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Drops of sweat stick to Lacey Henderson’s arms. The red Tartan track she’s standing on appears to be ablaze in the sweltering heat. She ignores the 110-degree temperature; the only number she’s concerned with is four—her goal for the long jump, which is half a meter farther than her longest official jump to date. She gazes down the lane. Keep your chest open, focus on the takeoff, breathe.
Dozens of athletes, Olympians and world record–holders among them, are spread out around the track, focusing on their own objectives. Hurdlers practice their block starts. Sprinters concentrate on short-distance speed runs. All of them are working toward one goal: the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The world’s biggest athletic stage is still 10 months away, but what might seem like an eternity to a layperson is tomorrow to an elite competitor. Hitting four meters should put Lacey in a good position to make Team USA.
Six days a week, Lacey joins the track and field athletes at the Altis athletics complex in Phoenix—where she moved from her hometown of Denver a year ago—to focus on the minutiae of movement: the distance between the arms and body, the tilt of the head, what focal point the eyes are targeting. In a sport in which a centimeter can keep you off the podium, every movement has meaning.
After two-and-a-half hours of intense practice, 26-year-old Lacey sits down. She rolls what looks like a piece of pink fabric down off her right leg, revealing the running prosthetic that reaches halfway up her thigh. She pops the prosthetic out of its pink cup and then removes a thin nylon sock before wiping off the few remaining inches of her leg. She jokes with her friends as she covers her thigh back up with a silicone sleeve and wiggles into her everyday walking leg. Lacey’s been doing this for so many years, the whole process takes less than 10 minutes. It’s a rare sight here in Phoenix: Lacey is the first disabled athlete to train full time at Altis.
The pain started as a mild ache in the back of Lacey’s right knee. It was late summer in 1998. Lacey and her older brother, Trax, had just returned to their Cherry Creek home from a track and field camp put on by their father, TJ, a national masters decathlon champion and longtime coach who competed in the 1976 Olympic Trials in pole vaulting. (In addition to having a brother named Trax, Lacey’s middle name is Fields.) TJ assured his nine-year-old daughter the discomfort was just soreness. Lacey was still complaining four months later when the Christmas tree went up. Her mom, Linda, felt tiny lumps in the area. A visit to the pediatrician mollified them with news that it was likely just a benign cyst.
From left: Lacey trains at Denver South High School; competing in the long jump at Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games in London in 2015
A couple of months later, when Lacey’s parents noticed she was limping, the Hendersons made another appointment. An MRI revealed that Lacey had synovial sarcoma, one of the rarest forms of soft-tissue cancer. In the United States, only about 400 pediatric cases of soft-tissue sarcoma are diagnosed each year. The disease is among the deadliest types of cancer: An oncologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado gave Lacey a 40 to 60 percent chance of living. “As a kid, you think you get sick and then you get better, so I figured I would get better,” Lacey says today.
Doctors laid out the possible treatment options, including an operation to get rid of the tumor and chemotherapy. Neither promised a high rate of success. There was an alternative, an aggressive path parents were rarely willing to discuss: amputation, in conjunction with chemotherapy. The Hendersons welcomed the idea. If their choice was between keeping their daughter or her keeping two legs, the decision was simple. On May 19, 1999, doctors amputated Lacey’s right leg six inches above the knee.
At home a week after the surgery, bald from chemo, Lacey hobbled around on crutches. She was sullen. I’m done being sick, she thought, so why aren’t things the way they were before? When she received her first prosthetic a month or so later, it felt awkward. Lacey was discouraged that she couldn’t easily get up and walk around. Her parents pushed her to keep the leg on for large portions of each day to get used to how it felt. “It was my dad who got me walking early without assistance,” Lacey says. “The motivating factor was to get going and get my life back.” As TJ recalls, he told his daughter: “Lace, you have to get after it just as if you have two legs because if you’re going to act like this, you’re not going to get anywhere. You’re just going to make everybody feel sorry for you. Is that what you want?”
That was all it took. Lacey slowly found a new rhythm; her goofy, gregarious personality returned. When school began, she started playing volleyball with her classmates, unaware that specific organized sports existed for athletes with disabilities. Except for a period of intense bullying in middle school (her parents switched her to a different school), Lacey rarely considered her leg at all.
At Regis Jesuit High School, Lacey tried out for the cheerleading team. Her parents supported her effort but quietly feared it would be their daughter’s first big post-amputation disappointment. Up until that moment, Lacey had been able to do everything she’d wanted. But did she have the leg strength cheerleading required? Lacey not only made the team, she also later walked on to the University of Denver’s Division I cheerleading squad, where she performed standing back handsprings on a hardwood floor multiple times a night. “There wasn’t a single accommodation I made for her,” says Julie Haines Warren, former cheerleading head coach at DU. That’s precisely how Lacey wanted it.
