Marlon Shirley

Section: Marlon Shirley

For Paralympic 100-meter champion Marlon Shirley, growing up was a long, strange nightmare. Losing a foot, he says, was the least of it

You know the story. There was an accident, maybe something in the genes, maybe a drunken driver crossing the divide. An arm was lost or the bones didn’t form or the eyesight faded away. The upshot: Something vital is missing. It’s an adversity most of us cannot imagine, so we call it a tragedy. But now the victim has “overcome” it, now he is wearing USA across his chest and wheeling himself fast down a basketball court or drawing back a bowstring to launch a golden arrow. The moment provides an inspiring finale–It’s a triumph of the human spirit, Bob–but the central fact remains; the story always bends itself around what’s gone.

The arm, the leg, the eyesight. Cue the soft music, zoom in on the stony face with the thousand-yard stare. When he was five years old, the narrator intones, Marlon Shirley lost his foot…. Here he comes, cutting around the curve. The mid-morning light catches the metallic blur of his left leg as it swings down and pounds the rubbery track.

Here he comes, the fastest man on one foot, a two-time Paralympic gold medalist, the only leg amputee to have broken 11 seconds in the 100-meter dash. On this March day the other athletes working out at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., have no disability worse than flat feet, yet they say that Shirley’s explosion out of the blocks, his graceful transition into the sprinter’s lean, is something to envy. But who’s kidding whom? Technique isn’t what makes him remarkable.

No, it’s the foot he lost in a lawn-mower accident, and though he takes pains to make sure no one ever sees the scars, Shirley isn’t exactly shy. He plops onto a chair trackside, gasping, and pulls his stockinged stump out of its racing prosthesis with all the ceremony–and the audible pop–of a waiter uncorking a cheap bottle of wine. It’s hard, at such a moment, for a first-time viewer to take in all that Shirley treats so casually: the socket custom-made in a lab in Oklahoma City, the band of lightweight carbon fiber bowed like a cheetah’s hind leg, the sawed-off front half of an athletic shoe. He sits for a while in the sun, stump thrown over that $15,000 biomechanical marvel, until it’s time to run again. The socket hisses as he slides the stump back in. The effect is a mass of contradiction–weakness and strength, the human and the high-tech, Captain Ahab meets Blade Runner–but Shirley has grown used to stares.

The other athletes, though, don’t look twice. Shirley likes that better. He is the only Paralympian training full time at the center these days, but nobody treats him as if he’s different or tries to help him too much. He jaws it up this morning with hurdler Micah Harris about a woman they met, and only if you pay close attention do you notice that Shirley’s rhythm is off; he doesn’t quite nail the macho banter of jocks at rest.

Now he’s standing at the line with his hands on his hips, watching U.S. discus champ Jarred Rome drag a weight sled. Shirley tries again. “You know anybody from Utah State?” he asks. He mentions a name, an event the guy ran, but Rome shows no sign of recognition. “I think he became a coach,” Shirley says. He pauses a beat before blurting, “He’s a Vegas pimp now!”

He spits out a short, hard laugh. Rome looks puzzled and the conversation dies, but to anyone who knows Shirley’s past, the words hang out there, curdling. He puts his head down and runs. It’s impossible not to focus on the foot as he churns past, even though he has made it clear that his isn’t that kind of story. Yes, he lost something vital once. But the lawn mower was not what crippled him, was not what threw up obstacles he may never overcome. That was something else, and it made the instant his foot slid into the blade seem like a blessing.

“One of the best things that happened to me,” he says.

From the start, he was groping in the dark. The boy lay on his bed, and the lights in the orphanage would go out, and this vicious hum would begin in his head, growing louder and louder until he would scream to drown it out. The adults would come and restrain him. He fought a bit, but he didn’t cry. Marlon Shirley knows that about himself, if little else: He almost never cried. He was five years old when he was sent to the orphanage. He doesn’t know if, in the years before that, he ever saw his mother servicing strange men. He remembers her being gone a lot. He remembers her being passed out. But she was his mother. He doesn’t remember not wanting to be with her. Then one day he wasn’t.

