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Meet Amy Palmiero-Winters, amputee runner helping disabled kids

The "Melissa Harris-Perry" Foot Soldier this week is Amy Palmeiro-Winters, an amputee marathoner who helps children with physical disabilities build confidence through sports.
/ Source: Melissa Harris Perry

The "Melissa Harris-Perry" Foot Soldier this week is Amy Palmeiro-Winters, an amputee marathoner who helps children with physical disabilities build confidence through sports.

When Amy Palmiero-Winters lost her leg in a motorcycle accident at age 21, she was told she would never run again. An avid runner, Amy was determined to beat the odds–and has gone on to run ultramarathons, win world records, and receive the James E. Sullivan Award, the highest award in amateur athletics. Her dedication to sport is matched by her commitment to ensuring others with amputations get fit with correct prosthetics and have the opportunity to participate in athletics. She is the founder of the One Step Ahead Foundation, an organization that gives children with physical disabilities positive experiences through sports to build confidence and increase self-esteem. Next Friday, Amy will compete in the Death Race to raise funds for her organization.

We asked Amy, our “Foot Soldier” this week on Melissa Harris-Perry, about her running career and the work she is doing to provide a similar opportunity for others.

How did you get interested in running?

My dad’s always been a great athlete, and so my dad’s always– well both my parents have always – encouraged us to play sports. And so when we were little kids, we were exposed to every different kind of sport that you can imagine, and running just happened to be the one that clicked the most with me.

You were trying to run right off the bat after your amputation, but when was the turning point that you were able to really train and compete?

I lost it in ’97. I wouldn’t be able to do any training but I would run the races and then once I came here to New York, I found this facility here in New York and I ended up [traveling there with my family]. Walked in the door, and the first thing they asked me was what did I want to do. You know, who was I, what did I want to do, what things did I like. And to me that was amazing because from all those years of walking in a prosthetic, I never really had anybody focus on what I wanted to do and what my goals were.

That was in February of ’06. And I think it might have been May, I think, is the Cleveland marathon. That was the first time that I’d run a marathon since losing my leg. And the first marathon that we ran, we actually broke the world record, the world’s best for female amputees below the knee.

“We”–who are you talking about?

It’s never something that I’ve done by myself. I might be out there running the race, but let’s say my parents drove to the race and they were able to be with my children, and at mile 22 there were my kids standing there on the sidelines. Well, because of what they did, it gave me that extra boost to cross the finish line.

I saw that you’ve run in a lot of races and have competed in a lot of events. Which, to you, have been the most meaningful?

I would have to say that the things I’m most proud of– I’m the most proud of being a mom and I’m most proud of my children. Because, at the end of the day, my kids don’t care if I won a world record. They don’t care if I have a Sullivan Award. They don’t even know what the Sullivan is, even though they were there. But all they care, and all that I care about at the end of the day is, number one, that I’m a mom and I’m a good mom.

Number two, that I can make the biggest difference in the world that I possibly can. It’s amazing the things that we’ve accomplished along the way and there have been some races that we have done that will probably never be duplicated again in history. But I think if you look at a medal or you look at a trophy or something like that, the award, or whatever it is that you give to someone else, is more important than that aspect.

My first 100 mile race, I crossed the finish line and won and it was such an amazing event. And I was so proud, I couldn’t wait to come home and tell my children and the little kids that I coach – I couldn’t wait to come home and tell them all. But then at the same moment, I got on the plane after I got my big trophy and a lady didn’t want to sit beside me because I had a prosthetic leg. And so at that moment, it didn’t matter that I broke a world record, it didn’t matter that I’d won first place. What mattered to me was someone didn’t want to sit beside me because I looked different.

How many kids do you have?

I have two.

And how old are they?

Carson is nine and Madeline is eight. My little kids, they’re phenomenal…

When I go out and train for something, they’ll be my little pit crew. And then also with the little kids for the Foundation, Carson and Madeline also help them. So if we go to a race, Carson and Madeline will be maybe their pacers or their little support crew as they’re running the race.

I saw that you’re affiliated with both A Step Ahead Prosthetics and One Step Ahead Foundation. Could you tell me a little bit about them?

Step Ahead Prosthetics is the company that I work for that actually makes my prosthetics here in Long Island. And Erik Schaffer’s the one that creates all of our prosthetics and has the creative mind to make custom systems to allow me to run a hundred miles. And the foundation is One Step Ahead Foundation. And what that is, is something that I started up to help children. And what it does is, I’ll raise money, it goes into the foundation, and then I’ll create experiences for the children.

For instance, if I didn’t do some of the athletic things that I did when I was a little kid, who knows where I’d be today? So it’s those little things that build confidence, create better self-esteem. For instance, when I moved here, I met all these little kids and they pull away from physical activities because of their limb loss, so it was my goal to get them into different activities to create that self-confidence. We’ll go rock climbing or ice climbing, skiing, dance at Alvin Ailey, be a part of the New York City marathon.

And what it does is it gives them all these different experiences. At the end of the day, they might hate rock climbing, but they did something they never thought they could do. And if they’re walking down the hall at school and somebody looks at them because they look different, they’re going to have that self-confidence to hold their head high because they have the ability to do all these things.

How are you affiliated with working with the people who suffered injuries in the Boston Marathon?

A Step Ahead Prosthetics, we have a location here in Long Island and we have a location in Boston. When a child needs a prosthetic– for us as adults, our bones aren’t growing any more; we don’t have all of those things that little kids have. So when a child needs a prosthetic, getting them set up in the right prosthetic that has the best fit is monumental.

So with children, they’re consistently growing every four or five months… And that works the same way with prosthetics. If all of that stuff isn’t maintained and kept a very close watch upon, it alters the growth of the child. So a child can get a prosthetic and they might need a new one – dependent upon their growth – anywhere from six months to a year. And the prosthetic can be anywhere from $24,000 to $50,000 and it only lasts a year. So it was our focus to figure out how to help.

A Step Ahead Prosthetics is committed to taking care of their prosthetics until they stabilize.

See guest host Ari Melber’s interview with Palmeiro-Winters below, and visit her website here.