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She's Got Legs
 
FEATURES She considers athletics important but adds, "there are so many things I want to explore." She's conversant in Italian. She's an accomplished painter. In 1993 she was among the three full-ride college scholarship winners the U.S. Defense Department selects annually based on academic performance, SAT scores, writing samples and a panel interview. Now she's a dean's list senior majoring in history and diplomacy in Georgetown's rigorous School of Foreign Service. She expects to graduate in December. She also spends a lot of time with Eric Treiber, her boyfriend of 6 1/2 years, who's a senior at Penn State.

They met as high school sophomores. About a month after they began dating, a classmate told Eric, "It's nice of you to go out with Aimee—considering." And Eric said, "What do you mean?" Aimee says, "When Eric finally told me a couple weeks later, I asked him, 'Why didn't my legs matter to you?' He just said, 'By the time I found out, I was hooked.'"

They celebrate their anniversary every month. But when Mullins went to that first disabled meet in Boston, she preferred to go alone. "I didn't know anything about disabled sports then," she says. "I'd always thought of them as a cop-out, a little self-esteem thing. But I found out there are men who hop up to the high jump bar on one leg and clear 6'2". I met all these cool people who are fierce competitors. And in all walks of life. It wasn't just me challenging or competing against the able-bodied world or what it thinks."

Mullins has always been interested in what she calls "transformative experiences." As a child she would conjure up daydreams to get her through the times when she felt different from everyone else. She began reading voraciously during her hospital stays, often changing the plot lines in stories such as Cinderella or King Arthur to suit herself. "I would be a princess, but none of this stuff where you're waiting in the tower for some prince to come save you," Mullins says. "I'd think, I'll hop on the horse and save myself, thanks. At first it was probably an escape from times that stunk—being able to become different people and have this whole other life, you know? But ultimately, it's like imagination in its highest form. Because when you apply your daydreams, you really do feel better."

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Ideas like that or what she wants to do after graduation were already coalescing in Mullins's mind when she competed in Atlanta. Her story was beginning to attract publicity, and another event brought everything into sharper focus: In July 1996 Mullins met a competitive skier from England named Heather Mills. "A lot of the things I wanted to do—activism, modeling, giving speeches—Heather was already doing them," Mullins says. "What we both want to do are projects that make you think."

Mills, 29, lost a leg in 1993 after she was hit by a motorcycle policeman while she was crossing a street in London. When Mullins saw the specially designed cosmetic leg that Mills wears, it was so lifelike that Mullins gasped, "I have got to have those."

Six months later Mullins traveled to Dorset Orthopedics in Bournemouth, England. When Bob Watts, one of the world's leading designers of lifelike prostheses, asked Mullins why she wanted the new limbs, Mullins was succinct. "I'm a woman, and I want to celebrate that," she said.

Until she met Mills, the no-frills legs that Mullins wore had rudimentary, leg-shaped foam pads that covered carbon-graphite cores, and foot plates. Because the hard foam was white, Mullins would paint the leg coverings with flesh-colored spray paint that she would buy at an art store. So it was an exuberant moment when Mullins received her new pair of legs at Dorset Orthopedics last January. The room was full of technicians when Watts proudly brought the legs out from behind his back to show her. From the hushed way Mullins said, "They're beautiful," you'd have thought she was speaking in church.

The lifelike silicone "skin" exactly matched her skin color. The streamlined fit made her knee look natural. Because Mullins didn't have an existing lower leg to match, Watts was free to create. Aimee got to choose everything—how tall she wanted to be (5'9"), what shoe size she'd like to have (7), whether she wanted the toenails to be French manicured or not. She went with natural style. Suddenly she had legs with beauty marks and hair follicles and exquisitely formed feet and toes. Back in her hotel room, she sat lost in thought as she ran a finger down the shin of one of her new legs. "I always wondered what my feet would look like if I had some," Mullins says. That night she got to paint her toenails for the first time. The next day she and Mills went shopping in London for sandals, short skirts, shoes with two-inch heels—all things Aimee could never wear before. They did a modeling shoot and danced until the early hours at several nightclubs.

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When Mullins got home to Allentown, Bernadette said, "Oh, my!" Even her dad had to admit, "They did a pretty good job on those legs." When she debuted them for her extended family at her grandmother's 80th birthday party, one aunt's mother-in-law slapped a hand over her heart and cooed, "Oh, Aimee, you've got ankles!"

Mullins says a disabled friend once told her, "It's a shame you care what your legs look like." And Mullins says she replied, "If this is all about life without limits, then why should fashion be one of them?''

"I want to stress that I didn't need these legs to feel complete, because I felt that before," she says. "One reason I want to model is to do projects that challenge people's idea of beauty and the myth that disabled people are less capable, less interesting. That we're asexual. I want to expose people to disability as something that they can't pity or fear or closet, but something that they accept and maybe want to emulate. To me, beauty is when people radiate that they like themselves."

She sends out the message every chance she gets. Already, she is a riveting public speaker: self-deprecating, unflinchingly personal and unsentimental, with a delightfully provocative streak. (As a kid she used to enjoy jolting her substitute teachers by flipping a bolt and turning her prosthetic feet backward when the teachers weren't looking.) She has been known to plunk one of her prosthetic legs atop a chair minutes into a speech and roll up her pant leg so the audience can get a better look. She insists no question about her disability is too dumb or offensive.

The ways she affects people are extraordinary. On Memorial Day she and Treiber were in-line skating on the Mall in Washington when Mullins was stopped by a Vietnam veteran named Phill Hebert. Hebert bade a friend to hand him his tattered camouflage jacket and told Aimee, "I want you to have something." Mullins looked down to see that he had pinned his Purple Heart on her shirt. Then, taking her hand, he ran her fingertips over a sunken area of his skull where shrapnel still remains. That night at dinner with Treiber, she says, "I cried and cried."

"I kept telling him, 'I can't take this medal,'" Mullins says. "But he kept insisting. He said, 'You have more courage than most people I know.' And I thought, But this is just what I wanted to do. I never thought about the ramifications, this whole idea of being inspirational. So when this guy gives me this medal that's supposed to symbolize courage and I look at us—him, this guy that got shot in the head when he was 19 years old, and me—I think, We didn't ask for this. So how can it be courage that we go on? What else are we supposed to do? Give up? No. No. You don't give up till your heart stops beating. 

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