He didn’t learn why until he was 22. His mom, Lindy Lebolo, was like him in one sense: She needed to run fast. She’d been moving since she was 12, really, one of those Catholic girls bucking off Daddy’s strict ways–in and out of schools, reformatories, detention centers. She wasn’t that bright, but she was blonde and tall and loose, attracting bad boys the way sugar draws ants. Her parents lost her; her hometown, Richmond, couldn’t hold her; at 18 she was gone. Her dad, Herman Joseph Lebolo, a pilot for American Airlines, was old-school Italian and racist too. So at 19 Lindy hit the rebel-girl jackpot. According to her sister, Peggy, their mom found Lindy in a big empty house in Tampa, pregnant, barefoot and with only one dress to wear, too far along to have an abortion and too scared to leave. Her boyfriend, a black pimp, kept her close and made her turn tricks. Lindy wasn’t the first.

After Marlon was born–April 21, 1978–Lindy took off for California, Minnesota, Hawaii, latching on to one screwup guy after another. The pimp’s other girls would call the Lebolos in Richmond, trying to find out where Lindy was. “She wanted to get away from him and give Marlon a life,” says Peggy, “but this guy was like an octopus.” The way the family heard it, he caught up with Lindy in Las Vegas. She was in a phone booth. He stepped inside and broke both her hands.

Lindy had a small inheritance, but the money couldn’t keep her off the street or off heroin. She set herself and Marlon up at the Blue Angel Motel, in the Vegas tenderloin, off Fremont Street. By the time he was four, Marlon says, he came and went as he pleased, holed up with a pack of street kids in a storage room at the Angel, slept under the freeway sometimes, cadged leftovers from a manager at Carl’s Jr. “One night she was passed out on our bed,” Marlon says, “and I couldn’t wake her, so I cut the back pocket off her pants so I could get some money for food. I cut the pocket off with a pair of scissors.” It’s all fuzzy, though, his memory full of what he calls “my black holes.” No matter: It was no way for a boy to live, so, Peggy says, her father told the police where to find his daughter and grandson. Marlon was five when he got picked up, wearing only a bathing suit, walking the street.

The social services people who picked him up bought him a Happy Meal. Marlon remembers the toy inside; he remembers, too, being told by his grandmother years later that his grandfather had refused to let him come live with the family in Richmond because he was half black. “My father just had a bad problem with that,” Peggy says. So Marlon began the pinball life of an institutional orphan, first at Child Haven in Vegas, then at the Children’s Home in Boulder City, Nev. Within months of his arrival there in 1984, he and another boy went chasing the caretaker as he rode his rotary mower; Marlon slipped, and his foot got pulped.

“It was disgusting,” he says. “They stitched most of it up, but that night nobody was there to tell me I didn’t really have a foot, and I jumped out of the bed and reruptured it. That’s when they amputated it.”

His mother visited him once in the hospital. She didn’t talk, just set down a Snoopy doll as he slept. Marlon awoke as she left. His final sight of his mother was of her back going out the door. Not long after, he was taken to get his prosthesis. “My mom must’ve died,” he said to a caseworker at the Children’s Home. “Because, why hasn’t she come to see me?”

He bounced among foster homes. When he was seven, Marlon got his first good shot at adoption with a military couple. They dubbed him Michael and gave him the family name, but Marlon couldn’t settle down, couldn’t stay out of trouble. The father picked him up by his legs once and banged his face against a headboard. After getting caught sneaking into his Halloween candy, Marlon was ordered to eat it all; when he vomited, the parents gave him a spoon and told him to eat that too. After 18 months eight-year-old Marlon came home from school one day to find his bags packed and his bed standing against a wall. Shipped back to the Children’s Home, he didn’t complain. It wasn’t his way.

“In our business everyone’s a victim,” says John Sprouse, then the social work supervisor at the Children’s Home. “You hope that down the road the kids will go from victim to survivor. What distinguished Marlon? Not once did I see him use his foot to get something, to get pity. He just got on with life.”

After all, Marlon figured he was alone. He didn’t know there was someone else in the dark, searching too. In the late ‘80s Marlene Shirley, a Mormon living in the tiny farming community of Thatcher, Utah, with her husband, Kerry, and three children, wanted a fourth. Difficulties in her previous pregnancies didn’t deter her: Marlene saw a TV news segment about orphans and took home a box full of files and pictures from Child and Family Services. Marlon’s photo struck her instantly. At first it made little sense to adopt him–nine years old, needing thousands of dollars of prosthetic work–and even less when she learned about his brutal past, his mixed-race background. How would that go over in white-bread Utah? Her parents expressed reservations, files were not sent on time, red tape built up. Marlene bulled ahead. As the Shirleys’ application progressed, Lindy broke four years of silence and asked to meet with Marlon. Sprouse told her to call back in a week; she never did. “Marlon was supposed to be part of our family,” Marlene says.

But there’s a reason it gets difficult to place orphans as they age: Each year the baggage is heavier, harder to handle. “We tell every adoptive family of an older child: When that kid comes into your home, there will be a crisis,” Sprouse says. “Your home will be turned upside down.” Marlon arrived at the Shirleys’ the day after Christmas 1987, and the crises began. He had no idea how to be part of a family; he got along well enough with his new siblings–Keri Beth, Tim and Mary–but things kept disappearing, odd items like peanut butter and small tools. Marlon got caught stealing money from a teacher’s purse. Marlene escorted him to juvenile court more than once. Kerry’s long shifts at the fire department didn’t help, but Marlon had been Marlene’s idea. He lashed out at the only mother at hand.

Marlene prayed, but nothing changed. In her journal she admitted, I sometimes dream of having back the simple days before Marlon came. He had always been fast, and he tried playing tailback and running track at Bear River High despite his walking prosthesis. He dropped both to take a job changing tires and repairing brakes at an auto mechanic’s, playing softball and basketball in the church league. When he was a junior, Marlene heard hints from Marlon about suicide–Marlon insists she was overreacting–and the Shirleys drove him to a Salt Lake City treatment center for a month of observation. That drive was the only time in his life he remembers crying.

Midway through his senior year, close to flunking out and humiliated, Marlon let Marlene have it. For two hours he detailed what a terrible mother she’d been. His girlfriend, his buddies, everyone in school knew he’d been put in a place with padded walls. “I’m going to leave home,” he said, “and never come back.” She admitted mistakes. He didn’t care. The tirade broke her. Marlene went to her room and whispered, Heavenly Father, I’m not sure why you wanted me to adopt him, but I’ve done all I know how to do. I’m at the end of my rope. I’m basically turning him back over to you because I don’t know what to do.

The end of high school loomed. Life’s great crossroads, and a young man was about to hit it with no diploma, half a leg and a headful of ghosts. “And I was heartbroken inside,” Marlene says.

When Marlon Shirley walks–away from the track, wearing his street prosthesis and pants and a jaunty cap–you would never know one of his legs ends in a knob about two inches above where the ankle should be. He races to take the point in any group, and the slight dip in his stride is more a matter of style, a hint of that cocky ambulation used to warn off trouble in high school halls. It’s something he works on; the comfort of limping is a constant temptation, but succumbing to it isn’t an option. No, he’s about action: golf, four-wheeling, in-line skating; he flies planes for fun. A bartender throws her arm over his shoulder or he meets a woman at a party? He’s not telling her about the foot. “I want it to be a shock to them,” he says.

“Put it like this,” he goes on. “My leg is my greatest strength and my greatest weakness. I make a point of dressing well. I’m told no one takes more showers than I do. I got rid of my earrings, necklaces, anything that’s a distraction, because I want people to think that I can be, you know, sexy. I want people to see strength.”

On the track, of course, Shirley is defined by his disability, and he has been able to make a good living precisely because of our fascination with the weakness. But it doesn’t take much for the able-bodied world to seem ghoulish, and his antennae are always up. One woman he dated seemed fine when he told her about the foot; then she went home and Googled Marlon and called him in tears: “Oh, that’s so special.” He never went out with her again.

