Mind Over Matter

Published on April 26th, 2017

Ten seconds. That’s all you have. Three to recover from the shock of the fall. Four to react to the pain of the blow. Two to evaluate your body for bruises. One to summon the willpower to pull yourself back up again. Ten seconds until each of the referee’s fingers is up in the air and a victory is declared within the boxing ring. Ten seconds to decide if you will remain on the ground or keep on fighting.

Andres F. Mateus chooses to fight. 

It’s what he’s always done. The 29-year-old semi-professional boxer understands how to mute the aches and pains of his body. He knows that on most occasions, the mind can power through what the body thinks it cannot. Eight years ago, before a motorcycle accident left his right leg amputated below the knee, he had only been skirting around the idea of pursuing his lifelong goal: becoming a boxer. Ironically, it wasn’t until he lost something essential that he chose to add the essentials to his life: headgear, heavy bags and hand wraps. He could have let the ropes that surround the boxing ring serve as a barricade – instead he chose to step inside, arms up, fists ready, and turn what some might call less, into more.

“When you’re young, you think you have time for anything, but when I saw how everything changed, I got focused and started boxing,” he said. “I just wanted to do something that was about me being in charge.”

He’s not alone. Ever since Sir Ludwig Guttman introduced sports to the recovery regimen of paralyzed patients and set the framework for the Paralympics, fitness has been a dynamic part of many amputees’ healing process. According to UM Physical Therapy Professor Robert Gailey, athletics accomplish more than improving an amputee’s physical state – they restore his or her emotional one as well. Our bodies are programmed to retreat into fight-or-flight mode when we encounter danger, and many amputees feel like they lack the ability to act on that basic, evolutionary instinct – to run. Training amputees to reclaim that liberty instills a sense of wholeness in them.

“Most amputee athletes ask for just one thing: ‘Give me the ability to participate,’” Gailey said. “The same way you would mourn the loss of a loved one, you mourn the loss of a limb. More so you mourn the loss of the person that you believed that you used to be, so if a portion of that person that you used to be was an athlete, we can try to help that person recapture the identity that they had before.”

Andres F. Mateus

Gailey emphasizes that most amputee athletes aren’t striving to make the cut for the Paralympics – they just want to be able to practice sports. He says their biggest issue is not their amputation itself, but their inability to obtain the devices that foster athleticism. Most insurance companies believe they should cover only one prosthesis for walking, but different physical activities require different types of prostheses, similar to how one would own a variety of shoes.

“The insurance gives me the minimum to get from Point A to Point B,” Mateus said. “The mechanisms that I have help me so I don’t sweat as much, but my prosthetics place goes out of their way to provide me with them. The insurance does not.”

Mateus trains nearly every day at La Finca boxing gym, a haven for like-minded boxers. Nestled within the confines of red, white and blue ropes and bordered by flags from Colombia, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Egypt and Venezuela – a piece of each boxer who trains there – Mateus is home. Mateus enters the ring with the tenacity of Tyson, the courage of Mayweather and the resilience of Ali. He is a heavy-handed boxer, pouring all his power into each jab, hook, undercut and cross. It’s a tactical approach to the sport: he undermines his opponents early on before they can exploit his weaknesses. After enough time has passed in a match, Mateus’ prosthesis becomes inundated with sweat, causing a ripple effect of discomfort and, at times, dislodging. He does not let his amputation hold him back, but the USA boxing officials do. Mateus has only ever been allowed to compete in isolated competitions designed for amputees, and is currently trying to convince the boxing realm to let him compete against able-bodied boxers.

“You can’t judge someone by their physical disability, you have to let them try it out and then let them prove you wrong,” he said over the sound of gloves hitting punching bags and ringing bells coming from inside the gym. “If you have two legs, you might not work as hard and you might come into a fight thinking it’ll be easy, but you don’t know the way I’ve trained, you don’t know the heart I have.”

With amputee athletes winning medals in the Olympics and outrunning their able-bodied counterparts, most lines between the two have been blurred. However, this has brought up other issues, such as the ongoing debate over whether or not the technology used to create a prosthesis goes beyond eliminating a disadvantage, and actually puts amputees at an advantage. Is the playing field leveled, or can it favor those with prosthetic limbs?

The question arose for Gailey with Oscar Pistorius, the first amputee runner to compete in the Olympics. Gailey designed the blades Pistorius wore, and witnessed the backlash the athlete faced from the Olympic committee. They claimed that since Pistorius had an 80 percent energy return and the human body only has a 36 percent energy return, Pistorius automatically had an unfair edge. However, Gailey says that the latter number only holds true when you factor out our muscles, so in reality, an able-bodied runner actually has a 250 percent return, putting the odds in their favor.

In his office, which is splattered with an array of different prosthetics – peg legs from the Revolutionary war, tin legs from World War II – Gailey poses the idea that the situation involves aesthetics, not athletics.

“The committee wants the image of men and women who are Greek Adonis’ and are very physically fit standing on the podium,” he said. “So for them to see a guy standing up there with technology like this,” he points to one of the prosthetics hung up by his desk, “It doesn’t have that look.”

Also adorning one of the walls of Gailey’s office is a photo of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” a drawing that outlines the ideal proportions of a human man. The image, which features the body of a man with outspread arms and legs transposed over each other, has represented a glorified projection of what men should look like, a prototype amputees cannot fit into. For Mateus, that struggle to conform only affected him once, shortly after his accident. He was standing at a shopping mall, one leg coated in hair, the other bare and unadorned, when a girl standing nearby noticed the contrast: “Mom, why does that man only shave one leg?”

Her mother blushed, thwarted the question and quickly pulled her daughter away. Mateus looked down at his legs: one made of bone, one partially made of carbon fiber, and asked himself why he chose to pretend that they were of the same substance. The following day, at a refitting, the prosthetist asked Mateus if he wanted to continue layering the skin-colored foam over his prosthesis, an attempt to blend one leg with the other. Mateus declined.

“I decided I’m not gonna be sensitive about being amputated; when people ask me questions I let them ask, when people look I let them look, if they want to touch it or play with it, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “I take my leg off and I hop around like a kangaroo, and it makes no difference because I’m confident within my own body.”

Mateus has learned that a lot can happen in 10 seconds. You can lose your leg after crashing into a guardrail. You can strike your opponent in just the right spot and secure a win. You can decide you’ll stop covering up something that is a part of you. You can get up. You can fight. In 10 seconds, the entire fabric of your life can be altered, and in 10 seconds, your mind can decide to alter it, too.

Mateus has learned to emphasize that mentality in everything he does. His family’s support, his passion for boxing and his ability to keep getting back on his feet have all made one thing clear to him: a true champion’s power lies not in his physical ability, but in his heart.

words_asmae fahmy. photo_sidney sherman.

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