Profound in Prosthetics
From losing a leg to becoming a legend—Brian Frasure races to the top.
Few can fathom racing against the highest echelon of athletes in the world. And even fewer can fathom doing so as a below-the-knee amputee. When Brian Frasure lost his leg in a train accident at just 19 years old, the young track MVP found himself on an inconceivable path thinking he would never run again. Four Paralympic Games and eight medals later, Brian has deftly earned the ranks of world-class athlete. From learning to walk again to eventually destroying world records, this is his story.
How did you lose your leg?
My accident was the result of a foolish competition in college. The idea was to run alongside trains passing through campus, pull yourself onto the train, ride for a bit and then exit the same way. Most trains would slow down coming through campus, so there wasn’t a lot of perceived danger (hindsight obviously being it was very dangerous). The night of the accident was different in that this train was moving very fast. None of my other train-hopping brethren would attempt it, but I was feeling confident. Keeping up with the train wasn’t a problem, but when I grabbed onto the ladder of the freight cart, I slipped on the rocks and was pulled off my feet. I tumbled back and both feet were struck by the train.
What was going through your mind when you realized your foot would have to be amputated?
I was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery. The attending physician explained that the toes on my right foot had been amputated by the train, and that my left foot was so severely damaged that it would have to be amputated as well. I couldn’t register the word “amputate” in my mind. The finality buried in that word was devastating. As a 19-year-old athlete, life, as I knew it, was over.
How did life change after the accident?
I had always been very athletic and excelled in many sports, gravitating toward track in particular. But everything changed after the amputation. I’ve heard losing a limb is like losing a loved one; you go through similar stages of grieving. What depressed me the most early on was thinking that I would never be an athlete again. The lack of knowledge around the technology and assumptions you make about how the rest of your life is going to be made the first year the hardest.
Do you feel that losing your leg ultimately made you become a more serious runner/athlete?
I most definitely think so. Once I realized I would be able to run again on a high level, my desire to take advantage of it was intense.
At what point did you realize you were becoming a world-class athlete?
My prosthetist convinced me to go to an amputee running clinic in Texas led by Dennis Oehler, a former world record holder in all the sprints for below-knee amputees. During the clinic he watched me run and come out of starting blocks. He pulled me aside and said, “If you want it, you’ll be the next world record holder in all the sprints.” That was the encouragement I needed to eventually become the fastest amputee in the world.
What was the process like for making the U.S. Paralympics Team?
After the accident, I learned to segment my life into individual goals. First I wanted to walk, then I wanted to work out again, then I wanted to run. Once I began training, I wanted to make the Paralympic team, and succeeded for my first in 1996. The following year I quickly became the No. 1 ranked 100-meter sprinter in the world.
You’ve made a career as a prosthetist for other amputees and athletes. Since retiring from running, has your work in the prosthetics industry helped you stay in the game without actually competing?
Absolutely, I’m now the clinical director for a medical technology company called BionX. We currently have the only commercially available bionic ankle/foot prosthesis for lower limb amputees. I continue to do running and fitness clinics for amputees looking to become active again. And having worked on the manufacturing side of the field for the past 12 years has allowed me to work closely with R&D and help improve the technology that we can offer amputees. It’s extremely rewarding—I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
Legend has it you fitted your greatest competitor, Oscar Pistorius, with the very pair of prosthetic legs that he later used to outrun you. How did that feel?
Bittersweet. As a competitor, I hated it. As a prosthetist and an advocate of the sport, it was great. It was my involvement with Paralympic Sport that inspired me to want to make a career in prosthetics and help individuals with amputation regain their lives.
How have prosthetics, especially those made for athletes, changed and improved since you were first fitted for one?
Actually, not a lot; the blades introduced in 1996 are not too dissimilar to those being used today. I happened to come into the sport just before they introduced the first running specific blade. What has changed is determining the proper alignment, shape and thickness of the blades, and then customizing those for the individual athlete. The next frontier will be using motor-driven running prosthetics—once that happens, amputees will likely be the fastest humans on the planet.
To that end, what’s next in terms of technology and enhancements for prosthetics?
There is a lot of interest in the field right now in the area of neurologically controlled prosthetics. By using nerve innovation that would capture the signals from the brain, the user would be able to control a bionic prosthetic device. This is still some time away from being perfected, but once it is, the term ‘cyborg’ gets a lot more interesting. The Six Million Dollar Man isn’t just science fiction anymore.