"Life will always serve sh*t." Paralympian Lacey Henderson Shares Her Story.
Lacey J. Henderson
By: Genevieve Gyulavary
Lacey Henderson was just 9 years old when she had her right leg amputated above the knee to save her life from a rare cancer. While Lacey could have used this as an excuse to limit herself when it came to physical goals, that was simply never her mindset. Lacey was raised to believe that if you want something, truly deeply desire something, you will find a way to make it happen.
That is how Lacey Henderson, Paralympian was born.
Lacey grew up in an athletic family. Playing a sport wasn’t a suggestion, it was non-negotiable. From an early age her right leg had always given her issues. She complained about her pain a lot, but her family chalked it up to soreness from sports or growing pains. Finally, when it didn’t get any better her parents brought her to a doctor. An MRI revealed a tumor the size of a light bulb.
“They did a biopsy and found out it was a soft tissue cancer called synovial sarcoma. People with disabilities are never really around it until they join the club. They had mentioned amputation but I was just like ‘hell no’. That was the furthest thing from my mind.
Experimental chemo led to organ failure, and with no other feasible solutions to save Lacey’s life, she agreed to move forward with the above the knee amputation in May, 1999.
“If you’re going to get cancer and lose your leg, being a 9-year-old prepubescent child is probably the best time to do it. I understood what was happening and the seriousness of it all but I didn’t have any of the emotional baggage that I have now.”
When you’re a kid and sick it’s really simple- you get better. Anything outside of that is not within the scope of a 9-year-old brain; any other outcome only happens to other people.
The amputation was a way out of the hospital for Lacey. The key out of cancer land. It was in her words, “the best part of having cancer”, because it gave her health back.
“When you face adversity you always want to get back to how you were, which is weird because you’re really never the same. When you’re a kid you aren’t as self-defeating as you are as an adult, it’s so much more simple.”
Lacey jokes that now as a 30 year old woman, a common cold can put her out for a week- you would never suspect that she survived cancer.
“Now, I’m such a baby when it comes to any kind of discomfort. As a kid you don’t have the same emotional variables or baggage like you do when you're in your 20s or 30s.”
While Lacey was in the hospital, her fourth grade teacher homeschooled her so she would’t get behind. Assimilating back into her normal school routine was almost seamless after the amputation, until it was time for gym class. Her peers and teachers looked at her like she couldn’t do the same things anymore.
“I could always climb, but when it came to running, kids would get weird about it. I have always had an overinflated sense of self-confidence whether I’m actually qualified or not to do something I’m like- I can do that no problem!”
Dealing with the loss of her leg outside of the judgements of her peers, Lacey describes herself as a ‘zen monk’.
“I wish I was kid me now because I am way more anxious and neurotic. People would tease me about my leg, but I knew losing it made me healthy again. I never really had that much animosity about it then. So if people made comments, my feelings weren’t hurt because it was never something I was ashamed of.”
Fast forward to high school and the premiere of the movie Bring it On, which sparked something in Lacey that had been dormant for several years after the loss of her leg. She began tumbling classes, cheered on her varsity high school and made all-state. Finally, she felt competitive again and was asked to cheer at the University of Denver her freshman year.
“The thing I loved about cheer is that you got to be strong, good at gymnastics, and pretty. It was so much fun for me.”
As Lacey was nearing the end of her undergraduate career, a slew of serendipitous events presented themselves. Lacey knew she wanted to give back to the community, her prosthesis had given her a life; one full of opportunities that others in her position may never have had. She knew her story was unique and valuable.
“I decided to volunteer at 'amp camp' that summer and that was the first time I saw a running leg on one of my little campers. I literally had no idea that just anyone could get a running leg. I thought you needed to be an elite athlete.”
It is notable to mention here that Lacey’s dad was a two time national champion in the decathlon.
He was a track icon in the Colorado community.
“I’m 21 at this point and my dad is playing beer pong with me and he’s kicking my ass. We start trash talking each other and he’s like ‘Lacey, you would never be strong enough to pole vault. You’re not strong enough and you’re not fast enough.”
