On a late February morning earlier this year, 32 athletes toed the starting line of the inaugural Ultraman Florida triathlon in and around Orlando and Cocoa Beach. It was small by today’s triathlon standards, but then again, this wasn’t an average triathlon. This was an Ultraman, more than double an Ironman. The 3-day triathlon involved roughly 320 miles of racing—covering the distance equivalent of Boston to Philadelphia—comprised of a 6.2-mile swim, 261.4-mile bike and 52.4-mile run.
Among the competitors was Hicksville’s Amy Palmiero- Winters, who’d twice before attempted the original Hawaii Ultraman. Lining up in Florida was about unfinished business. This time, Palmiero-Winters was successful, finishing in 28th place with a time of just over 33 hours 45 minutes. It would be a crowning achievement for any athlete, but especially so for her: She’s a below-the-knee amputee, the first of either sex to successfully complete an Ultraman.
“Knowing she’d attempted two times before to finish one, it takes a lot of courage to go a third time and put yourself out there,” said Consuela “Sway” Lively, race director of Ultraman Florida. “I admire her for having the courage to do that. A lot of people would not.”
Back in 1994, a car broadsided Palmiero-Winters while she was riding her Harley motorcycle in her hometown of Meadville, in northwestern Pennsylvania. She was barely 21 at the time and had been a walk-on track and field collegiate runner. Doctors wanted to amputate a portion of her left leg, but she refused. “I wanted to do anything and everything possible to save it,” she recalled. But 3 years and 27 surgeries later, doctors had to amputate below the knee anyway.
“Some of us, including me, are blessed with amazing gifts that we take for granted,” she explained. “I skated by on doing the average thing… until I had my accident. Suddenly you have people standing in front of you telling you life will be completely changed and you’ll never do certain things again. You can give up, or you can fight for your life and do what’s necessary to get it back.” Fight she did—and then some.
When it comes to such a radical surgery, will is a part of the equation. But she also needed the right hardware. For that, she contacted A Step Ahead Prosthetics, a world- renowned facility in Hicksville. It was an eight-hour drive from Pennsylvania so Palmiero-Winters moved to Long Island in 2007 specifically to be close to the facility and an athletic trainer who specialized in working with amputee runners. She was not satisfied with simply walking and getting some sense of normalcy back in her life. Her goal was to train and qualify for the 2008 Olympic trials. “I was at a point in my life when I knew I wanted more—from myself and my life,” she said.
When she first arrived she “didn’t have anything special… just a typical walking leg,” said A Step Ahead president Erik Schaffer. Then Schaffer got her fitted with a custom running leg. “I have never seen anything like it,” he said. “It was like putting Mario Andretti in a race car for the first time and watching him go.” Today she has a quiver of six prosthetic legs: A day-to-day walking leg, one for her CrossFit training, one for cycling, two for running (one each for trails and roads) and one with a cosmetic skin cover and four-inch heel for nights out on the town.
Blessed with natural athletic ability, prosthetics to match and a superhuman drive, Palmiero-Winters began racking up world records—more than 12 in the running and triathlon disciplines, including fastest female amputee triathlete and marathoner. She’s been a recipient of Runner’s World People’s Choice Heroes of Running award, as well as a prestigious ESPY Award. But perhaps even more impressive is that she became the first athlete with a prosthetic to compete in the elite able-bodied division of the competitive New York City Triathlon, based on her performance in other triathlons. She also earned a spot on USA Track & Field’s 2010 Team USA to represent the United States at the IAU 24-Hour Ultramarathon World Championships—the first athlete with a prosthetic ever on the able-bodied team.
She does all this as the single mother of Carson, age 10, and Madilynn, age 9. As such, training fits in when (and how) it can. For example, Madilynn might hold onto mom’s legs to create extra resistance during an early morning swim session. Palmiero-Winters is also a regular at a local CrossFit gym, not to mention area races including the Greater Long Island Running Club’s Bethpage Ocean to Sound Relay, one of her longtime favorite local events.
Ask 41-year-old Palmiero-Winters though, and she’ll tell you two of her proudest athletic accomplishments (beyond Ultraman Florida) were becoming the first female athlete with a prosthetic to finish both the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run and the brutal, invitation-only Badwater, a 135-mile ultramarathon race from the stiflingly-hot floor of Death Valley to Whitney Portal in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.
She knows that her story is inspiring to many: A single mom who recovered from a horrific accident becomes one of the best athletes in the country and perhaps the world—amputee or able- bodied. She’s a motivational speaker, often at schools and corporations across the Island. That’s also where her all-volunteer One Step Ahead Foundation comes in. “It’s great to do amazing things, but I also want to make a difference in people’s lives,” she explained.
One Step Ahead takes kids with various degrees of limb loss skiing or rock climbing at the Gunks in Hudson Valley. It’s about directly empowering children. Consider the Gunks climbing trip this upcoming summer. “Every kid isn’t going to take up rock climbing, but it was the confidence that sports brought me that allowed me to get through my accident so well,” Palmiero-Winters said. “When I moved to New York, I met kids from throughout the tristate area and they steered away from sports because of limb loss. But when they get into sports it’s amazing to see the changes in their personalities… they’re more confident, more outgoing.”
Meanwhile, she’s shifted gears professionally. A welder by trade (initially to pay her way through college), when she first started out with A Step Ahead Prosthetics she was a sponsored athlete. Then she became the director of the company’s sports program. Today, she’s the program director for the entire facility, a position that includes work supporting some of the spectators who lost limbs in the Boston Marathon bombing.
And of course, there’s always the next big challenge. For Palmiero- Winters, that next challenge is Vermont’s Spartan Death Race this summer. It’s a 3 day long event so grueling it has only a 10 percent finish rate. Now Palmiero-Winters has it squarely in her crosshairs. The smart money says: If anyone can finish it, she can.