‘The smallest step in the right direction’

Takes Wichita mom to the Paralympics and beyond

Written by Karen Long | Photos courtesy Liz Willis

Liz Willis’ running career started in the early 2000s when she was a long-distance runner at Friends University. After getting married and becoming pregnant, she would continue to race in ways she could never have anticipated. When she lost a leg to complications of Crohn’s disease and pregnancy, that didn’t stop her — she went on to represent Team USA in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro and now works with other adaptive athletes.

Racing a toddler

In 2011, after 10 days in a medically induced coma, Willis woke to find herself the mother of a 32-week-old premature infant and her left leg amputated below the knee. It was six months before she could even be fitted for a walking prosthesis. “So I had this premature child and no leg,” she remembers, “and trying to relearn how to walk, that was quite an adjustment. Just basic things like, your child is in the crib crying, how do you get the baby out of the crib and into your arms?”

But as Calum grew into a toddler, he also became a source of inspiration — and Willis’ first post-surgery competitor. “One of my goals was to be able to walk before my son. I beat him by about three months.”

A few years later Willis strapped on her first running blade and was invited to participate in a 5K race in Oklahoma City where she set an American record. That drew the attention of a USOC recruiter, who approached her to train for the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro. But there was an obstacle.

“I refused to take a drug test,” Willis says, “because I was still addicted to narcotics from the amputation three years prior.”

12 steps

With the encouragement of her pastor Willis signed up for a 12-step program called Celebrate Recovery, where she was sustained by her favorite Toby Mac quote: “Sometimes the smallest step in the right direction ends up being the biggest step in your life. Tiptoe if you must, but take the step.”

Finally, Willis was able to say “yes” to the USOC recruiter. She entered the year-and-a-half-long Paralympic program where she trained as a sprinter. In Rio de Janeiro she was the only American amputee to qualify in all three sprinting events, the 100, 200 and 400 meters. Her strongest event was the 400 where she took sixth place.

When she returned to Wichita after the Paralympics, Willis approached Nick Taylor and Grady Landrum of Wichita Wheelchair Sports and said, “I would really like to include ambulatory athletes.” She worked with them to rebrand the foundation and rename it Wichita Adaptive Sports. Now, in addition to wheelchair basketball and tennis, the non-profit offers track and swimming lessons to ambulatory athletes and everyone comes together for the track program, which is coached by Willis.

Adaptive athletes

In 2021 Willis is looking forward to a new program launching this spring where teenaged adaptive athletes will have the opportunity to compete in two high school track events, with the potential of going all the way to state. That’s in addition to the Wichita Adaptive Sports programs, including track practice, beginning this month, and a potential 5K in July, depending on the public health status in the area.

All this is in addition to being a soccer mom to Calum, now 10, and his adopted sister, Micah, age 4. Calum is a budding farmer who’s invested in 80 chickens, which he tends on 5 acres of land in southeast Wichita where the Willis family has made their home.

Looking back on the many steps she’s taken over the past 10 years Willis says, “It’s all about setting the small goals. And how I set my goals — I look at what obstacles are standing in my way, and how I’m going to overcome those obstacles. Those become my short-term goals, and short-term goals lead up to achieving your long-term goals."

 
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