Born without hands and feet, Tony Volpentest spent a lot of his childhood thinking. Not daydreaming about what he could become, or what life would be like as a “normal” kid.
Volpentest had plenty else to worry about. Like, if there was no one around, how could he carry his books to class? If he was thirsty, how would he pour himself a glass of water or open up a can of pop? If he was locked inside the house, how would he get out?
“Because I was born different, I always had to run through scenarios in my head about how I was going to attack a particular task. I had to think of these things constantly.” said Volpentest.
Volpentest’s condition – one that is so rare it doesn’t have a name— made every daily task an exercise of his mental powers.
“I became really good at visualizing,” Volpentest said.
So good he became one of the fastest human beings in the world. He has a few shiny medals to show for for his undying resolve, winning Paralympic gold in the 100-meter and 200-meter dash at the 1992 Barcelona Games -- setting world records he would later break at the Atlanta Games in 1996. He used to hold the Paralympic record in both events –11.36 in the 100-meters and 22.85 in the 200-meters.
Now an Olympic Hall of Fame nominee, Volpentest’s clear mind re-constructs an amazing story of greatness which begins with him as one of five siblings fending for himself.
“My parents basically let me get out, explore, get bumped and bruised,” Volpentest said. “It was kind of a heartache for my mom, because for as much as she wanted to nurture and coddle – and she did nurture—she was constantly reinforced to make me fight for things. And so if I wanted to get in and play with the toys and my brother was hoarding them, I would have to get in and fight for them. They weren’t just going to give them to me.”
Volpentest never stopped fighting. But it wasn’t always about taking something, or beating someone, or winning first place. An early surgery meant that he’d always be different. His parents chose to give their son the chance at life experience over cosmetic appeal. What he calls his “pinchers” –arms shortened where the ends look like chicken wings -- provide him with feel and nerve sensation. Early on, Volpentest managed just fine despite the abnormality. He played sports with his brothers and excelled. His social life was good. But after graduating from a small, Catholic middle school, Volpentest entered a huge suburban high school in Seattle.
Fitting in wasn’t easy.
“In high school I got involved in track,” Volpentest said. “I was really struggling my freshman year with meeting people. I’ve always been very outgoing. I’ve always been very good at meeting people, and being positive. But I was kind of culture-shocked and overwhelmed. Track was a way to meet people and stay involved.”
It worked: Volpentest competed with other “able-bodied” athletes and although he never won a medal, he did win over his classmates and he made friends. Then he heard about a junior competition in Florida with other amputees. Participating in this event would be life changing.
“I won all three races,” Volpentest recalled.
But it was the one he didn’t win – one that actually didn’t count--- that got his competitive juices flowing.
“They let the world record holder (Paralympian Dennis Oehler) run with us as an exhibition. There was so much time at the end of the race before I came into second place that he had time to turn around and walk back to the finish line as I came running in. I remember thinking to myself ‘I don’t ever want that to happen again.’”
That humiliation honed something powerful within Volpentest – his focus.
“I saw a picture in a magazine of Oehler running against Carl Lewis,” Volpentest said. “I took two copies him, opened them up, and glued them to the ceiling above my bed. Every night before I went to sleep it was the last image I would see and every morning when I’d wake it would be the first image I’d see. I knew that was going to be me.”
After graduation, Volpentest committed to training for the 1992 Paralympic games.
By the time he arrived in Spain in the summer of 1992, having worked with his high school track coach all summer, he was ready for his big moment.
“It was a magical time and place,” Volpentest said.”I felt like my legs were buzzing in Barcelona. I just had this energy surging through me that was really hard to explain. At a point I could audibly hear my legs vibrating. I was 19 years old. I’m waking up on the Mediterranean Sea every morning. I really felt like when I got there, there was no other outcome.”
Volpentest broke his world records in front of more than 55,000 people. His life only got better from there. He graduated from college, and then dominated the ’96 Games in Atlanta. He was featured in numerous television shows. In fact, former Presidential candidate Ross Perot was so enthralled with Volpentest’s story he connected him with a prosthetic expert who created two new legs after the ’96 games.
“I asked him to tell me all about his background and he explained that he was born with severe birth defects,” Perot said. Perot flew to Atlanta to watch him run in the ’96 games.
“I’ll never forget that night he ran the 100-meter dash. It was a sprint—not a jog—and he had two seconds off the world record. Was that not incredible?”
Volpentest tells his story often. He’s become an inspiration for disabled military veterans, who also happen to inspire him when he meets in groups with those who’ve been forced to retire from recent Middle Eastern conflicts. Many are fellow amputees.
On May 15, Volpentest will learn if he’s been voted into the Olympic Hall of Fame, where he will take his place alongside not only other Paralympians but also “able-bodied” athletes like Muhammad Ali, Jackie Joyner-Kersee, Mark Spitz, Carl Lewis and Florence Joyner.
Volpentest’s new memoir, The Fastest Man in the World, The Tony Volpentest Story, is set to hit shelves in July, coinciding with the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. The book can pre-ordered on Amazon.com or through the publisher Bettie Young Books.