Wednesday, November 01, 2006
PEARL RIVER — The first time Brian O'Sullivan raced in his specially constructed prosthetic running leg, he took four minutes off his fastest 4-mile time. It was a jump so significant, it cemented in his mind a goal that once might have seemed improbable.
"I came back and told my wife I'm going to run the New York City Marathon," O'Sullivan said.
For her part, Adrienne O'Sullivan had no doubt. She has been watching her husband defy expectations for years, including what she sees as an inexplicable rejection from the New York City Police Department.
"What kept him out of the police department is every preconceived notion that he can't do it," Adrienne said, standing in the living room of their Pearl River home with their 15-month-old son, Kevin, last week.
It will be hard to imagine what O'Sullivan can't do as he crosses the finish line in Central Park on Sunday. The 30-year-old is in the final week of training, and completed a recent 21-mile training run in 3 hours and 27 minutes — an impressive time for anyone.
"The next day I had some shin splints and foot pain," O'Sullivan said. "These are minor injuries that every runner goes through."
O'Sullivan was born with a short thigh muscle, a condition known as proximal focal femur deficiency. The difference in length between his two legs was so great that he wouldn't have walked normally, so he underwent surgeries to remove the shortened limb and was fitted for an artificial leg.
The carbon graphite running leg he now wears, with its spring-loaded curve, bears little resemblance to the prosthetics of his childhood.
"When I was a kid, I was walking around with a wooden leg," he said.
Erik Schaffer is the president of A Step Ahead Prosthetics & Orthotics, the Long Island company that crafted O'Sullivan's leg. Each is individually made by hand, and attaches to the body through suction. O'Sullivan's situation is somewhat unusual in that he has been amputated above the knee and the artificial limb extends up to his hip.
"The materials have really changed," Schaffer said. "The legs are lighter, stronger, more responsive. They require so much less energy for the athlete to move them."
Dick Traum, the first above-the-knee amputee to run the New York City Marathon, now runs the Achilles Track Club. There will be 400 disabled people participating in New York this year with the club, either running or using hand-crank wheelchairs. Traum said the record for an above-the-knee runner is 4:54, set by Brian Froggatt in 1985.
It's a record O'Sullivan is on a pace to beat.
"That is really tremendous," Traum said. "There are probably no more than a dozen above-the-knee amputees who've even tried to do it, because it's very difficult."
O'Sullivan, who wrestled and played high school baseball at Salesian, has always been an athlete. His mother, Dianne, put together a loving tribute to her son that details his swimming at age 2, skiing as a 9-year-old and competing in track and field events while growing up on City Island.
Running a marathon is different in the sheer amount of stress it puts on the body. But O'Sullivan wants to prove something — not just to himself, but to anyone who believes he or she is limited.
"He will also teach the world that a person should not be judged by the way he looks, the same way a book should never be judged by its cover," Dianne O'Sullivan said.
In 1999, after passing the NYPD's written test, O'Sullivan underwent the medical exam that is a precursor to the agility tests. Despite hearing from the doctor that he didn't see a reason not to pass him, O'Sullivan's application was turned down.
With a father and brother in the NYPD, O'Sullivan didn't want any special accommodation, just the chance to take the physical tests required of all candidates. For months he didn't get a reason why, and finally he received an official letter saying it was a medical reason: simply "ortho."
"It's terribly vague," O'Sullivan's attorney, Brian O'Dwyer, said. "To take a kid's future away with one word."
O'Dwyer expects O'Sullivan's discrimination case in state Supreme Court to go to trial in the spring. In the long years that he has tried to break through the blue wall, O'Sullivan has moved on, but stayed in law enforcement. As an investigator for the New York State Crime Victims Board, O'Sullivan interviewed family members of those who died on 9/11. He now has a successful career with another law-enforcement agency, and a family that includes Kevin and 10-year-old Ian.
O'Sullivan's life is different than it was when he first applied to follow in his father's footsteps. He has a degree from the College of New Rochelle, a house and a career track. His own son, Kevin, toddles over to him and pats O'Sullivan's prosthetic leg, something that happens so often it seems part of the bond between father and son.
Maybe it's the pull of family tradition, but part of him wants that opportunity to pass the NYPD's physical test. He still wants to be a cop.
"Stop the nonsense and give me a chance," O'Sullivan said.
In the meantime, as he starts off across the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge this Sunday, O'Sullivan hopes to prove that he is limited only by imagination.
By JANE MCMANUS
The Journal News (Original publication: October 30, 2006