Batavia swimmer accomplishes a lot with prosthetic legs
World-class swimmer Amy Chapman has been a frequent visitor of the prosthetist's office since she was a toddler, getting fitted with new pairs of legs year after year.
That's not because there were any problems. Quite the contrary -- Amy was always so active and sporty that her prosthetic legs, well, suffered the consequences.
Amy, 16, a junior at Batavia High School, competed with Team USA at the Parapan American Games last November in Mexico, where she set an event record in the 100-meter breast stroke in her disability classification. Altogether, she competed in seven events, including the 50-, 100- and 400-meter freestyle, the 100-meter backstroke, 100-meter fly and the 200-meter individual medley.
She plans to try out next month for the U.S. team for the Paralympics Games, to be held this summer in London.
Amy's prosthetist, John Angelico of Scheck & Siress in Oak Park, said he's never known anything to stop her.
"She's going to keep up with her peers, she's going to participate with her peers, no matter what," Angelico said. "I'd love to say it's because of Scheck & Siress, but it's her determination. If we would have made her the worst set of legs in the world, she'd still be the accomplished athlete that she is."
Amy was born with fibular hemimelia, which means her legs had no fibula bones and were basically useless below the knee. When she was about a year old, doctors performed a partial amputation so she could fit into prosthetics.
Growing up, Amy did gymnastics and played soccer, but swimming is what she really fell in love with, she said.
"I love it so much, mainly just from all the friends I've made and everyone I've met, but also because it was something that came so natural to me," she said. "I never felt like I had to hold back or was limited in any way in the water."
During afternoon practices with her team, the Academy Bullets Swim Club out of Marmion Academy in Aurora, Amy sits on a bench by the pool and takes off her prosthetic legs. Pumping her arms for balance, she walks on her stumps and heads to the starting blocks. She hoists herself up and positions herself, one knee bent, ready to dive into the pool. Then she pushes herself off and emerges from the water, her strong arms and shoulders moving rhythmically, her thighs in constant motion to further propel her forward.
"It took a while to get into it competitively and really learn all the strokes, but it was something I could really work toward and put all of my energy into," she said.
Amy's siblings -- twin brother Trevor, 17; Derek, 19; and Allyson, 22 -- are all very athletic. Mom Leslie was a swimmer in college, while dad Keith played Division I basketball. The family bikes and water skis in summer and snow skis in winter, and Amy's always been right there with them, just one of the bunch.
The only allowance the Chapmans have made for her disability was to outfit a Toyota Matrix with hand controls so Amy can drive it, too.
"I'm so used to being able to do everything. If something doesn't work for me, I'll accomplish it anyway," Amy said.
Having a twin brother was instrumental in Amy's development, Leslie Chapman said.
"She had that model of the next development phase. He rolled over, she rolled over. He started to crawl, she started to crawl. When he started to walk, she started to pull up on furniture and stand. That's when the doctor said she was ready and did the surgery to prepare her for prosthetics," she said.
Each pair of legs costs $20,000 to $25,000, but Amy was fortunate to always have great health insurance, she said.
Amy did gymnastics from about age 3 to 9 at Excel Gymnastics in Batavia, but she could only go so far, she said.
"I had a lot of fun. I loved bars, but it would have been hard for me to compete because there are a lot of little things, like pointing your toes, that I couldn't do."
She took up soccer, but finding the right balance while kicking the ball was very difficult, she said.
She got hooked on swimming when she was 10. The family lived in Arkansas, and Amy went to the local pool with a friend who wanted to try out for the team.
"When I saw what they were doing, I decided I wanted to try out, too. I just went up to coach and told him. He just looked at me," Amy recalled, giggling.
Amy made the team and hasn't looked back since. The turning point, she said, was mastering the ability not only to prevent her legs from being a hindrance and just dragging underwater but to use them for added power, too.
Academy Bullets coach Todd Capen, who's been coaching Amy for about three years, said Amy is tough both physically and mentally. She works extremely hard, and as the only disabled member of the team, she has to confront her disability every day, he said.
"She finds ways, and we find ways, to incorporate her workout in whatever we're doing," he said, adding that when it comes to training that doesn't involve legs, Amy is absolutely on par with her teammates, if not better. "She's one of the strongest people you'll ever meet."
For the last two years, swimmers with disabilities have been able to participate in state meets without qualifying so they can gain race experience, Capen said.
"Amy has been one of the few athletes in the state of Illinois to even take that opportunity," he said. "She got on the (starting) block and got in the pool in front of a thousand people totally by herself. Mentally, that's difficult."
Amy is an inspiration to her teammates, he said.
"Our older kids that she trains with understand it more. It's difficult for them, so some of them can't even fathom how much more difficult it is for Amy," Capen said. "From the younger kids' perspective, they see somebody who is different from them and is meeting all these lofty goals and getting all this recognition, and they think, 'Wow, she's amazing.' They don't get the physical side of it."
Amy's life is far from being just about swimming.
She's very involved with her church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Geneva; she gets up at 5:15 a.m. to go to seminary every morning before school and has held leadership roles for church-related youth activities.
She also plays wheelchair basketball with the Windy City Warriors, sings for the school choir and teaches swimming to kids Saturdays. Oh, and she manages to keep a solid 3.5 GPA at Batavia High School.
"I don't know what to do with myself when I do have free time. I like to keep busy," said Amy, who wants to go to Brigham Young University in Utah and become a dolphin trainer at Sea World.
The Chapmans will move to Utah in mid-June, where Amy's older siblings go to college. "I'll have the opportunity to have a high school swim team, which I don't here. I'm excited," she said.
When asked if she ever wished she had been born with legs, Amy takes a long pause, then answers "no" with a direct gaze. "I've never known anything different," she said.
Prosthetist Angelico says he's confident Amy is headed for great things.
"She's an incredibly determined little girl who had this incredible disability, and she's just as normal as any other kid," he said. "You put pants on her, and you have no clue. She's just an amazing girl."
• Elena Ferrarin wrote today's column. She and Kimberly Pohl always are looking for Suburban Standouts to profile. If you know of someone whose story just wows you, please send a note including name, town, email and phone contacts for you and the nominee to email@example.com or call our Standouts hotline at (847) 608-2733.
Amy ChapmanAge: 16
School: Batavia High School
Who inspires you? My teammates at the Academy Bullets Swim Club and all the people on the U.S. Paralympic team.
What's on your iPod? A lot of Broadway musicals, church music.
What book are you reading? "She Speaks to Angels" by Ami Blackwelder.
The three words that best describe you? Goal-oriented. Determined. Caring.