Team USA long jumper Trenten Merrill, center, answers questions from kids at Woodbury Elementary School in Irvine on Thursday, April 11, 2019. Background from left is Team Canada sprinter Marissa Papaconstantinou, Team USA sprinter Femita Ayanbeku and Team USA cyclist and triathlete Mo Lahna. April is National Limb Loss Awareness Month.(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)
Team USA long jumper Trenten Merrill, center, along with other Paralympic athletes, leads students in stretching exercises at Woodbury Elementary School in Irvine on Thursday, April 11, 2019.(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)
Students participate in stretching exercises led by Paralympic athletes at Woodbury Elementary School in Irvine on Thursday, April 11, 2019.(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)
Students carry a banner welcoming four Paralympic athletes at Woodbury Elementary School in Irvine on Thursday, April 11, 2019.(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)
Trenten Merrill, Femita Ayanbeku, Mohamed “Mo” Lahna and Marissa Papaconstantinou have a few things in common: all are elite professional athletes who compete internationally. And all are missing their right foot or leg.
In an event sponsored by Össur, a prosthetic and orthopedic equipment company, the four Paralympians recently shared their stories with over 70 spellbound children at Woodbury Elementary School in Irvine.
Many of the Woodbury children present had never met someone with an amputation or congenital limb deficiency. The athletes encouraged the children, who are in kindergarten to sixth grade, to ask questions about their prosthetic legs and lifestyle.
Are the legs comfortable? one asked.
Yes, Ayanbeku said, adding that she often forgets she’s wearing one.
“Sometimes, like anyone who walks, we’ll get a blister or be sore, but that happens to anyone with legs,” she said.
Another source of fascination was the number of prosthetic legs the athletes have. Each has multiple legs for walking, training and competing that need to be replaced as the athletes grow or advance in competition.
“I have four legs just in my car!” Ayanbeku said.
The children watched with rapt attention as the athletes demonstrated putting on their Össur running blades for the highlight of the event: a warmup routine and relay race for everyone.
“It was pretty cool how the [blades] looked, and that they were kind of springy,” fifth-grader Arman Kapic said after the relay.
His classmate Andrea Peregrin said the warmup drills were her favorite part.
“I think it’s really cool that they can run with their legs like that,” Andrea said, “And it’s cool how they can have perseverance and just keep on going no matter what.”
Considering that April is Limb Loss Awareness Month, the athletes hope their stories equip children to better accept people with the disability.
I learned how to adapt and not let differences hold me back. [Having] a difference doesn’t mean you’re less. We need to respect each other and our differences.
“I was bullied so many times,” said Lahna, who was born without his right femur due to a congenital limb defect. “I would go home crying because [other kids] would say mean things to me, but my mom was strong: she would always send me back to play with the kids. I learned how to adapt and not let differences hold me back. [Having] a difference doesn’t mean you’re less. We need to respect each other and our differences.”
According to the nonprofit Amputee Coalition, there are an estimated 2.1 million amputees in the U.S., and 500 people lose a limb every day.
Ayanbeku and Merrill had their right legs amputated after car accidents, while Lahna and Papaconstantinou were born with congenital limb differences. None of them expected to become professional athletes.
Yet, Merrill, who grew up in San Juan Capistrano, holds the U.S. para-athletic record for the long jump. Ayanbeku is currently the fastest female amputee sprinter in the U.S.
Papaconstantinou competes for Canada and rivals Ayanbeku in sprints, while Lahna won a bronze medal in the Paralympic triathlon for Morocco.
Each athlete competed in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and is aiming for gold at the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
“Something as upsetting as losing a limb can really detour a lot of people,” Merrill said. “I can share my experience of feeling like my hope and dreams were lost, [then] getting encouraged to pursue my goals instead of being fearful. I wanted to be the best I could be and work twice as hard, and show everybody that just because I have a prosthetic foot, it doesn’t slow me down. It’s this fire that lit inside of me.”
Aliese Muhonen is a contributor to TimesOC. Follow her on Twitter at @AlieseMuhonen.
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