But let’s face it, we want to see that stump and that racing foot because they are what they are–visually startling, a living nightmare. For able-bodied spectators, the Paralympics offer a chance to rubberneck a highway wreck but also feel good about it. It’s revealing that Shirley was able, by 2003, to sign with companies like Visa, McDonald’s and Home Depot, but he couldn’t secure a shoe sponsorship until last month, when he signed a four-year deal with Reebok worth close to $500,000. That reverses the norm; able-bodied athletes don’t make the crossover to nonsports endorsements until their personas and résumés fill out. But Shirley had unprecedented assets: He had a disability that made visual impact, but he wasn’t so disabled that he could make a product memorable for the wrong reason. Most important, his backstory suggested the absolutely necessary happy ending. The underlying message of disabled sports is always triumph, because who would be nervy enough to market “the agony of defeat” on top of anguish beyond measure? So everyone is a winner. Everyone is just happy to take part.

Never mind that such rhetoric appalls Shirley and his peers, who train–and live–to win. “They compete just as hard as we do,” says former decathlete Dan O’Brien, the Olympic gold medalist in 1996. “Marlon reminds me of myself when I was young: He wants it bad. He thinks like a champion. He’s willing to work anywhere, with anybody, to become a champion.” Want to see Paralympians get mad? Confuse their endeavor with the Special Olympics. “People are happy that I just made it down the track,” Shirley says. “They pat me on my head and say, ‘Good for you: You won the race before you even got in the blocks.’ Bulls—! Not everybody in my sport gets a medal, and they’re sure as hell not passing out gold medals before you get into the blocks.”

Yet even on his terms, Shirley’s turning point was irresistibly feel-good. In February 1997, just weeks after his fight with Marlene, he told her he was driving up to Pocatello, Idaho, to compete in the Simplot Games–the largest open high school indoor track meet west of the Mississippi. He hoped to get offered a college scholarship. It was nonsensical: Marlon’s track experience was almost nil, and he was hobbling on crutches because he’d fractured a bone in his stump while dunking a basketball. “I have to do this,” Marlon said. Marlene swallowed hard and asked if he needed money.

He entered the high jump, his discipline during his brief foray on the Bear River track team. Bryan Hoddle, who coached sprinter Tony Volpentest at the Atlanta Paralympics in '96, was sitting in the stands and saw Shirley hop over on his good leg and dive headfirst over the bar. It was ridiculous–the scissor kick and backflop are far more efficient techniques–except that Shirley cleared 6’6". Hoddle sought him out, asked if he’d heard of the Paralympics. No, Marlon said. “Well,” Hoddle said, “you just cleared the Paralympic world record.”

A month later Shirley joined Hoddle in Chula Vista for a Disabled Sports USA track meet offering prize money. When his turn came, he hopped to the bar not noticing that officials were measuring the previous jump for a world record. Too late to stop, Shirley took off, cleared two officials and their measuring tape, then the bar. By the end of the weekend he was $13,000 richer and planning to head north to train with Hoddle in Olympia, Wash. There the coach tested the 6’1", 190-pound Shirley for strength, “and his power levels were off the charts,” Hoddle says. “They were way higher than any normal high school track athlete’s.”

Now, instead of being a handicap, his lost foot gave the 19-year-old focus, confidence, a chance to be somebody. Here, for the kid in the dark, the one with every excuse to be in jail or high, was a sudden stab of light.

He needed it. Marlon had never spoken much about Las Vegas with the Shirleys, but he had hardly left Fremont Street behind. After he went to train with Hoddle, Marlene went to clean his room, pulled out the bed–and stared. There it all was: the jars of peanut butter, lost bags of Cheetos, a case of soda, missing silverware, pliers and wrenches, supplies hoarded over the years just in case. “He had learned these survival skills of a little boy,” Marlene says. “If it was under his bed he would know, At least I won’t starve to death.”

Leaving home loosened Marlon’s defenses. Memories had always flashed through his head: faces, place names, a car accident, feelings that left him physically ill. Now Marlon began to run straight at the questions: Who am I? Where do I belong? It would take him years to understand that losing his foot had been a kind of gift, but he began sensing that the Shirleys had been his salvation. A few months after he’d moved to Washington, Marlon was on the phone with Marlene, and at the end of the conversation she told him she loved him. He said goodbye and hung up. Two minutes later he called back, and for the first time he told Marlene he loved her too.

