(NEW YORK) — Aimee Mullins has amazing athletic accomplishments, a successful modeling career, and has earned accolades as a motivational speaker. They are such great accomplishments that some people are surprised when they learn that this pillar of strength stands atop prosthetic legs.
Mullins’ life is a testament to going beyond labels, to seizing the opportunities inside each of us.
Mullins was born without shinbones, the result of a condition called fibular hemimelia. At the age of 1 she had both of her legs amputated at the knee.
Doctors told her parents she might never learn to walk, but Mullins defied their limited expectations. With aid of prosthetic legs she not only learned to walk, she learned to run — and fast.
Mullins was a star athlete at Georgetown, becoming the first amputee to compete on an NCAA track team. She went on to compete in 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta, setting three world records in the 100m, 200m and long jump.
In 1999, Mullins was invited to model on the runway for designer Alexander McQueen on hand-carved wooden legs complete with six-inch heels.
“I started to hyperventilate,” Mullins told ABC News’ Diane Sawyer. “I was backstage with Kate Moss and all these incredible supermodels — Naomi Campbell. And I was opening the show. And I thought, ‘Aimee, you’ve done the Olympics, you can do this.'”
Mullins called the show a “seminal moment” in her life.
“It was beautiful and to have people respond to prosthetics, something that had always represented sadness or loss or not quite the real thing, and have them respond in awe and even coveting them,” she said. It “was the kind of empowerment that — I’ve never been the same since.”
The McQueen show is but one highlight in a successful modeling career. Mullins became the face of a L’Oreal campaign for True Match and was named as one People’s 50 Most Beautiful People.
But all the praise hasn’t stopped her from being humble.
When asked for the secret to her success, she is quick to honor her supporters — “people who said, ‘Yes, Aimee, we can create anything between where your leg ends and the ground. Yes, we can make you as tall as you want to be. Yes. we can play with your body’s ability.'”
Mullins strives to be one of those people for others, traveling around the country giving inspirational speeches, encouraging everyone to harness perceived shortcomings as a springboard for achieving lofty dreams.
“Hand somebody the key to their own power,” Mullins said during her speech at TedMed, a conference for bold ideas.
“My issue is with the word, ‘disabled,'” Mullins said, “[when] we use it to describe a human being, especially a child. You know, I think there are certain words like ‘illegitimate’ that should not be used to describe a person. And certainly, we have come far enough in our technology that our language can evolve, because it has an impact. I want a child who thinks, ‘Wow, what can I do with my new leg?'”
Mullins cautioned that subjective words like “disabled” can act as shackles.
“It’s factual to say I am a bilateral-below-the-knee amputee,” she said. “I think it’s subjective opinion as to whether or not I am disabled because of that. That’s just me.”
Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio