Paralympic track and field athlete April Holmes poses for a portrait during the 2012 Team USA Media Summit on May 15, 2012 in Dallas, Texas.
To April Holmes, nothing quite measures up to putting on a Team USA uniform, walking into a stadium with her teammates, and representing her country.
“I’ve not found anything,” said Holmes, “that quite compared to that.”
That’s quite a statement from a woman who has her own foundation, has helped former First Lady Michelle Obama with her “Let’s Move!” campaign, was the inspiration behind Air Jordan’s 2009 signature shoe, and has won numerous prestigious awards.
“I have been blessed,” Holmes acknowledged.
To be sure, the blessings were born of tragedy. In January 2001, a train accident resulted in the loss of Holmes’ left leg below the knee.
Holmes had always been an outstanding athlete. After excelling in basketball and track and field at Camden (New Jersey) High School, she went on to play an important role for the powerhouse track and field program at Norfolk State University.
“We won conference championships like every year I was there,” Holmes said of her Norfolk State days. “Quite a few of my teammates there at Norfolk State were also Olympians.”
So when her doctor came into her hospital room with materials featuring Paralympic athletes, those resonated with Holmes. She resolved to not only compete, but to make Team USA, win gold medals, and set world records.
“I’m like, ‘Listen, I need a leg,’” Holmes told her doctor. “Every step along the way, I ended up telling people about what I wanted to do.”
In spring 2002, just months after losing her lower leg, she competed in her first track meet in Orlando. From there she went on to a lengthy career in which she became a four-time Paralympian and competed in five world championships.
Holmes, a sprinter and jumper, has won a gold and two bronze medals at the Paralympic Games, two gold, a silver and three bronze medals at world championships, and set three world records. If her resume stopped there, it would be impressive enough, but it extends beyond the track.
“Once I lost my leg in 2001, I’ve had so many people come to me in terms of … needing inspiration and needing assistance,” Holmes said.
In response, she established the April Holmes Foundation “to be able to help provide some medical equipment and some scholarships to people with disabilities.”
A cornerstone of the foundation has been the annual “Sneaker Ball,” a formal affair where Holmes asked attendees to wear sneakers. She had her reasons.
“Just being around people with disabilities for so long, I realized that … most people with disabilities don’t own a pair of dress shoes and/or they don’t feel comfortable wearing their dress shoes,” Holmes said. “I explained to (attendees) that I wanted to be able to level the playing field, allow people with disabilities to wear what they feel comfortable in, and have other people feel almost a discomfort that people with disabilities feel when they go to more grand affairs.”
Soon, people were decorating their sneakers, and Holmes was giving out awards for best male and female sneakers.
Holmes’ influence didn’t end there. She also took part in Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign, which was designed to combat childhood obesity through activity and healthier diets.
“Those times were so wonderful, just to see the smile on kids’ faces when they can get out and run around,” Holmes said. “I say, fortunately and unfortunately, the current generation live in a place where the indoors is the greatest place for them. That’s how they connect, that’s how they reach out to their peers.
“To get kids out and to get them involved in sports and to see the smiles on their faces as they compete with their peers, I just believe that physical movement provides you so much greater energy, I’d say, than sitting on your couch playing video games.
“I was definitely fortunate enough to be part of it.”
Holmes, who became the first woman signed to the Jordan Brand, was the inspiration for the Air Jordan 2009 shoes that featured articulated propulsion technology, or APT. It was quite an honor for a former basketball player who grew up idolizing Michael Jordan.
“To know that I was the inspiration behind the 2009 Air Jordan shoe,” said Holmes, “this is my dream-come-true kind of thing.”
Along with her other accomplishments have come numerous honors. They include the NCAA Inspiration Award, the U.S. Olympic Committee Spirit Award, the U.S. Paralympics Mentor of the Year, and the National Association of Black Journalists Pioneer Award.
Though she won’t shut the door entirely, the 47-year-old Kissimmee, Florida, resident said her competitive Paralympic career could be over. Holmes said she’s staying fit but not putting in full training days.
“I’ve been (to the Paralympic Games) four times now,” said Holmes, “and I don’t know if I have a (fifth) in me, but we’ll see. We’ll see.
“I think there’s a greater calling and purpose for me in my life,” Holmes said. “I’m trying to figure what that looks like. I absolutely believe that we all owe it to society to be able to turn back around and mentor someone.”