Nine months. That’s all that separated Lacey from the real world. She had it all planned: When she graduated the following June, she’d use her degrees in French and Spanish to get into grad school and, later, land a job at the State Department. But tonight, the weekend before her senior year started, she was focused solely on beating her dad at beer pong.
TJ had never played the drinking game, but he was sure he could trounce his daughter. When he sank the winning shot, Lacey was incredulous. “I can beat you in anything,” he chided her in singsong jest. “No you can’t,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do that I can’t do.” Though he had long ago learned not to underestimate his daughter, there was one personal accomplishment TJ thought she couldn’t achieve: pole vaulting. Lacey disagreed.
Three weeks later, with help from a family friend (who pole vaulted in college under TJ’s tutelage), Lacey cleared six feet—on her first day, wearing a regular prosthetic. The following summer, using a prosthetic specifically designed for running, she cleared eight feet, setting the world record for disabled women athletes (and also surpassing the men’s record in the process). In fact, no other female with a similar amputation has successfully pole vaulted—ever. It’s not even a sanctioned International Paralympic Committee event.
Lacey started running to help improve her takeoff, and she soon discovered she was posting times that matched or exceeded the top U.S. Paralympians. She reviewed the T42 (single- or double-leg amputation above the knee) categories and found that she could enter the 100-meter and 200-meter runs and long jump contest. Lacey’s father coached her in his spare time. Her first major meet was the 2011 national championships in Miramar, Florida; she took second in the 100-meter. Though her times qualified her for London 2012, Team USA only took two ambulatory female Paralympians. Lacey was left behind.
She spent the next year training with her dad and treated running almost like a hobby at which she happened to excel. In that time, she set the American records for the T42 long jump (an event she added in 2013) and 200-meter and she won the Colorado Sports Hall of Fame’s Disabled Athlete Recognition award. She’s currently ranked seventh in the world in the T42 100-meter and sixth in the T42 long jump. A Paralympic podium is within reach, but Lacey knows getting there means training even harder.
Lacey moved to Phoenix a year ago to fully commit to her goal. She has to improve her speed, her running start, and her long jump takeoff if she wants to hang with the top-ranked European competitors. She also started meeting with a sports psychologist to improve her mental strength, and she’s trying—like many other twentysomethings—to improve her sleep habits and diet.
The changes paid off in September when Lacey was named to the team that will compete at this month’s International Paralympic Committee World Championships in Qatar. The event is an all-important stepping-stone to the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Paralympics, held two weeks after the Olympic Games. “I’m gaining a lot of confidence in where and how I’m developing as an athlete,” Lacey says. “Making the team solidifies my faith that I’m in the right place with training and that I’m with the right group of people.”
The sky spits cold raindrops onto the track at Denver South High School, where Lacey is putting in a couple of hours of training during a rare visit home this past summer. She leans down, opens her arms wide and shakes them out, claps her hands twice, and takes a deep, long breath. She rocks back and then propels forward, her prosthetic stepping out to the side in a slight arc. Halfway to the long jump pit, both legs get in rhythm and her speed increases. Eight steps, nine, 10—Lacey launches upward, legs out, arms high. She lands and falls into the wet sand. Her 70-year-old father smiles: “You’re starting to look like a long jumper now instead of a bird that fell out of a nest!”
Lacey dusts herself off and walks to the edge of the track as her dad continues to analyze her run. The added height of her racing leg makes it appear as though she’s walking with one foot on tiptoe. She pulls a hand pump that looks like a fancy pair of pliers from her backpack and attaches its cord to her custom-made prosthetic, which is covered with a Colorado flag design. She squeezes the handle three or four times to tighten the vacuum seal—a maneuver she repeats every couple of runs to make sure her prosthetic stays secure.
For the next hour, TJ and Lacey repeat the same process, with Lacey stretching farther and farther, testing different approaches. TJ stands in the pit. Whenever Lacey complains, TJ fires back.
“Let me be a weenie,” she says. “It’s just a practice.”
“You can’t be dainty; you’re not a butterfly. If you want to be dainty, take up ballet.”
Tired, wet, and hungry, Lacey finally sits down on the track and swaps her running leg for her everyday prosthetic. She’s been in remission for 16 years now and seldom thinks about the cancer diagnosis. Still, it’s clear that the disease which almost killed Lacey has also been a source of motivation in her quest to become an elite athlete and competitor—part of an exceptional community of people striving to accomplish the near impossible. She gathers her things and, together with her dad, walks out through the gate.
—Inset photography courtesy of Ottobock; Colvin Hazzard