Aimee Mullins"I went from trying to blend in to the complete opposite."
Portrait by Cass Bird
Aimee Mullins is a real life super woman. A double amputee before the age of 1, Mullins was the first "disabled" athlete to compete in the NCAA (and win) on the groundbreaking Cheetah Leg, which she helped test. Her outspoken advocation for imagination and innovation in prosthetics has led to countless collaborations with engineers, artists, and designers alike. She's walked the runway for the late Alexander McQueen and starred in Matthew Barney's Cremaster films. Today, Mullins continues to defy expectations, turning her focus towards acting and film production, while working on the Council for Women & Sports.
Do you remember your legs?
I don’t have any conscious memory but I have muscle memory. I imagine that muscle memory has to be conscious in some way. Like, right now I’m curling the fourth toe of my left foot. And I only had feet for a year
Are there muscle memories with prosthetics?
That’s a very interesting question. Yeah, I think so. Every time I change my legs, it is a different physical experience. It’s kind of like how you have to carry yourself from flat shoes to heels.
What was your first pair of prosthetics?
They were small little wooden ones. I mean little baby legs that had a big leather cuff going around the side that had to be laced up. I was learning to corset my thigh at a very young age.
How advanced was this design for the time?
I mean there was nothing advanced about them. The design hadn’t changed much since after World War 2. There was actually a ton of medical advancement that came from that war; the need to basically take thousands of wounded service men and figure out how to help them re-enter civilian life and be earners. Prosthetics went from straight wood to these wood-plastic composites.
Like moulded plywood?
Yes exactly. The Eameses, that’s how they learned how to bend plywood: prosthetics and assisted medical devices. They took that skill into furniture design.
And that was the kind of legs you first had?
Yeah, there really wasn’t any innovation done until the late eighties when the Flex-Foot was born, using carbon fiber, and a new approach to foot design.
So the wooden legs weren’t good?
I mean, I would break those toes off all the time. And they were unisex…the feet were unisex. The shape of the legs had a really factory-line feel, both inside and out. There’s no prosthetic that can just go on somebody, a la mass market. It’s not a ski boot. It has to fit your exact contours; it must be cast on your body. Certain materials are less forgiving in a high-friction, high-impact environment, like a prosthetic socket.
Did you get a new leg every year? Every time you grew?
It was supposed to be a pair of legs every three or four years. There was one year I grew five and a half inches and the insurance companies wouldn’t help. I remember both my parents having wars with them on the phone. “She can’t fit into them. This isn’t decadence, this is necessity.”
Is it like that as an adult?
Well, just recently in New York State, our lawmakers signed a new law for anybody who’s covered under Obamacare: if you have a prosthetic, insurance only has to cover one prosthetic for your whole life after the age of 18, which is...
Completely. My body still changed hugely after 18. I had a growth spurt in my early twenties. I mean also if you think about pregnancy, the fluctuations of life that change your weight. It’s extraordinarily short-sighted and I hope they repeal it.
Were you were always into sports?
I wouldn’t say ‘into’ sports. I certainly wasn’t a jock. I was into art. I was into pretending to be other people, writing plays. But I like being physical, I like competing against where I imagine my own limits to be. Even really goofy stuff where it’s like wheelbarrow races or an egg toss or water balloon toss, I love seeing how far you can get.
You were into skiing as well?
I loved skiing.
That’s really cool. I used to ski race. I always thought it was a real science-fiction kind of sport in general.
Just all the gear. The ski-boots really only make sense in a ski on a mountain covered in snow.. Its super specific. Did you ever do slalom?
I raced too, and I never had to deal with shin guards. I miss skiing.
I also read you went to college in Georgetown with a scholarship for international affairs? How did that happen?
Well, the scholarship was from the Defense Department but I didn’t know that when I applied. This is how they advertised it: “full scholarship opportunity provides full tuition, room and board and books to any accredited college or university of the student’s choice, provides challenging summer employment and a guaranteed job after graduation” and then simply listed a phone number.
So you didn’t know what it was?
I just thought it must be a hoax and chucked it in the garbage can. I almost got to my next class and I had this weird impulse to stop, and went back and dug it out. I ran into our principal; I stopped and showed him the piece of paper, thinking he’s going to say this is bullshit. Instead he said “you’re never going to forgive yourself if you don’t find out.” So we went up to his office, he called the number and it was the Pentagon.
