You know the story. There was an accident, maybe something in the genes, maybe a drunken driver crossing the divide. An arm was lost or the bones didn't form or the eyesight faded away. The upshot: Something vital is missing. It's an adversity most of us cannot imagine, so we call it a tragedy. But now the victim has "overcome" it, now he is wearing USA across his chest and wheeling himself fast down a basketball court or drawing back a bowstring to launch a golden arrow. The moment provides an inspiring finale--It's a triumph of the human spirit, Bob--but the central fact remains; the story always bends itself around what's gone. The arm, the leg, the eyesight. � Cue the soft music, zoom in on the stony face with the thousand-yard stare. When he was five years old, the narrator intones, Marlon Shirley lost his foot.... � Here he comes, cutting around the curve. The mid-morning light catches the metallic blur of his left leg as it swings down and pounds the rubbery track. Here he comes, the fastest man on one foot, a two-time Paralympic gold medalist, the only leg amputee to have broken 11 seconds in the 100-meter dash. On this March day the other athletes working out at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., have no disability worse than flat feet, yet they say that Shirley's explosion out of the blocks, his graceful transition into the sprinter's lean, is something to envy. But who's kidding whom? Technique isn't what makes him remarkable.
No, it's the foot he lost in a lawn-mower accident, and though he takes pains to make sure no one ever sees the scars, Shirley isn't exactly shy. He plops onto a chair trackside, gasping, and pulls his stockinged stump out of its racing prosthesis with all the ceremony--and the audible pop--of a waiter uncorking a cheap bottle of wine. It's hard, at such a moment, for a first-time viewer to take in all that Shirley treats so casually: the socket custom-made in a lab in Oklahoma City, the band of lightweight carbon fiber bowed like a cheetah's hind leg, the sawed-off front half of an athletic shoe. He sits for a while in the sun, stump thrown over that $15,000 biomechanical marvel, until it's time to run again. The socket hisses as he slides the stump back in. The effect is a mass of contradiction--weakness and strength, the human and the high-tech, Captain Ahab meets Blade Runner--but Shirley has grown used to stares.
The other athletes, though, don't look twice. Shirley likes that better. He is the only Paralympian training full time at the center these days, but nobody treats him as if he's different or tries to help him too much. He jaws it up this morning with hurdler Micah Harris about a woman they met, and only if you pay close attention do you notice that Shirley's rhythm is off; he doesn't quite nail the macho banter of jocks at rest.
Now he's standing at the line with his hands on his hips, watching U.S. discus champ Jarred Rome drag a weight sled. Shirley tries again. "You know anybody from Utah State?" he asks. He mentions a name, an event the guy ran, but Rome shows no sign of recognition. "I think he became a coach," Shirley says. He pauses a beat before blurting, "He's a Vegas pimp now!"
He spits out a short, hard laugh. Rome looks puzzled and the conversation dies, but to anyone who knows Shirley's past, the words hang out there, curdling. He puts his head down and runs. It's impossible not to focus on the foot as he churns past, even though he has made it clear that his isn't that kind of story. Yes, he lost something vital once. But the lawn mower was not what crippled him, was not what threw up obstacles he may never overcome. That was something else, and it made the instant his foot slid into the blade seem like a blessing.
"One of the best things that happened to me," he says.
From the start, he was groping in the dark. The boy lay on his bed, and the lights in the orphanage would go out, and this vicious hum would begin in his head, growing louder and louder until he would scream to drown it out. The adults would come and restrain him. He fought a bit, but he didn't cry. Marlon Shirley knows that about himself, if little else: He almost never cried. He was five years old when he was sent to the orphanage. He doesn't know if, in the years before that, he ever saw his mother servicing strange men. He remembers her being gone a lot. He remembers her being passed out. But she was his mother. He doesn't remember not wanting to be with her. Then one day he wasn't.
He didn't learn why until he was 22. His mom, Lindy Lebolo, was like him in one sense: She needed to run fast. She'd been moving since she was 12, really, one of those Catholic girls bucking off Daddy's strict ways--in and out of schools, reformatories, detention centers. She wasn't that bright, but she was blonde and tall and loose, attracting bad boys the way sugar draws ants. Her parents lost her; her hometown, Richmond, couldn't hold her; at 18 she was gone. Her dad, Herman Joseph Lebolo, a pilot for American Airlines, was old-school Italian and racist too. So at 19 Lindy hit the rebel-girl jackpot. According to her sister, Peggy, their mom found Lindy in a big empty house in Tampa, pregnant, barefoot and with only one dress to wear, too far along to have an abortion and too scared to leave. Her boyfriend, a black pimp, kept her close and made her turn tricks. Lindy wasn't the first.
After Marlon was born--April 21, 1978--Lindy took off for California, Minnesota, Hawaii, latching on to one screwup guy after another. The pimp's other girls would call the Lebolos in Richmond, trying to find out where Lindy was. "She wanted to get away from him and give Marlon a life," says Peggy, "but this guy was like an octopus." The way the family heard it, he caught up with Lindy in Las Vegas. She was in a phone booth. He stepped inside and broke both her hands.
Lindy had a small inheritance, but the money couldn't keep her off the street or off heroin. She set herself and Marlon up at the Blue Angel Motel, in the Vegas tenderloin, off Fremont Street. By the time he was four, Marlon says, he came and went as he pleased, holed up with a pack of street kids in a storage room at the Angel, slept under the freeway sometimes, cadged leftovers from a manager at Carl's Jr. "One night she was passed out on our bed," Marlon says, "and I couldn't wake her, so I cut the back pocket off her pants so I could get some money for food. I cut the pocket off with a pair of scissors." It's all fuzzy, though, his memory full of what he calls "my black holes." No matter: It was no way for a boy to live, so, Peggy says, her father told the police where to find his daughter and grandson. Marlon was five when he got picked up, wearing only a bathing suit, walking the street.