Only Lacey’s family would have a pole vault pit and poles ready, which spoke to her dad’s roots.
The next day she went and tried without a running leg. Lacey jumped 6 feet.
Lacey loved the feeling, and she knew her time with cheer was coming to an end.
“I just wanted to do it because it was fun and it felt good. It was 2011, I was graduating and the country was still pretty deep into the recession, nobody was getting a job.”
Throughout this time Lacey had begun working for a prosthetic manufacturer. They were creating new products under contract with the Department of Defense. They wanted someone who was non-military to try these products and speak to the kinesthetics. They needed a person who had body awareness and spoke Spanish. Lacey checked all of those boxes.
“All these things began lining up for me. Suddenly I had the resources to get a running leg and become part of the disability world. Thats when I began parasport and it opened up this huge community for me.”
“At my third meet I qualified for London. I went into London thinking ‘I’m hot shit, ain’t no-one can tell me nothin.’ I’m lining up next to women at my amputation level and on the other side of me was a double amputee. I’m pulling away, but as the race goes on I get swallowed. It was the full ass kicking I got at that race that told me, ‘oh these people are not just here to play.’”
Lacey never had any desire to do anything in the Paralympic community because she thought it was so strange. She had a misunderstanding of disability which, sometimes gets confused with developmental disability.
“I really didn’t even think I had something wrong with me. I just had one leg.”
Prior to her first three races Lacey was ‘kind-of training’. She was 22-years-old and still wanted to go to happy hour. The downfall of being a talented athlete is that you start to solely rely on your talent. She very quickly came to realize at the pro level- talent might get you there but, it will never keep you there.
“Thats when I was like I need to stop bartending, happy hour is done now. 2013 is when I began long jumping and really buckled down with my training. I made my first world championship team and I broke a 17 year long American record.”
Lacey began with pole vaulting, but since there is no pole vault event in the Paralympics she needed to do something that could actually pay the bills.
“Long jump. I thought it was yucky and dirty and I didn’t want to do it.”
Lacey started jumping in 2013 and surprised herself and everyone else with her talent. She laughs that she is just dirty all the time now.
Social media has opened up the Paralympic space to a much broader age group. Many people acquire disabilities later in life, but there are also a lot of congenital amputees. These kids, in the words of Lacey, are built like ‘brick shit houses’. They are super strong and very talented. It’s not a transition for them into the world of parasport, it’s just another sport.
“As a young kid I never knew about it because I had this misconception that it was only for ‘special people’ and I was kind of like ‘Mmm no special here.’”
As Lacey began to fully navigate the world of adulthood, her relationship with her prosthesis began to change and post traumatic stress disorder made a sudden entrance into her life.
“I thought I was fine and totally adjusted. You think you have it all figured out between the age of 16-25. I began to get really anxious. I think that everyone experiences trauma -it’s just at different levels.”
Life is full of traumatic events. A break-up can be traumatic. PTSD has been branded to the military, police, or some type of combat violence resulting in trauma.
“My phycologist asked me if I thought my experience with cancer had been traumatic. I pushed down the cancer for so many years because at the time I just needed to survive. There was no handbook for the way it effected my family and I and it started manifesting itself in my performance and the way I interacted with people.”
Under the care of her psychologist, Lacey experimented with EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which is a psychotherapy treatment designed to alleviate the distress associated with traumatic memories.
“Going through it sucked pretty badly. When it was done and I had time to process, it was a lot more simple to look at things objectively and not have to assign emotions to them.”
Even after addressing many of her deeply stuffed emotions throughout her therapy sessions, Lacey continues to go for ‘tune ups’.
“People look at healing as one finite place to arrive, when in reality it ebbs and flows. Life will always serve shit. I am a cancer survivor and a para athlete but there is also a plethora of other things going on in my life and as you grow up things begin to compound themselves.”
Through EMDR Lacey has learned better coping skills for competition.
