In the picture he appears full-bodied. There's the left foot, dangling: his proof. Before the picture arrived, Marlon had only memories of what the boy and the blue angel looked like then. "And I'm beginning to forget those times," he says. Gently he puts down the frame, his one way back to the way he used to be.
Last Sept. 25, in Athens, Marlon Shirley won the Paralympic 100-meter gold medal for the second straight time. For his sponsors and his wallet and a U.S. Paralympics organization desperate for growth, this was a great relief. The branding of Shirley as "the world's fastest amputee" and "the golden boy of the Paralympic Games" could continue apace for another four years. He left Athens as essentially the same hot property, no matter that he had become a far different athlete.
Indeed, Shirley had been more than the most prominent Paralympian when the Games began. What with his aim of winning five golds--in the 100 and 200 meters, the 4�100 and 4�400 relays and the long jump--and his oft-stated ambition to compete in the nationals against able-bodied athletes, he had the mainstream crossover potential that no one had considered when Paralympics began as a rehab program for injured veterans in post--World War II London. But by the end of the 100 final, Shirley's five-gold hopes were gutted. His right hamstring had popped, his winning time of 11.08 matched his world record, and Oscar--already people had dropped his last name--had come within .08 of a second of beating him.
"I'm running world-record speed," Shirley says, replaying video of the race on his computer, "and I can hear his legs just coming at me." He stares at the screen. "That's the most ridiculous velocity I've ever seen."
Shirley has started working with a new coaching staff. He should hit the peak of his sprinting powers just in time for Beijing, and he'll need to because South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius (page 58), despite being only 17 and missing both legs, hit the Athens Paralympics with all the shock and force of a blizzard in July. Pistorius crushed a 200-meter field featuring Shirley and the then world-record holder, Frasure. In the semifinals Pistorius got stuck coming out of the starting blocks and still ran down the field to win. In the final Shirley ran 22.67--a world record for a one-legged amputee--and Oscar still beat him by 11 meters, in 21.97. "From here on out," Shirley told Frasure, "I guess I'm going to be a 100-meter specialist." Oscar had humbled him.
Such detail would only clutter the usual triumph-of-the-human-spirit story, but then Shirley's has never been that kind of story. Nothing about his tale is simple, not even the best parts. When asked whether Marlon's rise had had an impact on the Lebolo family, Peggy said, "It was just a good thing that we knew a good feeling, that he was taken care of and he was doing well and he made something out of himself. That would make Lindy proud, and he should be proud of himself too. I'm sorry he had to live with those Mormon people, but it seems he has a good head on his shoulders, if he just stays away from white girls." She didn't ask for Marlon's phone number.
Marlon isn't sure he wants to call her, either. This is no inspirational video. It's his life. And despite its horrific details, it is, like any other life, a search for love and home, two steps forward and one back, no matter whether the feet are flesh or carbon fiber. Most lives don't end on the victory stand. Most victories take years, not seconds, and the only reward might be knowing when they happen. Shirley knew in Athens. His triumph came after he lost.
This was four days before the 100, just after he had watched Oscar fly so easily by him to win the 200 final. Marlon had no time for self-pity, no chance to feel empty. Up in the stands Marlene, Kerry and Mary Shirley sat clutching a big U.S. flag; they couldn't have afforded the trip, so he had paid for them. As their plane had descended into Athens, Marlene had marveled at how far they'd come. Is this real? she thought. What if I had given up?
Now it was nearing 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 21, and he was walking to the edge of the track. He motioned up to his family. "I'd got my ass beat hard, but it didn't matter," Marlon recalls. "The only thing that mattered was what I hate people to say about me: that I had made it there. But it wasn't that I had made it to the Games or that I had made it down the track. It was that I made it and my parents were able to be there and share it with me. They were able to see what they had helped blossom. It wasn't just a race. It showed why we were put here."
Mary took him the flag, and Marlon waved to Marlene to come down. He wanted her there. He had been chasing Lindy all his life; part of him always will. But Marlon was a cripple once, and the crutch had found him. Now Marlene was coming down the steps, smiling. Marlon unfurled the flag and pulled her close and wrapped the cloth around the both of them. He held up his head and yelled, "This is my mom!"