Reveling in the Art of True Potential
Defying perceived limitations, she became a warrior for all who dare to dream.
Aimee Mullins is an accomplished athlete, actress, fashion model, and activist for sports, women, and innovative prosthetics. Through her example, she is changing our perception of people with physical disabilities, proving their ability to define their own identity and achieve success. Mullins encourages and motivates not only the disabled but anyone who is short on hope and wants to overcome feeling marginalized.
All her life, she tore down barriers and shattered stigmas to become the firebrand she is today. Mullins describes her journey as being open to adventure and following her curiosity into everything that challenged her comfort zone. Her messages uplift the human spirit by amplifying the need to fulfill individual potential and making the possibility of dreams coming true within reach.
“It’s Just Me.”
“It’s factual to say I am a bilateral-below-the-knee amputee. I think it’s a subjective opinion as to whether or not I am disabled because of that,” she says.
The Allentown, Pennsylvania native, was born without shinbones requiring amputation of both her legs below the knee, performed on her first birthday. Told that she would remain in a wheelchair for the rest of her life, Mullins proved otherwise and walked using prosthetic legs by age two. Through the years, she viewed her challenges as opportunities, looking beyond her disability and dispelling all labels associated with it. Growing up, she pushed her physical and mental limits, participating in sports, including softball, soccer, skiing, biking, and swimming, as well as acting.
Mullins says, “I haven’t had an easy life [Like all of us, I’ve experienced difficulties in my life], but at some point, you have to take responsibility for yourself and shape who it is that you want to be. I have no [little] time for [those who moan and don’t take action to change themselves] moaners. I like to chase my dreams and surround myself with other people who are chasing their dreams too.”
She graduated from school with honors and was selected as one of three in the United States to receive a full scholarship from the Department of Defense. She attended the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., double majoring in history and diplomacy. On the dean’s list, she won placement on the Foreign Affairs internship program to work at the Pentagon as an intelligence analyst, the only woman among 250 men. Age 17 at the time, Mullins was the youngest person to hold a top-secret security clearance.
During her time at Georgetown, she became a member of their nationally ranked track and field program. Coached under Frank Gagliano, one of the most respected track coaches in the country; she competed in able-bodied events in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division I track and field. Mullins became a star athlete and the first double-amputee sprinter in history to compete in the NCAA track and field.
She landed a spot on the 1996 Paralympics U.S. Olympic Team and went to Atlanta, where she competed in the 100m, 200m, and long jump and set three world records. She was the first to wear woven carbon-fiber prostheses modeled after the hind legs of a cheetah, which has since become the world standard for prosthetics in sports.
Life magazine featured a spread of her in the starting blocks at Atlanta, and the first issue of Sports Illustrated for Women dedicated ten pages highlighting her athletic accomplishments. The publicity launched her to international stardom and as an in-demand speaker. In 1998, she retired from track and field competitions.
From 2007 through 2009, Mullins had the honor of serving as president of the Women’s Sports Foundation. Sports Illustrated named her one of the Coolest Girls in Sports, and the Women’s Museum in Dallas, Texas, included her as one of the Greatest Women of the 20th Century.
The U.S. Olympic Committee appointed Mullins as one of two Chefs de Mission for Team USA at the 2012 Summer Olympics and the 2012 Summer Paralympics held in London. The same year, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appointed Mullins to the State Department’s Council to Empower Women and Girls Through Sports.
By invitation of legendary British fashion designer Alexander McQueen, Mullins made her debut as a runway model in 1999. She opened his London show wearing prosthetic legs made of beautifully hand-carved solid ash fashioned to look like 6-inch heeled boots. She describes her debut as a pivotal moment, the idea of creating wearable sculpture and having people admire her prosthetics.
“It was beautiful how people responded to them. Prosthetics usually represent loss, but people were in awe. It was very empowering for me,” she says. Since then, she has been at the forefront of global prosthetic innovation by famously being the go-to test subject and putting all the new technology through her high level of activity. collected a wide range of prosthetics. Her height can change from 5’8” to 6’1” depending on the pair of legs she wants to wear. She finds fashion the perfect arena to “explore larger societal conversations around inclusivity.”
She captivated the fashion world and appeared in magazines such as W, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Elle, Glamour, Rolling Stone, Esquire, People, and covers of Dazed and Confused and ID. Kenneth Cole signed her up for the “25 years of non-uniform thinking” campaign, featuring her on billboards across America in 2009.
She became the face of L’Oréal Paris and then became their global brand ambassador in 2011. People magazine named her as one their 50 Most Beautiful People in the World. “True beauty is when someone radiates that they like themselves,” she says. “I’ve said this before, but I believe more than ever that confidence is sexier than any body part.”
Her film career was launched in 2002, starring as six different characters, including a cheetah woman in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster3. The film won critical acclaim as an “astonishing work of creativity.” She continued to collaborate with Barney, starring in his film adaptation of Norman Mailer’s novel Ancient Evenings.
She has a long list of films to her credit, such as Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center, Quid Pro Quo, Marvelous, Appropriate Behavior, Unsane, and Drunk Parents. Mullins has acted in many roles for television films and series, including Poirot: Five Little Pigs, Crossbones, Power, Stranger Things, Limitless, and Devs. As a producer, she has several feature films in development.
Effecting Positive Change
As an influential speaker, Mullins expresses her insights on topics concerning the body, identity, sport, innovation, and design. Her speeches encourage everyone to embrace what others see as their shortcoming and turning it into an opportunity to do great things. Through the perspective of Mullins’ experience, audiences see their personal and career challenges in a new light and reinvent themselves to respond more effectively and meaningfully.
“It’s society that disables an individual by not investing in enough creativity to allow for someone to show us the quality that makes them rare and valuable and capable,” she says. “I have found great power in taking my ‘difference’ out for a spin in a very public way. And usually, the worst, most personally embarrassing thing you imagine in your mind is often not anywhere near as bad in real life.”
Mullins is often invited to speak at global conferences including TED conferences. Her TED talks have been translated into 42 languages and viewed millions of times. She was one of the speakers that inspired Chris Anderson to buy the TED conference from Richard Saul Wurman, who created the conference. In 2014, she was named a TED All-Star. Watch her TED Talk on how adversity opens the door for human potential…
Revel with a Cause
Over the last two decades, Mullins has served on numerous boards and has spent much of her time working with non-profit organizations, including Just One Break, founded by Eleanor Roosevelt and the Women’s Sports Foundation, founded by Billie Jean King, where she has served as a trustee for the last 17 years and was also president from 2007 to 2009. She also served as vice president for J.O.B. and is [was] a founding member of the leadership board to the world’s largest and diverse athletic development center, the SPIRE Institute. [Since 2008, Mullins has also been a regular guest professor for MIT Media Lab, the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and The New School in New York City.]
Mullins likeness is on display at prestigious institutions around the world, including the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the NCAA Hall of Fame, the Tate Modern, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Track and Field Hall of Fame. Her contribution to sport has been honored at the Women’s Museum in Dallas, Texas, among the Greatest American Women of the 20th Century. In 2017, Mullins became one of the youngest inductees to the National Women’s Hall of Fame.
As a role model, her approach to overcoming challenges with confidence and grace sets an example for all of us to recognize abilities and potential within us. Looking beyond limitations, the possibilities of the human spirit are limitless. She says, “If we want to discover the full potential in our humanity, we need to celebrate those heartbreaking strengths and those glorious disabilities we all have. It is our humanity and all the potential within it that makes us beautiful.”
Keep up with Aimee Mullins on Twitter.