Still, she wasn’t Lindy. Where had Lindy gone? In 2000 the 22-year-old Marlon was glancing at some old legal papers when he noticed the scrawled name Minnie Lebolo and a phone number. Two months before the Paralympic Games in Sydney he finally dialed it. When his grandmother came to the phone, he said, across 2,400 miles and 17 years, “This is Marlon.” Minnie broke into sobs. “I’m sorry to tell you,” she said, “but your mother is dead.”

She told him the essentials: That his mother had been a prostitute. That his father had been her pimp. Why his grandfather would never take Marlon in. “Your mother loved you very much,” she said, “but she never left anything for you.”

The conversation left him with more questions than ever. He went to Sydney, shocked favorite Brian Frasure to win the 100 meters and broke the Paralympic record by .24 of a second with a time of 11.09, took silver in the high jump by clearing 6’24/5", became his sport’s new superstar. But what Marlon remembers most is how hollow it felt without the Shirleys there. He sent newspaper clips and a video to his grandmother, and she sent him a card with three photographs. After that he heard nothing from her. In the spring of 2002 he dialed Minnie for the second time. She told him that his grandfather was ill. He never spoke to her again.

So imagine this: You’re a 26-year-old man, and a reporter is filling you in on the details of your own life. That phone call with your grandmother? Your grandfather died later that day. Your grandmother? She died a year and a half ago. The reporter has spoken with your Aunt Peggy, and she has told him things no one ever told you: that your mother died of kidney failure while living in Bullhead City, Ariz., in September 1992. That she was buried on her 35th birthday in Richmond. That your grandfather was the one responsible for having you taken away from her. Peggy also told the reporter some other family history, reminders of how blood can travel: that your grandfather, like you, was a pilot; that your great-grandfather, like you, liked gadgets and driving his car out in the wild and, as a firefighter, lost a leg in an accident.

Peggy told plenty, but not what Marlon wanted to know most. “Did she tell you why they didn’t talk to me?” he asks, his voice rising. “Did she tell you that?”

Here’s one thing he doesn’t know and may never: whether his father is alive. Here’s one thing he doesn’t know and will someday: whether, after retiring from sports, he can handle the shards of his broken life without drawing blood. In the spring of 2001 Shirley drove into Las Vegas for the first time as a man and promptly got lost. Pulling over to get his bearings, he looked up to find himself staring at the familiar old motel sign, the one with that 20-foot blonde blue angel rotating on top. He doesn’t know whether to be bitter about his past or numb or sad. Sometimes he’s all these at once. Maybe what matters is that Shirley is aware. He knows the flamboyant mess he could make of his life. His struggle to keep things clean could almost be called heroic.

“I know there’s demons I’m fighting every day,” he says one night at a restaurant in Chula Vista. “I’ve had some of the best relationships a guy could have, given my circumstances–not the sharpest looking guy in the world, got a prosthetic leg–and, my gosh, have I had some of the best girlfriends ever. But when it comes down to it, something about me just….” He snaps a finger. "As much as I want a family, something makes it hard for me to do that. And it scares the hell out of me.

“I haven’t gone off the deep end, but there are some emotional problems there that aren’t fixed,” he says. “Track and field is a big distraction. I don’t have to sit and think about these other things. So … we’ll see.” A few minutes pass; then he says, “Remind me to show you my pictures.”

He drives back to the training center, fast as always. In his room he picks up a blocky chrome frame holding the three small photos Minnie sent. Two are unfocused, unposed shots of Marlon and Lindy taken in Hawaii, but the third is nice: He’s about three years old and sitting on her lap, naked. Both of them are smiling. “I know she wanted to be with me,” Shirley says. “She must’ve cared for me, or she wouldn’t have kept me as long as she did.”

In the picture he appears full-bodied. There’s the left foot, dangling: his proof. Before the picture arrived, Marlon had only memories of what the boy and the blue angel looked like then. “And I’m beginning to forget those times,” he says. Gently he puts down the frame, his one way back to the way he used to be.