It turns out this scholarship opportunity had been open nationwide for the last eight months and the deadline was the next day. You needed transcripts, three essays, letters of recommendation. The Principal wrote out a pass for the rest of the day and I started writing. I didn’t even have a computer, I wrote these things out long hand and one of my aunts, who was a secretary, typed them up in her office for me. The principal said he would do a letter of recommendation.
In a day?
Yeah, the principal faxed everything in. We didn’t hear anything for however many months and then I get a letter saying I’ve made it to the semi-finals, which was 16 students. I had to come for interviews, and tests for character evaluation, and undergo drug tests. That’s when I realized what this was. It’s the Intelligence World. I had a classmate I barely knew come to me and say “what the hell did you do? Somebody pulled me out of math class, like flashed a badge and asked me all these questions about you!”
What did they want to know
They asked if I was promiscuous. They wanted to know if I did drugs. They wanted to know my reputation.
And none of this turned you off?
Well, if I was going to be the first Mullins to go to a university, I knew I was gonna totally be on my own to figure out financially how I was gonna get there. Also coming from a blue collar family, with an immigrant father, having a guaranteed job after graduation was “the dream.”
And you got in.
I was one of the three. I show up in Washington at this school where the Prince of Spain was in my class, people with trust funds. Every day that I didn’t have class, I had to report to duty. I was basically a full-time employee.
At the Pentagon?
It was the Intelligence community…so assignments could include collaborative projects for CIA, DIA, NSA, DEA. Every year I did a different thing. I once worked in counter narcotics, following the heroin trade.
Were you into it?
It was really fascinating to be a teenager thrown into this world, but I knew very quickly it wasn’t for me.
Were you doing athletics the entire time?
I hadn’t competed since high school. For two years of not having that outlet I was almost desperate for some other way out of this scholarship thing. When you’re a kid, five years after graduation — in a ‘guaranteed job’ that you know you don’t want — seems like an eternity and I was desperate to figure out a way to pay back the scholarship and sever ties.
How did you get back into competing?
It was a bartender in one of my college haunts who had been a miler at UMASS that suggested this disabled sports meet. I was like “Where are you going with this?” I had never competed in anything like that. I was so hurt until I realized there was something to explore here. I had no actual experience of what he was referring to and yet I was judging it, so I knew I needed to go check it out.
What was your first “disabled” track meet?
It was the National Disabled Sports Championships at MIT. And I had wooden legs. When I got there I saw all these people who had way better technology than I had.
How did you do?
I won. I won and set a new national record in the 100 meter. It was out of sheer adrenalin and terror. I realized immediately I had to be on the Paralympics team. I was gonna make this team. I had 11 months to the trials. Georgetown has one of the best track teams in the country and the coach agreed to coach me on his lunch break, which I did for the fall semester. Then spring semester I joined the track team.
You were the first amputee to compete in the NCAA track and field, right?
Yeah, NCAA period.
How did that happen?
In ignorance. I didn’t know. It’s not like I set out to be the first but I had never competed in what they called “disabled” sports. I was never part of a support group. I knew there were other people that were amputees but it wasn’t like I knew any or sought them out. Today the internet affords connectivity in a way that used to be impossible due to geographic restraints. If you didn’t know another amputee in your actual vicinity, you didn’t know any.
Did you end up getting better legs?
After the MIT race this guy had given me his card and he was the guy who invented that Flex-Foot. He told me to call him. I figured I was gonna get these regular flex feet, with the shock absorber in the lower shin. I flew out to San Diego and this whole other thing happened with the Cheetah leg.
He wanted to work on it with you?
Yeah. In some ways I was the perfect guinea pig for it. Most amputees are missing one leg- they’re unilateral. All of the measurements are based off of the flesh and bone leg: your height, your weight, your pronation, alignment. With me it’s a big “x” factor. which drove every prosthetist crazy my whole childhood. With an engineer there’s no baggage about what you need to do and what it should look like.
What was the idea behind the Cheetah Legs?
The idea was to get the fastest woman in the world in prosthetics: not just try and replicate a human leg.