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Hitting His Stride Again Sprinter Brian Frasure's carbon-fiber leg gives him a second shot at glory

Oct. 18, 1999
Oct. 18, 1999

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Oct. 18, 1999

Hitting His Stride Again Sprinter Brian Frasure's carbon-fiber leg gives him a second shot at glory

Nearly seven years ago, in the late night of Sept. 9, 1992,
Brian Frasure was in his dorm room at North Carolina State
trying to make sense of calculus when he heard the whistle of an
approaching freight train. He pulled on his sneakers and ran to
the nearby tracks. Frasure, then a sophomore, planned to try out
for the Wolfpack's track team as a walk-on 400-meter hurdler the
following spring. He also liked to hop trains. A half-dozen
fellow students who shared his enthusiasm were at the tracks
when he arrived. "I could tell they were all a little hesitant
about hopping this one because it was going a little bit faster
than normal," Frasure says.

This is an article from the Oct. 18, 1999 issue Original Layout

While sprinting beside the train, he grabbed onto a handle just
as his feet slipped on rocks. He was yanked upside down under
the train. His eyes were inches from the wheels as they ran over
both his feet. An instant late, he pulled himself away from the
train. Fortunately he didn't look at his feet during the 20
minutes he had to wait for paramedics to arrive. Frasure has
photographs of the skin of his left foot dangling from the toes,
exposing dozens of thin bones crumpled and tortured like
threshed reeds of hay. So violent was the pain as he lay by the
tracks that he beat his own head with a rock in an attempt to
knock himself out.

The next morning he looked down the length of his hospital bed,
and the sheet was flat where his left foot should have been. His
left leg had been amputated several inches below the knee. About
half of each toe on his right foot was gone, too. His first
words, to his mother, were, "Mom, I'd rather be dead than be
like this."

He has since changed his mind. Today the 26-year-old Frasure is
one of the fastest men in the world. With an artificial leg he
ran 100 meters in the slightly wind-aided time of 11.02 seconds,
his personal best, to win an exhibition race at the U.S.
national championships in New Orleans in 1998. His time was
faster than the times of three able-bodied decathletes competing
at those nationals. Frasure is aiming to become the first
amputee to run 100 meters in less than 11 seconds.

As he runs, there is no clue above the waist that anything
terrible happened to him: His head and shoulders move as
smoothly as any runner's. His lower left leg, however, looks as
if it has been drawn in with a thick black crayon. His
shin-and-foot prosthetic, called the Sprint-Flex III, is shaped
like a question mark turned upside down. It has been designed
exclusively for running, with no heel.

"It is like a dog's leg or a cheetah's leg," says Hilary
Pouchak, a research-and-development product engineer for
Flex-Foot, a prosthetics manufacturer based in Aliso Viejo,
Calif. The leg--the successor to the original Flex-Foot designed
by Van Phillips, the company founder, who in 1976 as a
21-year-old lost his left foot in a waterskiing accident--is
made of carbon fibers, a lightweight material as strong as
steel. What allows Frasure to run is the unique design of the
foot portion. Frasure steps down on his artificial toe, and a
split-second later the toe springs him forward.

"It's not so much a foot as a mini-diving board," says Scott
Sabolich, a prosthetic designer who works closely with Hanger
Prosthetics and Orthotics of Oklahoma City, the company that
makes the socket for Frasure's prosthetic leg. The socket is
made of soft plastic and is contoured to ease the pain of the
pounding on the bottom of the leg. The price of the package,
available to anyone, is about $12,000.

This equipment, however, did not instantly turn Frasure into a
champion sprinter. He has made a science of marrying himself to
his new man-made parts. Every day he attaches a stimulator unit
to the calf muscle of his shortened left leg, to electrically
flex the truncated muscle and keep it strong in the hope of
gaining another .1 of a second on the track. "When we started,"
says his coach, Trevor Graham, "Brian said, 'My body is not an
able body.' He looked at his problems as if he were basically
handicapped from doing a lot of things. It took a year to prove
to him that he had to do things the way able-bodied people do
them. To be Number 1, you have to do all those things. You can't
limit yourself."

Frasure trains most mornings in Raleigh with Graham and his
stable of athletes, including world-champion sprinter Marion
Jones. Frasure changes from his walking leg into his sprinting
leg as casually as the others change from street shoes to racing
spikes. In the afternoons he works as a prosthetic resident at
Hanger, having earned a bachelor's degree in engineering at N.C.
State and a medical degree in the certification program in
prostheses at Northwestern. Knowing firsthand the trauma that his
patients endure as they are being fitted with an artificial limb
for the first time, Frasure makes a habit of moving nimbly around
their hospital beds without a word as he performs his initial
examination; then he introduces himself by lifting his own pants
leg, which is a sight more powerful than a library of self-help
books.

Graham says Frasure is the most inspiring athlete he has ever
known. "Brian has to work, I'd say, 50 percent harder than other
athletes," the coach says. "Marion looks at him every day and
says, 'How do you run down the track with that thing on?'"

Last year Frasure ran in the Raleigh Relays. "I beat a lot of
able-bodied guys in my heat, and some of the guys looked like
they were about to cry," he says. "It's not like it should be
degrading to them. If anything, it should motivate them to run
harder."

The engineers at Flex-Foot, as well as their competitors in
prosthetics, are working on a computerized foot capable of
adjusting instantaneously to a variety of pressures and forces.
Even if they are successful, Sabolich worries about the future
of his industry. "Doctors appear to have successfully
transplanted a human hand," he says. "People in car wrecks can
receive a transplanted heart, liver and kidneys in one
afternoon. So how difficult can it be to transplant one leg? I
think we're going to start seeing it in about 20 years."

COLOR PHOTO: BOB DONNAN
"It's not so much a foot as a mini-diving board," Sabolich says
of Frasure's prosthesis.