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I was 10 years old when I had my left leg amputated due to bone cancer. As a child, the decision was simple: I would rather lose my leg than lose my life. The months and years to follow would not only be filled with the trials of regaining my mobility but also my identity as an athlete. I was the only amputee I knew; I didn’t know what to expect or what I would be capable of. It wasn’t until the spring of my first year of college that I truly started to reclaim my athleticism, and that was through running.
With my college buddies, I ran my first 5K in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan. I was so pumped at this new feeling of freedom. My runner’s high had set in. That summer, I pulled out my calendar and exclaimed, “I’m going to become a runner!” I ran 5K every single day until school started again.
Then something amazing happened that fall when I raced my second 5K: I won my age group and set a PR! I was ecstatic. To think, me, an amputee, could come home with a first-place trophy against all these able-bodied athletes. For the next six years, I ramped up my training with the goal to complete a 10K and, eventually, a half marathon. The challenge, however, was not solely the training. My prosthetic leg was not built to keep up with the potential I saw in myself.
Blisters, sores and infections developed on the skin of my stump. My prosthetic foot began to wear down. On training runs in the rain, water would seep in and rust out components. My leg was on the verge of breaking. But more so, the right side of my body was overcompensating, causing debilitating back pain. I soldiered on and ran all 13.1 miles of my race. But deep down, I knew this wasn’t sustainable. I went to my prosthetist for an answer and was told to find a new sport. Running blades existed for amputees, but unfortunately were too expensive and not covered by my health insurance.
I was devastated. Running was my passion and my sense of identity. I started to question myself: Am I meant to be a runner? Am I meant to be an athlete?
But then I decided to take back my power. Running is possible for amputees. I am not disabled by my condition, but by my access to technology. I believe we all deserve to experience the gift of mobility from the full spectrum of activities it has to offer.
Quitting was not an option. Instead, I set out on a mission to raise awareness for amputees and their access to technology. This would be my greatest athletic endeavor to date, and I was willing to break my only prosthetic leg to do it. On Sept. 1, 2017, I started a journey, which I dubbed “Forrest Stump,” and completed a 1,500-mile triathlon—running, biking and swimming—down the entire West Coast from Seattle to San Diego over the course of two months.
More than ever, this journey taught me it takes courage to keep running, and it takes courage to believe in yourself.
Nicole Ver Kuilen is now establishing Forrest Stump as a nonprofit with the goal to bring her story to Washington, D.C., to advocate for policy changes for amputees.