By Alison Ryan
Jami Goldman-Marseilles, a 47-year-old kindergarten teacher in Orange County, California, has a list of accomplishments that read like a backstory for a character in an inspirational film.
When she was 19, Marseilles narrowly avoided death in a tragic accident which resulted in the amputation of both of her legs below-the-knee. That loss would become the catalyst for a newfound passion: running.
As a competitive runner, she excelled and earned both world records and gold medals in sprinting. She entered uncharted territory when she began a love affair with distance running, and today, she is the only member of a very exclusive club. Marseilles is the only female bilateral below-the-knee amputee to have ever completed a half marathon and marathon.
In December of 1987 in northern Arizona, Marseilles and a girlfriend were driving home from a ski trip when they were caught in a brutal snow storm on a remote logging road, and got lost. They were trapped in their SUV for eleven days before two snowmobilers discovered them.
Although they were rushed to a hospital to receive treatment, and her friend was able to fully recover, the sub-zero temperatures left Marseilles so severely frostbitten that both of her legs had to be amputated below the knee.
Rather than being limited and defined by a tragedy, the experience transformed Marseilles into something much more, and taught her to live without limitations.
Learning to Run Again
As she learned to walk on new prosthetic legs, Marseilles’ grandfather encouraged her to become more active, and it was his encouragement for living a healthy lifestyle that motivated her to push beyond walking, and to become more athletic. He passed away in 1996, just before she began her running career, but his words continue to resonate and inspire her today.
In 1997, Marseilles watched her friend, Sara Reinertsen, a single above-the-knee amputee, race in an event. For the first time, Marseilles could envision her own potential as an athlete.
“I never knew how important it was to know another amputee,” Marseilles said. “Once I went to that first race, I saw how no one there cared what your prosthetic looked like; they were just focused on being happy and healthy.”
Reinertsen helped to introduce Marseilles to the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), an organization which aids people with physical challenges by providing them with opportunities for physical fitness and competition.
Marseilles has worked very closely with CAF and their Project N.Ex.T. (New Expectations Today) mentoring program which connects physically challenged individuals with similarly disabled mentors. She said that CAF and its programs help people with physical disabilities see that they aren’t alone. It gives them the opportunity to, as Marseilles described it, “get back in the game.”
Through Project N.Ex.T., Marseilles has met multiple women who were affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. While she was their mentor in the program, they became her inspiration to push through 26.2 miles.
A Track Record of Persistence
In 1999, Marseilles broke both the 100m and 200m track world records at the multi-disability World Championships, and stared in a powerful Adidas commercial.
She ran her first half marathon in 2001, and after taking some time away from racing to have two beautiful children with her husband, Beau, she ran four more half marathons.
Some good-natured ribbing from her training partner is what made her consider running a full marathon.
“I was told to put my money where my mouth is,” Marseilles laughed. “My training partner told me, ‘I’m tired of hearing you say you’re the first female bilateral amputee to run a half marathon; it’s time for you to run a full marathon!'”
So, she set out with a plan to run a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon, and last October, Marseilles did just that when she successfully finished the Chicago Marathon in 6:27:01.
On that day, Marseilles simultaneously became the only female double below-the-knee amputee to have completed a full marathon, and also qualified for one of the most famous running events in the country.
On April 18th Marseilles ran and successfully completed the Boston Marathon in honor of her friend, Celeste Corcoran, who lost both of her legs in the 2013 Boston bombings.
The Long Push
Marseilles has a different approach to running now that she isn’t focused on the sprinting events.
“Distance running for me is not as jittery as track running was. I really have fun with it and haven’t focused as much on speed, so it has been more exciting,” she said.
Her positive attitude has kept her moving forward, but the marathons haven’t been all smooth sailing. Running as an amputee has taught Marseilles the importance of going with the flow because when using prosthetics, things don’t always go as planned.
“It’s not like an event where you just show up in your track shoes,” Marseilles said. “I show up to a track event with a whole bag full of leg parts because I have many different parts of gear I have to take with me.”
In her training for Chicago and Boston, she had to work closely with her prosthetist to make numerous changes to her legs. The planning and preparation paid off as Marseilles was able to complete the Chicago marathon and continue into training for Boston.
“After finishing Chicago, I had the courage and confidence to have fun and enjoy every moment of the Boston Marathon.” she said.
Her positive attitude and the people inspiring Marseilles helped her push through when she hit a rough patch during her second marathon.
“Starting at mile 17, my limbs were beat up and needed to rest,” Marseilles said. “I found myself stopping more than I wanted to, but at mile 22, you can’t stop. You have to keep going. I thought about my friends who had been affected by the Boston bombing to help motivate me through the finish.”
One of her favorite parts of the Boston Marathon was an unexpected moment of joy when she took a minute to stop and jump on some trampolines at the beginning of the race. She savored the whole event, high-fiving supporters along the route, and remembering the roar of cheers in the iconic tunnel. One of the most thrilling parts, according to Marseilles? Sharing her accomplishment and elation at the finish line with her “soul sister,” Celeste.
“You can’t predict what tomorrow will bring,” Marseilles said. “Enjoy the joy, the laughter, and the silliness now.”
Choosing Happy and Healthy Living
Marseilles is the kind of person we all love to cheer for because she represents some of the best parts of humanity we hope to see in ourselves.
“I want to help motivate people to want to make a difference for themselves,” she said. “Be happy and go along with the hard work that comes with being happy. I think sometimes people forget that. I still struggle with everyday life; we all do. I come home to laundry, and I’ve got kids and dog, and those are all beautiful things. I focus on the good. It’s not about being able-bodied or disabled. It’s about choosing a healthy lifestyle, and that’s why I try to focus on.”
She said she looks at life as a workout, and is always going to the gym or walking with her kids. There is an emphasis on keeping a fit lifestyle in their household. She believes that exercising and making healthy choices will always improve a life.
“People go through so many ups and downs, but exercise is always there. Don’t give up,” Marseilles urged. “By choosing to be healthy, especially with a disability, it will make all aspects of your life better.”
As an alumni of California State University, Marseilles is excited to run in the Long Beach half marathon on October 9, 2016. She’s considering signing up for the New York City Marathon in November.
Over 28 years ago when her grandfather pushed her to choose a healthy and fit lifestyle, you get the feeling that he knew all along what greatness Marseilles would be capable of.
Today, she hopes her story can inspire others to realize their own capacity to live a full and healthy life, too.