Most of Lacey’s more recent training sessions have been spent solo. Read: she spends a lot time alone in the gym and her phone has become her friend during some of her long sessions along with her social media followers.
“A lot of people have no idea just how much time you need to dedicate to the gym. Jumpers, throwers, sprinters are all doing heavy olympic lifting.”
Lacey places a high value on building strength in order to compete against taller women who naturally have more force against the ground.
“Everyone loves track and field during the Olympics and then we just disappear- it’s because we are in the gym lifting weights.”
As a pro-athlete, your workout clothes become your uniform.
“I had heavy front squats for 3-4 weeks in a row and my manager introduced me to The Chestee. It was something fun and cute and I was tired of always looking like a ninja wearing all black. I am always trying to find cute things to wear because that’s what I’m in the majority of the day.”
Having a prosthesis means that Lacey needs to modify most of her lifts. As an above the knee amputee her balance distribution is thrown off and she is prone to listing to the left, because that is her ‘strong’ side. If she has a heavy squat programmed they are modified to quarter squats or she keeps a band on her prosthetic side in order to maintain tension during the lift.
“With Oly lifts I don’t have any ankle mobility because my ankle is fixed at 90 degrees. I will set the lift up at my knees so I can push through my hips and then use different foot positions for balance.”
For Lacey, as with most parasport athletes, working on positions has been a lot of trial and error. Rarely would you find the same fix for two different athletes even at the same amputation level.
“I was lucky in 2014 I trained at the Australian Institute of Paralympic Sport with coaches who helped me figure out what to do with my feet. It was a solid year of trial and error before we came up with positions that worked.”
Lacey’s most memorable experience thus far in her amazing journey has been Rio, an Olympics that almost never happened.
“I was 27 and dating this horrible guy, my parents had just gone though a divorce but it was scandalous because my dad already had a new girlfriend. I was just like -I need to focus.”
Unfortunately, with personal drama taking a front seat in Lacey’s life, it was difficult to maintain focus on the Olympic trials.
“I went to trials and I didn’t jump great. I didn’t make the team. I was not in a good place after that- I had moved my entire life down to Pheonix to train, my family was in shambles, and I had a dumpster fire of a relationship. So I decided to have an ‘Eat. Pray. Love’ summer. “
Lacey decided to jump ship and head to Argentina to stay with family. She hadn’t been there more than two days, or as she puts it, ‘the first hair wash of the trip’ when she got a life changing phone call.
“I remember getting out of the shower and seeing all of these missed calls from the Director of Athletics and my first thought was ‘what did I say, do I need a lawyer?’ I called her right back and she asked if I had heard the news. I was like nope, there is no news where I am. Then she asked if I had heard about Russia- they weren’t coming to the Olympics that year because of the doping scandal. They had a spot, there might be more but the first one was being held for me.”
Lacey, surprised, asked if she could call her back. The directors said that was ‘okay’ with hesitation and urged her to hurry. Lacey began sending out a flutter of texts to her training partners, sports psychologist, and coach asking what she should do.
She hadn’t been training since trials, but a unanimous ‘f*ck training’ was the consensus from all parties she had texted. When the Director of Athletics calls- you get your shit together and go to the Olympics.
“Most people train leading up to the Olympics, instead I took a two month hiatus heavy on the wine. It was not my shining star performance. Yet, more than anyone else there I was able to be fully present. I was so happy to even be there that it took a lot of the pressure off. I also think having that time with my family was really beneficial because they all rallied behind me. I looked over and saw them all in stands at Rio. It felt like magic.”
Lacey was lucky to go into Rio with a mindset of gratitude, which in the end took more mental strength than physical training.
Lacey admits that she avoided the disability community for a long time.
“There is this image you see on social media of an amazing athlete with no legs helping someone up. It doesn’t do any justice to the disability community because it makes them so separate, there is no space for us at the same level as everyone else. My bills be comin’ and they do not give a sh*t about my leg.”
Lacey hopes at the very least to do her part in making disability a normal thing, to even the playing field, and inspire others to be a part of this amazing community.
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