When Marlon Shirley walks--away from the track, wearing his street prosthesis and pants and a jaunty cap--you would never know one of his legs ends in a knob about two inches above where the ankle should be. He races to take the point in any group, and the slight dip in his stride is more a matter of style, a hint of that cocky ambulation used to warn off trouble in high school halls. It's something he works on; the comfort of limping is a constant temptation, but succumbing to it isn't an option. No, he's about action: golf, four-wheeling, in-line skating; he flies planes for fun. A bartender throws her arm over his shoulder or he meets a woman at a party? He's not telling her about the foot. "I want it to be a shock to them," he says.
"Put it like this," he goes on. "My leg is my greatest strength and my greatest weakness. I make a point of dressing well. I'm told no one takes more showers than I do. I got rid of my earrings, necklaces, anything that's a distraction, because I want people to think that I can be, you know, sexy. I want people to see strength."
On the track, of course, Shirley is defined by his disability, and he has been able to make a good living precisely because of our fascination with the weakness. But it doesn't take much for the able-bodied world to seem ghoulish, and his antennae are always up. One woman he dated seemed fine when he told her about the foot; then she went home and Googled Marlon and called him in tears: "Oh, that's so special." He never went out with her again.
But let's face it, we want to see that stump and that racing foot because they are what they are--visually startling, a living nightmare. For able-bodied spectators, the Paralympics offer a chance to rubberneck a highway wreck but also feel good about it. It's revealing that Shirley was able, by 2003, to sign with companies like Visa, McDonald's and Home Depot, but he couldn't secure a shoe sponsorship until last month, when he signed a four-year deal with Reebok worth close to $500,000. That reverses the norm; able-bodied athletes don't make the crossover to nonsports endorsements until their personas and r�sum�s fill out. But Shirley had unprecedented assets: He had a disability that made visual impact, but he wasn't so disabled that he could make a product memorable for the wrong reason. Most important, his backstory suggested the absolutely necessary happy ending. The underlying message of disabled sports is always triumph, because who would be nervy enough to market "the agony of defeat" on top of anguish beyond measure? So everyone is a winner. Everyone is just happy to take part.
Never mind that such rhetoric appalls Shirley and his peers, who train--and live--to win. "They compete just as hard as we do," says former decathlete Dan O'Brien, the Olympic gold medalist in 1996. "Marlon reminds me of myself when I was young: He wants it bad. He thinks like a champion. He's willing to work anywhere, with anybody, to become a champion." Want to see Paralympians get mad? Confuse their endeavor with the Special Olympics. "People are happy that I just made it down the track," Shirley says. "They pat me on my head and say, 'Good for you: You won the race before you even got in the blocks.' Bulls---! Not everybody in my sport gets a medal, and they're sure as hell not passing out gold medals before you get into the blocks."
Yet even on his terms, Shirley's turning point was irresistibly feel-good. In February 1997, just weeks after his fight with Marlene, he told her he was driving up to Pocatello, Idaho, to compete in the Simplot Games--the largest open high school indoor track meet west of the Mississippi. He hoped to get offered a college scholarship. It was nonsensical: Marlon's track experience was almost nil, and he was hobbling on crutches because he'd fractured a bone in his stump while dunking a basketball. "I have to do this," Marlon said. Marlene swallowed hard and asked if he needed money.
He entered the high jump, his discipline during his brief foray on the Bear River track team. Bryan Hoddle, who coached sprinter Tony Volpentest at the Atlanta Paralympics in '96, was sitting in the stands and saw Shirley hop over on his good leg and dive headfirst over the bar. It was ridiculous--the scissor kick and backflop are far more efficient techniques--except that Shirley cleared 6'6". Hoddle sought him out, asked if he'd heard of the Paralympics. No, Marlon said. "Well," Hoddle said, "you just cleared the Paralympic world record."
A month later Shirley joined Hoddle in Chula Vista for a Disabled Sports USA track meet offering prize money. When his turn came, he hopped to the bar not noticing that officials were measuring the previous jump for a world record. Too late to stop, Shirley took off, cleared two officials and their measuring tape, then the bar. By the end of the weekend he was $13,000 richer and planning to head north to train with Hoddle in Olympia, Wash. There the coach tested the 6'1", 190-pound Shirley for strength, "and his power levels were off the charts," Hoddle says. "They were way higher than any normal high school track athlete's."
Now, instead of being a handicap, his lost foot gave the 19-year-old focus, confidence, a chance to be somebody. Here, for the kid in the dark, the one with every excuse to be in jail or high, was a sudden stab of light.
He needed it. Marlon had never spoken much about Las Vegas with the Shirleys, but he had hardly left Fremont Street behind. After he went to train with Hoddle, Marlene went to clean his room, pulled out the bed--and stared. There it all was: the jars of peanut butter, lost bags of Cheetos, a case of soda, missing silverware, pliers and wrenches, supplies hoarded over the years just in case. "He had learned these survival skills of a little boy," Marlene says. "If it was under his bed he would know, At least I won't starve to death."