Lacey Henderson: Soaring to New Heights
Former DU cheerleader Lacey Henderson will be watching the Paralympics this week with her eyes set on Rio 2016
T.J. Henderson knew that the easiest way to convince his daughter Lacey to do something was by telling her she couldn't. So, when T.J. looked across the table at Lacey during a Labor Day party in 2010 and bet her that she couldn't learn how to pole vault, he knew exactly what he was doing.
"My dad had seen how much effort and work I put into (cheerleading), but he said I wouldn't be able to pole vault because I didn't have enough speed and couldn't drive my knee into it since I don't have one," said Lacey, who was a member of the DU cheerleading team from 2007-11. "I said, 'Please. I was a gymnast. I can do anything I want. Who needs speed when you have strength?'"
Lacey has spent most of her life using her physical and emotional strength to prove people wrong.
In February of 1999, when she was just nine years old, Lacey was diagnosed with a soft tissue cancer called synovial sarcoma. After four months of chemotherapy treatments, doctors told Lacey and her family that the only hope of survival was to amputate her right leg above the knee. Lacey quickly agreed and had the surgery on May 19.
When Lacey accepted her dad's bet in 2010, she had no idea just how far it would take her.
She showed up on the track, wearing one of her old prosthetic legs, which was meant for the rigors of everyday life but was not designed for athletics. "There are a couple of things that are frowned upon and you shouldn't be doing in it," Lacey said with a wry smile. "Pole vaulting isn't mentioned, but it's probably one of those things."
Once she cleared the bar a few times - and winning the bet - Lacey began looking into competitions. She quickly discovered that there weren't any. In fact, she could not find a single person with an above-knee amputation in the world who competed in the pole vault.
Lacey wasn't going to let that stop her, of course. She signed up and competed against able-bodied people in several open master's meets.
But Lacey's research into amputee sports opened her eyes to something else: the Paralympics. While she knew she couldn't compete in pole vaulting, Lacey saw an alternative in sprinting.
"I'm pretty confident, so when I looked at the other girls' times in my category, I thought I could run that fast," Lacey said.
Forget that she was starting from nothing, admitting her aerobic base at the time was "terrible." Lacey saw it as yet another challenge and she wasn't going to back down. She acquired a running leg from BioDesign, a prosthetic company in Denver, and began training as much as twice per day, six days per week.
Just eight months after the bet with T.J., Lacey found her place at the starting line for her first 100-meter race. The date was May 19, 2011 - 12 years to the day since doctors amputated her leg.
When she crossed the finish line, she discovered that she had qualified for the U.S. Paralympic Trials. She was elated, excited and confident, but when she raced at Nationals later that year she was humbled by Katy Sullivan, the American record holder in the event, although Lacey still ran a London Paralympic qualifying time in that race, as well.
"I got a little nervous when I saw her," said Lacey, who is currently a contract employee with Ottobock Healthcare, a German company that designs and builds prosthetics. "I was in front of her for a good 50 meters, but then she cleaned up the whole race at the end. I was so new and like a cheerleader, waving at people when they called my name. Everyone else was super serious. I tensed up when I saw her pass me, so that definitely added some seconds that could have helped me."
Lacey's learning curve was significant, but she continued to train with her eyes set on making the U.S. Paralympic team, transforming significant moments into motivation and momentum.
"I had another Paralympic race this past May 19," said Lacey, who explained that the races on the anniversary of her amputation have helped transform a challenging time into a day of celebration for her. "It was the Colorado State Championships. It's hard to get a ton of Paralympic level athletes together, so they group a lot of the categories together. I was running against a girl with two legs, and we were right up beside each other. I was pushing, and I knew she was pushing, but I was thinking, 'I better beat you.' Right at the end, I did the chest finish and I'd finally beat someone with two legs. It was a cool feeling for sure. I've beaten a couple of other CP athletes, but that was like a real person."
Despite being relatively new to the sport, Lacey headed to Trials with an outside shot of making this year's U.S. Paralympic team. She knew the selection process was going to work against her and, to make matters worse, she came down with an illness just before the meet and was using a new racing leg for the first time.
Lacey won her category in the 200 meters and finished just behind Sullivan in the 100 meters. But, unfortunately for Lacey, when the Paralympics begin in London on Aug. 29, she will be watching instead of competing.
But for a woman who calls the amputation of her leg, "such a blessing in my life," Lacey was not about to wallow in disappointment.
"When I got done with my race (at Trials), the coaches approached me to discuss World Championships 2013 in Lyon, France. Which is super exciting!" she wrote in an email a few days later. "So it's definitely not over for me, I'm back to training and getting ready for next year's Nationals, where I can hopefully also be (competing in an exhibition of) the pole vault. Many more exciting things to come!"
Don't bet against it.
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