ended up working in that field, which I gather you didn’t love.
Holmes: No, I didn’t. I just believed I had a greater purpose than this, that there had to be something other than this hamster wheel going round and round, with nothing ever changing.
Hemispheres: You got the change you were hoping for, but not in a way you’d have wanted. I don’t know how comfortable you are talking about the accident …
Holmes: That’s OK.
Hemispheres: What were the circumstances?
Holmes: I was on my way to New York from Philadelphia. My boyfriend was going up there and he called and said, “You wanna go? We can stay the night and go shopping.” I was like, “Yeah, I can do that.” [Laughs.] Boarding the train at 30th Street Station, I happened to be the last person getting on, and as I was doing it the driver decided he was ready to go. I ended up slipping and falling under the platform, my leg trapped under the train.
Hemispheres: I can’t imagine what must have been going through your mind.
Holmes: Well, I was under a train. I was like, What? What? I had the idea that I was going to die there. I was singing religious songs, throwing snowballs, wondering what was happening and hoping it wasn’t going to end like that.
Hemispheres: You were down there for a while, no?
Holmes: I lay there, I want to say, about 17 minutes. Of course, 17 minutes seems like a long time when you’re under a train.
Hemispheres: When did you understand the severity of your injury?
Holmes: When I got into the ambulance I was knocked out. They’d given me medicine, but I thought I heard them say, “Did you get her leg?” I thought, “No, that’s crazy. I didn’t hear that.” When I woke up later, I asked my cousin what happened to my leg, but she just kept saying, “You’re going to be OK.” So I lifted my head up and looked down and the first thing I said was “I’ll never run again.”
Hemispheres: But you bounced back. I wonder if that strength was always part of your character, or if you discovered something about yourself after the accident.
Holmes: I’ve always been a resilient person. Bad things happen to everyone. You can either have the perspective that Oh! This is so bad! or you can look to see if there is any good in this. It’s my personality to look for the good rather than to dwell on the bad.
Hemispheres: I don’t want to suggest that what happened to you was a good thing, but you’re a world-famous athlete now—it seems fair to say that this wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t been for the accident.
Holmes: That’s a very fair statement.
Hemispheres: You’re also hanging out with people like Michelle Obama. There must be times when you think this story just doesn’t make any sense.
Holmes: It’s funny, because for our Paralympic rings we get to put our own phrases on them, you know, engraved, and in Beijing mine was “What a dream,” because it does seem like a dream sometimes.
Hemispheres: You’re a public figure now, which means you come under media scrutiny. I read that you sing along to Phil Collins while you’re working out, which is just a dreadful thing to have out there.
Holmes: Ha-ha! That’s funny. I do. I like, um, “Tonight,” ah, “A Good Night”…
Hemispheres: “In the Air Tonight.” Do you do that drum bit—duh-dum-duh-dum-duh–dum-duh-dum-dum-dum?
Holmes: Absolutely, yes.
Hemispheres: Can you tell me a little about your foundation?
Holmes: I started it not long after the accident. I was seeing so many people with disabilities who had no idea where to turn for help. So we try to make life a little less difficult. It’s about giving people hope, I guess.
Hemispheres: Should the emphasis of an organization like yours be on raising public awareness, or on giving individuals the sense that they have more potential than maybe they think they do?
Holmes: It’s more about trying to empower people. We want you to believe you can do something with your life. An amputee may have limitations, but that doesn’t affect your brain—you can get an education, you can get a job. And what follows from this, I think, is that people are more likely to help once they see you doing something for yourself.
Hemispheres: Nobody wants to be defined by a disability, but so much of the work you do revolves around the fact that you’re an amputee. Is there a conflict there?
Holmes: All I want is for people to see us for who we are rather than what we don’t have. I want people to take me for me, not look at my leg and say, “Oh, you poor little girl.” Everyone has limitations. The difference is that able-bodied people don’t have their limitations broadcast to the world.
Hemispheres: How do you politely let people know when they’re being too sensitive? I’ve been guilty of that: You just used the term “able-bodied”; earlier today I Googled that term to make sure it was OK.
Holmes: [Laughs.] It’s OK. I try not to discourage people from being polite or helpful.
Hemispheres: Surely there are times when you just want people to talk to you about being an athlete, rather than an athlete with a disability. Nobody ever
asks Usain Bolt what it’s like to win a race on two legs.
Holmes: Well, you can’t ignore that I’m an amputee, either. I was in the store yesterday and this little girl walks in and starts staring at my leg. I was wearing shorts, and she is just staring at it. I wanted her to ask a question. I would have liked to explain it to her.
Hemispheres: I’ve always wondered what sprinters think about during a race. Is it run-run-run-run, or is your mind a blank?
Holmes: In London [at the 2012 Paralympics], I noticed that [Marie-Amélie Le Fur] started so fast, and I was like, “You gotta be kidding me! Wonder Girl’s gone!” Then my arm hit my leg and my FuelBand [accelerometer] slides off. So I’m like, “My band fell off!” Thirteen seconds isn’t a long time—you’re not thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner—but you do think crazy things.
Hemispheres: You’re quite a competitive person, aren’t you?
Holmes: [Laughs.] A bit.
Hemispheres: After you won gold in Beijing, was it disappointing to only get a bronze in London?
Holmes: Not at all. A lot of people went home with no medals at all. A blessing is a blessing; I don’t complain about what color it is.
Hemispheres: But aiming so high must leave you open to disappointment. You should try my method: Set your goals so low that each day is filled with pleasant surprises: Hey! A piano didn’t fall on my head!
Holmes: [Laughs.] For me, as long as I’m doing my best I don’t have any complaints. I’m out there every day practicing, getting the pulp beaten out of me. I’m trying.
Hemispheres: There was that horrible fall in Beijing. That must have been tough.
Holmes: I was well on my way to winning that race, but I wasn’t upset that I didn’t, because I still had my eye. Someone stepped on my face with spiked shoes, millimeters from my eyeball, so I could have cared less about the medal at that point.
Hemispheres: What’s truly remarkable is that a few days later you went out and won a gold. That’s some stubborn streak.
Holmes: [Laughs.] Thank you.
Hemispheres: You’ve said you don’t want your story to be about overcoming adversity. So what is your story about?
Holmes: I don’t mind people talking about what I overcame, but life shouldn’t always come down to this one hurdle. There are other things I’ve had to go through. My struggles are different from other people’s, but not that different. People say, “Let’s talk about what happened in January 2001,” and I want to say, “Dude, I’m over that already.” Or people will talk about the glory days, but yesterday was a glory day for me, and I sure hope tomorrow will be too.
Executive editor CHRIS WRIGHT successfully completed a five-yard trudge from his desk to the coffee machine this morning, and is now in training for a sandwich run.