COLUMBIA – When Aimee Mullins broke a national record in the first 100 meters she ever raced, she felt unstoppable.
In the wake of her success, she decided to try out her first long jump. A man, who like Mullins had both legs amputated below the knee, approached her with concern and confusion about her decision to jump.
"We don't have a good foot to jump off of," she recalled him saying.
She came within 4 inches of a U.S. record.
"Nobody told me we weren't supposed to be able to do it," Mullins said. "I was the only double BK (below the knee amputee) to attempt it, and that was my first time."
Mullins said she has never seen her two prosthetic legs as an adversity.
Mullins, the first amputee to compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, has been a public figure for 17 years, a model, an actress and a renowned speaker. In addition to her college career at Georgetown, Mullins represented the U.S. at the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta.
She spoke to an enthusiastic crowd filling the bottom tier of seats at Jesse Auditorium on Wednesday night about overcoming adversity and learning to embrace change and challenge.
"Adversity is just change we haven't adapted to yet," said Mullins, who was born with a medical condition that led to both of her legs being amputated on her first birthday.
Mullins told the crowd to learn to see adversity not as a hurdle but as something that widens people's paths. She said adversity creates opportunity, but only if they want it to.
"Adversity equals discomfort, and discomfort equals growth," Mullins said. "Don't step back from discomfort."
Mullins grew up in a family that expected all the children to excel in academics, sports and musical instruments. Although she had prosthetic legs, her family viewed her as just another child with no disabilities. This allowed Mullins to see past her disability and believe she could accomplish just as much as other children.
"I was in a lot of hospitals growing up," Mullins said. "I read so many books at a young age that I developed a vivid imagination. I saw myself as a bionic woman, not disabled."
Mullins' childhood imagination never left her. It wasn't until she was out of college that she realized the potential of human will is more powerful than any medical prognosis she had been dealt.
"Every human being is trying to get out of the boxes other people put them into," Mullins said.
She stressed the ultimate misconception of adversity is that it's the physical factor that makes the disability. But seeing problems with new eyes and a new outlook changes how people approach their problems. Mullins said people facing adversity must be willing to put ego aside and see the opportunity that lies within.
Having preconceived ideas about what is or isn't possible is what limits people the most, she said.
"Everyone has a disability, but most of the time, it's not what you expect," Mullins said. "They say, 'Your disability is your two prosthetic legs,' but they couldn't be more wrong."
Supervising editor is Allie Hinga.