Marlon Shirley saw his fair share of struggles as a young boy, living with his mother who was gone a lot and moved frequently to keep trouble from catching up with her. Shirley was five years old when, living with other children on the streets of Las Vegas, he was picked up by social services. He was placed at an orphanage where he began the "pinball life of an institutional orphan.”
His life in the children’s home would literally leave a lasting mark. In 1984, the caretaker of the orphanage was letting the kids jump on and off a riding lawnmower while he mowed the lawn around the facility. Shirley slipped, and the lawnmower ran over his leg. Shirley later woke up with an amputation above the ankle, his foot gone forever.
Shirley bounced around to various foster homes over the years until he was adopted by a family from Utah in 1987. He took the Shirleys’ last name and feels blessed to have been found by them.
Shirley struggled through high school, trying to overcome the habits and tendencies of his past—of simply trying to survive. Midway through his senior year in 1997, close to flunking out and humiliated, Shirley decided he had had enough. Determined to do something with his life, he signed up to participate in the Simplot Games in Idaho, the largest open high school indoor track meet west of the Mississippi. He hoped to be offered a college scholarship, but the odds were against him. Shirley had little track experience. Moreover, he was hobbling on crutches, because he had fractured a bone in his leg while dunking a basketball a few weeks earlier.
Something in Shirley drove him to put all his effort into the track meet. He entered the high jump competition, where he hopped over on his good leg and dove headfirst over the bar. He cleared 6’6”, a height which would set a Paralympic world record. A month later, Shirley competed in the Disabled Sports USA track meet in California, where he left $13,000 richer. Later in high school he had more surgeries and a second, higher amputation to the same leg following a football injury.
Despite having an upbringing that might have broken many people, Shirley has not only found a way to prevail, but has found the drive to become a world-class athlete. He owns two world records, in the 100-meter dash and the long jump. In 2000, at the Paralympic Games in Sydney he won the 100m dash and took silver in the high jump. He was the first and only lower leg amputee to break the 11-second mark in the 100m dash, setting a time of 10.91 seconds in 2007.
At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Marlon Shirley won the Paralympic 100-meter gold medal for the second time. He has been called “the world’s fastest amputee.”
Shirley said, "It's something I train for every single day. It's almost just like an automatic movement of my body springing down the track. We all have our own type of disabilities—mine just happens to be physical, and you can see it very easily when I run. But you can't tell it by the time I get done racing."
Shirley's prosthetic foot is made of carbon fiber titanium, materials developed in the aerospace industry. He has tested the limits of what a prosthetic foot can do—and the limits of the human spirit. Most importantly, Shirley never allowed his physical difference to limit his accomplishments.
"I remember running around on crutches just like I'd run around if I had another foot," he said. "I definitely never looked at myself any differently than anyone else."
That determination was tried in 2008, when he headed to the Beijing Paralympics following a year marred by knee infections and surgeries. He took to the track for the 100m finals, determined to defend his gold-medal title. But midway down the track, his Achilles tendon tore, and he fell to the ground in agony. Refusing to leave the race uncompleted, Shirley rose and finished the race, crossing the finish line to the roar of a cheering crowd, standing unified in recognition of Shirley as an astonishing champion.
Today, as a 10-time World Champion and Paralympic champion, Shirley is a spokesperson for the Paralympic Movement and other sponsors. He is also a motivational speaker, bringing to others his inspirational message that there is nothing we cannot achieve—provided we have the determination and the belief in ourselves to overcome our challenges.
Overcoming. Pass It On!
This billboard about Overcoming features Marlon Shirley; athlete, Paralympic Champion.