Femita Ayanbeku looks on after competing at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 on Sept. 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
There is the old adage that success doesn’t happen overnight, but once in a while it does happen so quickly that it’s hard to take in.
That was certainly the case for Paralympic sprinter Femita Ayanbeku.
One day she was trying on a running blade for the first time ever, seven months later she was winning a national title in the 100 meters to qualify for the Paralympic Games Rio 2016, and two months after that she was on her way to Brazil.
“It was crazy,” said Ayanbeku, from Boston, Massachusetts. “Rio ended up being the sixth race I ever ran in my life.”
Now 28 years old and preparing for her second Paralympic Games, albeit a year later than planned, Ayanbeku is embracing the unexpected downtime that has been hard to find since her rapid rise in the Para running world.
It’s a life she never dreamed was possible growing up.
The daughter of a Haitian mother and Nigerian father, Ayanbeku was just 11 years old when she was involved in a car accident that threw her from the vehicle and resulted in her losing part of her right leg. Sports were never on her radar in the years following the accident as she tried to navigate her new world, outside of a brief stint on the basketball team her freshman year of high school that ended because it was just too painful.
“I was using a walking leg,” she said. “A lot of Paralympians say they used to do everything on a walking leg before they got blades and stuff, but every stump is different and mine just couldn’t take it.”
When Ayanbeku was 22 years old she started a non-profit called Limb-It-Less Creations in order to provide support and raise awareness for the amputee community and others with disabilities. Looking back, she said, she probably could have benefitted from having more contact with fellow amputees after her accident, and so she founded the group and began organizing outings such as going out for pedicures or other activities that may be too uncomfortable for someone to do solo.
In November 2015, her prosthetist told her about a running clinic hosted by the Challenged Athletes Foundation coming to Boston at the end of the month and said they were letting people borrow blades for the day to try them out. Little did she know that not only was the organization planning to give her a blade in recognition of her advocacy work, but that she’d also instantly fall in love with running.
Ayanbeku said it came naturally.
“I say that, but my coach has another version of that story,” she said, laughing. “But I put it on and absolutely loved it. At the clinic they had three different groups: the beginners, intermediates and experts. They had me in the beginner group because everyone knew I’d never used one before. I was running and I was like, ‘I think I belong with the experts.’ They were like, ‘You’re wrong.’”
Still, she had enough raw talent to catch the attention of three-time track and field Paralympian and two-time medalist Jerome Singleton, who was at the clinic. He introduced her to coach Sherman Hart and soon Ayanbeku was training four to five days a week.
Singleton was in training for his third Paralympic Games and soon Hart suggested Ayanbeku accompany him to a race just to see what she could do. She ran an emerging time, and in the spring of 2016, Hart told her he wanted her to go to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team Trials taking place at the end of June.
“I’d just started running and putting money into it was never the idea,” she said. “I wasn’t about to pay for a flight and hotel and pay to get into the race so I was like, ‘I’m not that interested.’ (Hart) was like, ‘Be quiet, you have to go.’”
She found a local sponsor in Adaptive Sports New England, went to the Trials, and won the 100 meters and placed second in the 200 meters to qualify for Rio.
“My coach was like, ‘And you thought you weren’t going to that race,’” she said.
Before she knew it, Ayanbeku was in Texas for Team USA processing and then on her way to Rio with the rest of the U.S. contingent.
“I remember getting into the buses and having police escorts all the way to the airport,” she said. “It had only ever been me and Jerome. I’d never been part of a team. Just being able to be around all these different types of athletes just really stuck out to me. That was the first time I’d ever been around something so big like that, and for me it was a beautiful thing. I didn’t grow up seeing a lot of amputees or people like me and feeling so embraced.”
Ayanbeku didn’t make the final in the 100 meters but placed sixth in the 200 meters in the T44 classification in Rio, and after that her new life as an elite Paralympic runner was non-stop.
Until the COVID-19 virus hit back in March, that is.
“(Having the Paralympics postponed until 2021) is a bittersweet feeling,” she said. “My life was so crazy prior to COVID so it definitely slowed everything down. Not traveling is a huge thing. I haven’t had a break from traveling in a while. That was definitely something to get used to, but I’m not mad about it, trust me.”
As a Black woman, Ayanbeku has also spent the past few months watching the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd and resulting protests not just nationwide but also worldwide unfolding before her with a number of feelings. The attention is long overdue, she said, but the circumstances are all too familiar.
“It’s unfortunate to say, but I’ve been Black in America my whole life and this is nothing new,” she said. “So many people have been like, ‘I can’t believe this is the world we’re in,’ but if you’re Black in America you’ve known this whole time and you’ve had to find a way to make it work.”
Ayanbeku remembers when her “little brother,” who’s 6-foot-2, first got his driver’s license and how scared she was that he’d accidentally run a red light or miss a stop sign and get pulled over, and what might happen then. She still worries about him, her fiancée, her stepson and her father and what could happen should they get stopped by police.
“I have friends who are white and that thought never crosses their minds,” she said. “It’s something I’ve always had to think about.”
In her own life, Ayanbeku said, she’s experienced a range of reactions based on both her skin color and her disability. They include a high school advanced math teacher questioning whether she was in the right class and not being satisfied until she showed him her schedule, she said, as well as a white man who stopped and scowled as she pulled into a handicapped parking space only to then smile and walk away when he saw her leg.
With Ayanbeku’s busy schedule since Rio, Limb-It-Less has been on hiatus for a few years, she said, but it’s definitely something she plans to get back into in the future to continue to help others like her as they find their way in the world. It’s much easier to get over the self-consciousness new amputees in particular might feel, she said, when you’re with people who look like you.
She’s also hoping to race again at some point soon.
“We’re hoping there are some competitions we can get into in Rhode Island,” she said. “We’re definitely looking into some local races. Going the whole year without any competition would be pretty crazy.”