Leads Running Clinics
to Help Others Discover the Joy of Running on Prosthetics
Heinrich Popow, an athlete with the above-knee amputation of his left leg, specializes in the 100 m sprint. He is a Paralympic Gold medalist from the London Paralympics and holder of the Men’s 100 m T42 (single, above-knee amputation). He is also a strong candidate for the Gold medal at Rio.
Popow is also passionately involved in leading running clinics for people with above-knee amputations due to illness or injury. He works hand-in-hand with a German prosthetics manufacturer and, for the past few years, has been flying around the world to teach at the clinics. He helps people learn how to walk and run using sports prosthetics so that they can enjoy an active daily life.
His engaging style, which makes full use of his own experiences as a wearer of prosthetics for more than 20 years and a top athlete, is highly popular. Comments include, “He helped me feel the joy of running again!” The running clinics have been held so far in about 10 different countries including the United States, China and Brazil. A running clinic was held in Japan, too, for the first time in 2015.
He said, “No matter what the country, language or culture, everyone assumes that they can’t run on a prosthetic leg. My role is to tell such people, ‘Yes, you can!’ I am really very moved every time that I see the happy expressions on people’s faces when they are able to run. I, myself, have been helped by many people since my amputation. The clinic is also a way for me to show my gratitude and pay it forward to others.”
Popow started wearing a prosthetic leg at age 9. He had developed bone cancer in his left leg and had it amputated in exchange for his life when he was diagnosed as having a survival rate of close to zero without the surgery. Once he recovered, he went immediately back to the football pitch to play wearing a prosthetic leg. His parents told him that it was impossible, but he did not listen to them because he loved playing football. He kept falling in the beginning and was often resigned to playing goalie. However, he gradually became able to run.
After he learned about the Paralympics at age 17, he dove into the world of para-athletics in earnest. He ran in his first tournament wearing an everyday-use prosthetic but exhibited his superb talent by achieving a time that was equal to that ranked No. 10 in the world at the time.
Having heard that it would enable him to run faster, he tried a sports prosthetic in his next tournament. He hoped to better his record, but his time was awful. “I was in shock,” he said. “But it was inevitable. I didn’t yet have either the technique or muscular strength required to deal with the repulsive force created by the sports prosthetic.”
Based on such experiences, Popow tells those at his clinics that prosthetics do not make it possible for anyone to run at a fast speed. Rather, it is about the effort made by the wearer and how the prosthetics are used.
There are more than a few people who realize how difficult it can be and quit after a short while. However, Popow encourages people to first aim for walking well wearing the sports prosthetic. After developing muscular strength, they should then proceed to jog. He tells them, “By making an effort with each step that you take, you will, with certainty, become able to run.” Popow says, “I really love the joyful expression that comes across the faces of people the moment they are able to run, after they have continued to practice without giving up. I find that the smiles on the faces of children are particularly fantastic.”
Consecutive Participation in Paralympic Games,
and a Desire to Fully Communicate
His Experiences as an Athlete
Popow has had the rare experience of overcoming a debilitating disease and climbing to the top of the world stage as an amputee sprinter. He said, “It would be a shame to die without telling people what I’ve learned through my previous experiences. That’s a mission of mine. After I retire from competition, I want to devote all of my energies to the running clinic.” That is his ultimate goal as an athlete.
He has also learned much from the three Paralympic Games that he has competed in so far. Of the Athens Paralympics, his first Paralympic Games, he said the impression that he was left with was of “freedom and liberation.” Amid the despair he felt after his amputation, he had dreamt of playing sports in a huge stadium. That dream sustained him even during the difficult physical rehabilitation period when he was unable to run as he wished. The dream took him all the way to Athens.
4His impression of the Beijing Paralympics four year later was completely different, and he remembers only “pressure.” His sense of professionalism as an athlete had gotten stronger, and good results were expected. He worked hard at the training he undertook twice a day. As he strove and struggled to become a professional, it was also a period during which his feelings of joy for athletics weakened. The result in Beijing was the Silver medal for the 100 m sprint. He had to settle for being second best.
The London Paralympic Games left him with the impression of “toughness.” He had thoroughly become a professional athlete, and he avowed that he would capture the Gold. He said, “It was a Paralympics that I competed in after placing a lot of pressure, almost too much, on myself. However, this pressure differed from the one I felt in Beijing.”
When he felt the tension of the other athletes as they gathered 30 minutes before the event, he said he snapped out of it. “We are here representing our countries. I should feel pride. I should enjoy the race while feeling blessed that I can run.” He shifted emotional gears as he went to the starting line and went on to be the first across the finish line. He had learned an important lesson as an athlete that pressuring oneself is not enough. Enjoying the competition brings about even better results.
His goal for the imminent Rio Paralympics is, of course, to defend his Gold medal. However, it would not be just any Gold medal. In Athens, he felt the pure joy of running. In London, he achieved good results amid a good tension felt as a professional. He said, “I want to achieve both in Rio. It would be perfection if I can.”
Someday, when he tells his children about his “perfect race,” his eyes will surely reflect utmost joy and happiness.
text by Kyoko Hoshino
photo by X-1