Last Sept. 25, in Athens, Marlon Shirley won the Paralympic 100-meter gold medal for the second straight time. For his sponsors and his wallet and a U.S. Paralympics organization desperate for growth, this was a great relief. The branding of Shirley as “the world’s fastest amputee” and “the golden boy of the Paralympic Games” could continue apace for another four years. He left Athens as essentially the same hot property, no matter that he had become a far different athlete.

Indeed, Shirley had been more than the most prominent Paralympian when the Games began. What with his aim of winning five golds–in the 100 and 200 meters, the 4x100 and 4x400 relays and the long jump–and his oft-stated ambition to compete in the nationals against able-bodied athletes, he had the mainstream crossover potential that no one had considered when Paralympics began as a rehab program for injured veterans in post–World War II London. But by the end of the 100 final, Shirley’s five-gold hopes were gutted. His right hamstring had popped, his winning time of 11.08 matched his world record, and Oscar–already people had dropped his last name–had come within .08 of a second of beating him.

“I’m running world-record speed,” Shirley says, replaying video of the race on his computer, “and I can hear his legs just coming at me.” He stares at the screen. “That’s the most ridiculous velocity I’ve ever seen.”

Shirley has started working with a new coaching staff. He should hit the peak of his sprinting powers just in time for Beijing, and he’ll need to because South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius (page 58), despite being only 17 and missing both legs, hit the Athens Paralympics with all the shock and force of a blizzard in July. Pistorius crushed a 200-meter field featuring Shirley and the then world-record holder, Frasure. In the semifinals Pistorius got stuck coming out of the starting blocks and still ran down the field to win. In the final Shirley ran 22.67–a world record for a one-legged amputee–and Oscar still beat him by 11 meters, in 21.97. “From here on out,” Shirley told Frasure, “I guess I’m going to be a 100-meter specialist.” Oscar had humbled him.

Such detail would only clutter the usual triumph-of-the-human-spirit story, but then Shirley’s has never been that kind of story. Nothing about his tale is simple, not even the best parts. When asked whether Marlon’s rise had had an impact on the Lebolo family, Peggy said, “It was just a good thing that we knew a good feeling, that he was taken care of and he was doing well and he made something out of himself. That would make Lindy proud, and he should be proud of himself too. I’m sorry he had to live with those Mormon people, but it seems he has a good head on his shoulders, if he just stays away from white girls.” She didn’t ask for Marlon’s phone number.

Marlon isn’t sure he wants to call her, either. This is no inspirational video. It’s his life. And despite its horrific details, it is, like any other life, a search for love and home, two steps forward and one back, no matter whether the feet are flesh or carbon fiber. Most lives don’t end on the victory stand. Most victories take years, not seconds, and the only reward might be knowing when they happen. Shirley knew in Athens. His triumph came after he lost.

This was four days before the 100, just after he had watched Oscar fly so easily by him to win the 200 final. Marlon had no time for self-pity, no chance to feel empty. Up in the stands Marlene, Kerry and Mary Shirley sat clutching a big U.S. flag; they couldn’t have afforded the trip, so he had paid for them. As their plane had descended into Athens, Marlene had marveled at how far they’d come. Is this real? she thought. What if I had given up?

Now it was nearing 6:30 p.m. on Sept. 21, and he was walking to the edge of the track. He motioned up to his family. “I’d got my ass beat hard, but it didn’t matter,” Marlon recalls. “The only thing that mattered was what I hate people to say about me: that I had made it there. But it wasn’t that I had made it to the Games or that I had made it down the track. It was that I made it and my parents were able to be there and share it with me. They were able to see what they had helped blossom. It wasn’t just a race. It showed why we were put here.”

Mary took him the flag, and Marlon waved to Marlene to come down. He wanted her there. He had been chasing Lindy all his life; part of him always will. But Marlon was a cripple once, and the crutch had found him. Now Marlene was coming down the steps, smiling. Marlon unfurled the flag and pulled her close and wrapped the cloth around the both of them. He held up his head and yelled, “This is my mom!”

The crowd cheered. Marlene’s heart filled. And for one moment Marlon’s life became that kind of story after all.