'So Grateful': April Holmes on Camaraderie, Her Big Fall, and Real Victory

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When talking with April Holmes, you hear the word "grateful" a lot. Though the gold-medal winning Paralympic sprinter has endured crushing losses, she has risen above those challenges, transforming them into opportunities to be thankful and share good fortune. In 2001, the promising college runner lost her left foot in a train accident. "I was just so grateful to be alive," she told The O&P EDGE. One year after hearing about the Paralympics for the first time—from her hospital bed—she had started competing as an amputee and founded the April Holmes Foundation, which offers funds, medical devices, and networking opportunities to people with physical or learning disabilities. In 2004, she broke the world records in the 100m and 200m sprint, then at the Athens Paralympics, she broke both again in a semifinal and broke the 100m again in the finals. Over the next four years, she installed a stack of international championship medals in her trophy case. In Beijing, she was a shoo-in for gold in two events when an accident left her nearly blinded on the field. In this interview, Holmes describes her philosophy, her fall on the track, and why everyone took a victory lap when she won gold.

The O&P EDGE: What was your biggest challenge after you got to Beijing?

Holmes: (Laughs.) Recovering from my 200m accident. I had a prosthetic issue and maybe 170m, 180m into the race, as I tried to bring my prosthetic leg through, I stubbed my toe on the track and fell. All the way until the closing ceremonies, I was apologizing to the runner from France, because my stubbing my toe cost her her own effort to win a medal. Many people actually sat around several times prior to the race and said, "Okay, clearly, April's going to win the race, clearly the girl from France is going to get second place, and it's just a matter of who's going to get third." It was hurtful for me to be instrumental in someone else's dream not coming true.

Of course, she knew that I was sorry, and she was like, "I'm okay, everyone's okay." But I said to a guy with them, "You speak English-please tell her I am so sorry for what happened." He was like, "She knows you're sorry." And I said, "No, please tell her." So he told her, and she was like, "I know, I know," and gave me a hug, which I thought was pretty cool.

The O&P EDGE: After your fall, our photos show you with blood all over your face and thigh. When you hit the ground, you damaged you hip flexor, but where did all that blood come from?

Holmes: When the girl from France tried to jump over me, she didn't quite make it, so her spike came down on my face. It was crazy—so many people thought I should have been upset about not winning the gold in the 200m, but I said to them, "Listen, I came within a millimeter of losing my eye!" I had to get five stitches on my eyelid. My sight is a whole lot more important to me than a gold medal, so I wasn't the least bit upset about losing the gold medal. I was more concerned about the fact that I had this injury and still needed to be able to see. I had a gash from my eyebrow all the way down to my bottom lip and I had to walk around with a patch on my eye—the whole nine yards. But again, I was so grateful to be able to see that I couldn't be mad at God for whatever else happened. I was just thankful to be able to see.

The O&P EDGE: Your gold medal win in the 100m was within just a few hundredths of a second. When you crossed the line, you didn't know who won. What was that like for you?

Holmes: Going into the 100m, I actually had a conversation with one of the girls, telling her how to win the race because I didn't think I was healthy enough to win. She just kept saying to me, "I want you to win." She said, "Every one of us knows that you're the fastest person. That's without a doubt. I don't think it would be fair and I couldn't accept the fact that I won, knowing you're not healthy." And I was like, "Thank you so much, I really appreciate that, but I'm trying to tell you how you can win this race." We went back and forth like that, and I finally just told myself that if I didn't think during the race, I'd probably be okay. For a good 95m, I didn't think about it, and it didn't affect me too much. No matter what the outcome, I wouldn't have been upset because I know that I gave myself and the sport and the fans everything I had to give them that day.

After the race, I congratulated all the girls and they said, "I think you won." I thought somebody from the inside had probably gotten me, so I said, "You know, I really don't care who won, right this second. To me, what's important is that as a group we go on a victory lap." We had been through a lot in terms of classification issues, and our numbers had sometimes dropped so low that we'd had to run against arm amputees. And then the fans showed up in record numbers-that stadium was packed every single day, morning and evening sessions-and the people of Beijing had been so very hospitable to us. So I said to them, "Everybody in this stadium, including us, deserves us going on a victory lap. C'mon." And they were like, "Um, we're all going?" I said, "Yes, every single last one of us. Let's go." They were like, "Are they going to stop us?" I said, "If they're going to stop us, let them, but right now, we're all going" So we all just took a lap and waved to the fans and allowed them to see us up close in an effort to thank them showing up for us.

The O&P EDGE: Are you planning to shoot for the next Paralympics in 2012?

Holmes: That's my hope and plan. I love the sport of track and field so much, but unfortunately as your life goes on, you're not able to train and recover as well, and your body doesn't respond as well, so we may have to adapt my training as the years go on. I don't know how long I'll be able to run at the level that I am, but if I feel like I'm shaming the sport in any way, I'll walk away. But right now, my plan is to keep on going, and I feel great. I feel probably in the best shape I've been in. I'm just hopeful that any big injuries will hold off as I embark on 2012.

The O&P EDGE: You talk a lot about gratitude, and I know you do a lot for other people with disabilities. Tell me a little about that.

Holmes: One of the things my mom always raised us to do was to never be ungrateful, to always be appreciative and thankful for things that people do for you because they don't have to do them. And I think it's okay if you make it somewhere in the world, but you can't totally be satisfied if you never helped anyone else get to where they were trying to go. That's one of the reasons I started my foundation, because there are disabled people all over the world who have no idea what possibilities life holds, and no one ever tells them about them, no one ever gives them an opportunity. Maybe no one even shows an interest in their dreams. I started the April Holmes Foundation to be able to help both physically and learning-disabled people realize their potential in life and actualize their dreams. If we can assist people getting through school or getting employment, then the world will be a much better place.

Editor's note:  For more interviews with Paralympians and their prosthetists, see the related articles below.

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