Nearly seven years ago, in the late night of Sept. 9, 1992, Brian Frasure was in his dorm room at North Carolina State trying to make sense of calculus when he heard the whistle of an approaching freight train. He pulled on his sneakers and ran to the nearby tracks. Frasure, then a sophomore, planned to try out for the Wolfpack's track team as a walk-on 400-meter hurdler the following spring. He also liked to hop trains. A half-dozen fellow students who shared his enthusiasm were at the tracks when he arrived. "I could tell they were all a little hesitant about hopping this one because it was going a little bit faster than normal," Frasure says.
While sprinting beside the train, he grabbed onto a handle just as his feet slipped on rocks. He was yanked upside down under the train. His eyes were inches from the wheels as they ran over both his feet. An instant late, he pulled himself away from the train. Fortunately he didn't look at his feet during the 20 minutes he had to wait for paramedics to arrive. Frasure has photographs of the skin of his left foot dangling from the toes, exposing dozens of thin bones crumpled and tortured like threshed reeds of hay. So violent was the pain as he lay by the tracks that he beat his own head with a rock in an attempt to knock himself out.
The next morning he looked down the length of his hospital bed, and the sheet was flat where his left foot should have been. His left leg had been amputated several inches below the knee. About half of each toe on his right foot was gone, too. His first words, to his mother, were, "Mom, I'd rather be dead than be like this."
He has since changed his mind. Today the 26-year-old Frasure is one of the fastest men in the world. With an artificial leg he ran 100 meters in the slightly wind-aided time of 11.02 seconds, his personal best, to win an exhibition race at the U.S. national championships in New Orleans in 1998. His time was faster than the times of three able-bodied decathletes competing at those nationals. Frasure is aiming to become the first amputee to run 100 meters in less than 11 seconds.
As he runs, there is no clue above the waist that anything terrible happened to him: His head and shoulders move as smoothly as any runner's. His lower left leg, however, looks as if it has been drawn in with a thick black crayon. His shin-and-foot prosthetic, called the Sprint-Flex III, is shaped like a question mark turned upside down. It has been designed exclusively for running, with no heel.
"It is like a dog's leg or a cheetah's leg," says Hilary Pouchak, a research-and-development product engineer for Flex-Foot, a prosthetics manufacturer based in Aliso Viejo, Calif. The leg—the successor to the original Flex-Foot designed by Van Phillips, the company founder, who in 1976 as a 21-year-old lost his left foot in a waterskiing accident—is made of carbon fibers, a lightweight material as strong as steel. What allows Frasure to run is the unique design of the foot portion. Frasure steps down on his artificial toe, and a split-second later the toe springs him forward.
"It's not so much a foot as a mini-diving board," says Scott Sabolich, a prosthetic designer who works closely with Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics of Oklahoma City, the company that makes the socket for Frasure's prosthetic leg. The socket is made of soft plastic and is contoured to ease the pain of the pounding on the bottom of the leg. The price of the package, available to anyone, is about $12,000.
This equipment, however, did not instantly turn Frasure into a champion sprinter. He has made a science of marrying himself to his new man-made parts. Every day he attaches a stimulator unit to the calf muscle of his shortened left leg, to electrically flex the truncated muscle and keep it strong in the hope of gaining another .1 of a second on the track. "When we started," says his coach, Trevor Graham, "Brian said, 'My body is not an able body.' He looked at his problems as if he were basically handicapped from doing a lot of things. It took a year to prove to him that he had to do things the way able-bodied people do them. To be Number 1, you have to do all those things. You can't limit yourself."
Frasure trains most mornings in Raleigh with Graham and his stable of athletes, including world-champion sprinter Marion Jones. Frasure changes from his walking leg into his sprinting leg as casually as the others change from street shoes to racing spikes. In the afternoons he works as a prosthetic resident at Hanger, having earned a bachelor's degree in engineering at N.C. State and a medical degree in the certification program in prostheses at Northwestern. Knowing firsthand the trauma that his patients endure as they are being fitted with an artificial limb for the first time, Frasure makes a habit of moving nimbly around their hospital beds without a word as he performs his initial examination; then he introduces himself by lifting his own pants leg, which is a sight more powerful than a library of self-help books.
Graham says Frasure is the most inspiring athlete he has ever known. "Brian has to work, I'd say, 50 percent harder than other athletes," the coach says. " Marion looks at him every day and says, 'How do you run down the track with that thing on?' "