As a college freshman, Liz Willis showed considerable promise as a runner for NAIA Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. But preoccupations and distractions proved too much for Willis, and she abandoned running for other pursuits once her initial cross country season ended. Seven years later, Willis is a wife, mother, and a national running record holder. Not bad for someone who, in the interim between college cross country and motherhood, also endured complications with her pregnancy that resulted in her left leg being amputated just below the knee.
On June 7th, Willis competed in a 5K on the track at the University of Central Oklahoma in the UCO Endeavor Games, (see: http://www.uco.edu/wellness/sr/endeavor) running on a Flexrun prosthesis, popularly known as a “blade,” that enabled her to clock a time of 27:48.00. Willis competed in the T44 5K, for single, below-the-knee amputees. Knowing she had performed well, Willis inquired immediately after the race as to how her time would stack up in comparison to similar Paralympic athletes. Much to her surprise and great joy, Willis learned that she had just run the fastest time in U.S. history for 5000 meters by a T44 female amputee. And, in fact, if the UCO Endeavor Games had been fully sanctioned by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), her time would have been a world record.
Just over two-and-a-half years ago, Willis encountered complications during her pregnancy with her son, Calum, that proved life-threatening to them both. Ultimately, Willis and her husband, Buddy, who reside in Augusta, Kansas, were blessed with a healthy child, but to save Willis, doctors had to amputate her lower left leg. After being fitted for a prosthesis, as she learned to steady herself, Willis remembered her days as a runner, and the gift that she had so often ignored and taken for granted. Not one to wallow in self-pity, Willis began to wonder if she could not only learn to walk as able as she had before the amputation, but if she might be able to run once again. With help from her sponsor, Scott Sabolich, of Scott Sabolich Prosthetics, Willis was soon fitted with a Flexrun blade.
In seemingly no time at all, Willis was able to jog slowly, gradually building up her mileage until she could run two to three miles comfortably. Her positive results and attitude led Sabolich to encourage Willis to consider competing in the UCO Endeavor Games in Edmond, a suggestion that proved to be well advised.
With a world record seemingly within her grasp, it might seem logical that Willis would turn her focus upon competing in the 5000 meters in IPC sanctioned meets. However, Willis has now turned her attention toward competing in the 100 meters and 200 meters at the IPC Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Under the guidance of her new coach, Roderick Green, Willis has learned that she will not only compete against single, below-the-knee amputees in IPC competition. International Paralympic rules permit athletes who have endured an amputation of any limb, including arm amputations, to compete in the same field, significantly decreasing Willis’ chances of qualifying for the International Games. Green believes that Willis’ best chance for qualifying may actually be realized in the shorter sprint events.
In the meantime, Willis fully intends to compete in an upcoming IPC 5000 meter race to claim the world record that should, by right, already be hers.
But even without the accolades and awards that come from American records and international competition, Willis knows that she will never take running for granted again. In addition to the rewards that come from being a wife and mother, running has given her a sense of completeness. “Running saved my life,” Willis said. “Well, maybe not literally. But it has made it so much better to deal with things that would have been very hard to deal with otherwise.”