Blade Runner Tests Limits of Prosthetics, Years After Oscar Pistorius
That ban was overturned by the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, after further testing at Rice University resulted in a paper for the Journal of Applied Physiology contending that Pistorius was “mechanically dissimilar” to competitors racing on legs, moving his body differently.
Even the scientists involved in the Rice study could not come to complete agreement, however. According to a report in Scientific American, Peter Weyand, a physiologist at Southern Methodist University, believed Pistorius had a mechanical edge. A biomechanics expert, Rodger Kram from the University of Colorado, contended that Pistorius’s artificial limbs created as many problems as advantages.
The court ruled that the testing in Cologne had not factored in the disadvantages of Pistorius’s motion around a curve, or his problems at the start of a race. (These are also the elements of every competition that present the greatest challenges to Woodhall.) Pistorius was eventually selected to participate for South Africa in the 2012 Olympics in London.
Woodhall prefers to deflect such issues in a more positive direction. At the recent Simplot Games in Pocatello, Idaho, another runner elbowed Woodhall during a tight spot in the race and was disqualified. Woodhall dismissed any notion that this was personal, though, calling the competitor “a great guy.”
“It’s funny,” Woodhall said. “When I’m winning races, doing good, people are complaining, people have something to say. That’s something I have to deal with. It’s something that I’m prepared for and not worried about it. At the same time, there’s a lot of people who are totally for it, giving amazing support. They’re so awesome, so kind.
“Those are the types I put my energy toward, who want me to succeed.”
For years, he received almost no interest from college coaches, despite racing times that ranked him among the top recruits in the country. Then, about a month ago, several universities approached him. Brigham Young, North Carolina, Long Beach State and Georgia are now real possibilities.
Currently, no N.C.A.A. rules prohibit a blade runner from competing in open meets. Any university coach, though, must be prepared to wade into an area of athletic debate not fully explored in America.
“We’re looking for a college coach willing to fight for this just as much as I am,” Woodhall said. “If I keep progressing, the faster I run, the more people are going to be opposed to it or have questions. That’s something we’re prepared for. We have the right tools for battle.”
His next battle is on the Armory track, where the lanes are just 36 inches wide and the curves are banked at a steeper angle than any he has seen before.
“Coming off that turn, it’s like a slingshot,” Woodhall said on Thursday, assessing the Washington Heights facility. “But this is a Mondo track, good grip, such a beautiful place. I think it’ll be fine.”
Woodhall has been just fine through his 18 years, a remarkable case of precocious athletic achievement in the face of long odds.
He was born with unformed fibulae, and his legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old. His parents, Steve and Barb, were not exactly experts in this field. The family business involved cleaning ash deposits from coal power plants. But Shriners Hospital in Salt Lake City fitted Hunter for artificial limbs at 15 months. By 18 months, his mother recalled, he was a mobile force of nature.
“We were a little cautious the first year after surgery, but then we realized he could do whatever he wanted and he would just do it differently,” Barb Woodhall said. “He was only missing his feet — he wasn’t fragile. We came to the point where we thought, ‘He’s going to find a way to do it, and we’re going to let him.’”
Woodhall found a way to play football, with a different set of prosthetics; he also joined the wrestling team, with yet another pair. He is remarkably unselfconscious. When he was younger, he would remove one of his legs in front of others at the playground, just to see the reactions of the other children. He has purposely worn different-colored prosthetic legs, for effect. He’ll even joke about his condition.
Asked to provide a biography last month before the Simplot Games, an indoor high school track-and-field event, Woodhall wrote, “In case you haven’t noticed, I don’t have legs.”
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