Some people become victims to tragic, life changing events. For others, those same events neither define nor deter them – they simply become integrated experiences that shape and sculpt their lives.
For April Holmes, one of those life changing moments occurred 11 years and 9 days ago, but the day is often overlooked. April explains, “It just doesn’t seem that important. The actual day of my accident always passes before I realize it.”
On January 23, 2001 April and her boyfriend were preparing to board a train in Philadelphia destined for New York. Most of the details of the day have been forgotten. “I’m sure it was cold outside, but the sun was shining and it was very bright. We were running late.”
As the train was ready to pull away, April’s boyfriend boarded, but April missed her step. Her left leg was pinned between the now moving train and the platform. After 30 agonizing minutes, the paramedics were able to free her; however her badly damaged leg could not be saved.
Immediately following the surgery to amputate her leg, April was simply thankful to be alive. But obviously, other thoughts were stirring in her head. “I was so confused because I didn’t know any amputees. I remember thinking I can’t run or play basketball, but I had to remain positive, I had to be strong for my mom.”
According to April, she had no time to be down during those first days in the hospital. There was a constant stream of friends and family. In fact, just five days following her accident, April decided to follow through with a pre-planned Super Bowl party. “At some point they moved us to an executive suite because so many people wanted to visit.”
When April returned home, confusion and frustration set in. “I couldn’t do anything for myself. I remember thinking God must think I am an awfully strong person to have given this to me.”
One morning April made an attempt at self-sufficiency. “My boyfriend was sleeping so I packed a backpack, grabbed my crutches, and slid down the stairs. I didn’t want anyone to hear me or to help me. Before I could get to the refrigerator, I heard my mom.”
“Sunshine, what are you doing?”
“I want to get a drink of water FOR MYSELF Mom.”
“Don’t do that, let me help you.”
“I remember sitting at the table, crying, not only because I couldn’t do the most basic thing for myself, but because no one understood that I needed to try.”
As part of her recovery and rehabilitation, April joined a support group. “At my support group, I was taught to mourn the loss of my leg, but that wasn’t me. I didn’t want to be that person.”
And the psychologist she was seeing wasn’t a lot of help either. April told her Mom, “I don’t want to go back to that lady. She makes me cry.”
April didn’t need to mourn or to have a pity party. She needed to move on with her life.
But before April could move forward, she had to deal with one additional issue, her relationship with her boyfriend. “He struggled with what happened to me. I remember him saying, ‘I know your family hates me and they blame me for the accident.'” I decided that I couldn’t be strong enough for the both of us. I told him, ‘I can’t carry you and me both.’”
Sometime near her birthday on March 11, things started to improve. “On my birthday, my Godson was born, and I got to name him. Then on March 17, I got a walking prosthetic.”
Becoming a Paralympian
Prior to her injury, April had been an elite sprinter, competing as a track athlete for Norfolk State University. But what could she hope for as an amputee?
During her stay in the hospital, April was given some information about the Paralympics. At the time the idea seemed far-fetched and crazy, but as April gained confidence, the thought of competing again was an inspiration.
In 2002, running with a prosthetic specially designed by Ossur, April set an American record in the 200m dash.
In the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, due to the limited number of competitors, April and the other leg amputees were grouped with arm amputees. “I was the only leg amputee to make the finals, and I set the world record in the 100m and 200m. But I didn’t medal.”
Four years later in Beijing, April won her gold medal in the 100m, but things didn’t go as well in the 200m.
“My prosthetic leg got stuck while running, I fell and was stepped on and needed 5 stitches.” April’s attitude? “I was thankful. I could very easily have lost an eye.”
Recognition and Responsibility
With her success on the track, April inspires others to overcome challenges and obstacles. She established the April Holmes Foundation to assist people with disabilities and has become a visible spokesperson for a number of products she believes in.
For example, April is working with Ossur, the maker of her prosthetic leg. “Almost every Paralympic runner is using Ossur legs. I wouldn’t be able to take a step without them. And what Ossur has learned in working with athletes has benefited many injured military veterans as well.”
In 2009, April became the first and only female athlete to become a member of Team Jordan. “I grew up a huge Michael Jordan fan, so it is a huge blessing to be able to partner with Nike and Michael and be part of that support system.”
What’s Left to Prove?
As a gold medalist and the current world record holder in the 100m, the 200m, and the 400m for leg amputees, is there more April wants to accomplish? Absolutely!
Last fall, April made the difficult decision to leave her long-time coach and friend, Al Joyner. “I felt like I was getting too comfortable and not getting any better.” April noted that continuing on that path would be disrespectful to the sport she loves. “We were both crying. I said, I have to go – we will always be family.”
April now trains with track and field legend Brooks Johnson in Florida at Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex. “Brooks is a very old-school coach. Maybe I should have made the move earlier.”
In addition to the culture of success that Coach Johnson preaches daily, April also enjoys other benefits from her training at the Disney complex. It turns out she is a lifelong fan of Mickey Mouse.
With all of the medals, world records, and success, why has April Holmes uprooted her life and dedicated herself to 4 to 5 hours of training every single day?
Because she has unfinished business at the 2012 Paralympic Games. April is aiming for gold in both the 100m and 200m. “I don’t feel like I have something to prove, at least not to other people. This is for me.”
And while April isn’t one for labels, she is the embodiment of what an athlete should be. She is proud, passionate, and a competitor. Look out, London.