CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — Cooper Blair doesn’t wish for real feet.
If he had three wishes, it would be for everybody to be healthy, an unlimited amount of toys, and another wish that his mother can’t recall off-hand.
His answer came as a surprise to his mother, Richelle, when they were casually chatting during one of Cooper’s fittings for a new pair of prosthetic legs that would help him sprint.
Fittings are a long day for a 9-year-old, and it can get boring.
He asked Richelle what she would wish for if she had three wishes. She rattled off her three requests, then turned to him for his answers.
“‘One thing I will never wish for is to have real feet,'” Richelle remembers him saying. “I was shocked . . . I pray all the time that he’s OK with this.”
“I said ‘Why do you say that?’ and he said ‘Because I don’t know what it’s like with real feet. I’m happy with the feet I got. If I had real feet, I wouldn’t have these opportunities.'”
Cooper was born with a rare birth defect, where fluid essentially formed rubber bands around his limbs and cut off circulation.
After he was born, Cooper went through a series of 27 sets of casts and seven surgeries to correct his folded and deformed feet.
“We ended up at Johns Hopkins with an orthopedic surgeon. He said we have two options: Let him go the way he is, but he’ll never be able to walk with those feet. The other is to amputate and get prosthetics and try to make him as normal as possible,” said Richelle, 35.
She immediately thought there was no way a doctor will amputate her child’s feet. That shouldn’t be the case, she thought. There’s got to be an easier way.
After thinking about what to do, Richelle and her husband opted for amputation in September 2005, when Cooper was just 26 months old. He is fitted for prosthetic walking legs every nine to 12 months since he is growing.
“He started walking on prosthetics on Christmas day of that year,” Richelle said. “He became very active and did great. He’s always been a very determined little boy. Then, he started to play sports.”
First, he wanted to play ice hockey. Richelle and her husband didn’t want to tell him it was impossible, but they knew it would be difficult.
“He didn’t see why he couldn’t do it, so he played. He learned to ice skate with his prosthetics. His ankles don’t bend, so it’s hard to get up when he falls,” she said.
But the Wheeling Nailers, the minor league affiliate of the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins, had a fix for that. They put a nail at the top of his hockey stick so that when he fell down, he could turn his hockey stick over and help pull himself up.
Then it was baseball and flag football and basketball. And golf clinics in the summer.
But this past summer held something even grander in store for Cooper.
Richelle had heard about the Endeavor Games, which is hosted by the University of Central Oklahoma. The games are a nationally recognized competition that allows athletes with physical disabilities to participate in a multi-sport event.
Each of the children are in separate categories, so those in wheelchairs participate with others in wheelchairs, but she most are amputees.
“He decided he wanted to run track, but his walking legs wouldn’t let him run in the racing part,” she said.
Running blades were donated to Cooper just two weeks before the family left for Oklahoma. Because only walking legs are covered under insurance, it would be difficult for the family to buy another set of legs, which run about $25,000 to $30,000. So for two weeks, he practiced with his newfound running legs.
That practice paid off. He took home the gold in the 20-, 60-, 100- and 200-meter in his division. That regional competition sprung him into even more opportunity.
They met a family from Mississippi at the games who said they thought Cooper might do better with a pair of Cheetah legs, which are more for sprinting.
Last month, the Glen Dale family flew to Mississippi to pick up the pair donated to them and made by the same person who created Oscar Pistorius’s prosthetics. Cooper had aspired to be like Pistorius — an amputee who competed in the World Championships — until Pistorius’ recent murder charges for his then-girlfriend.
“Cooper really wanted to be like Oscar, unfortunately. He was a big fan, so it was very surprising,” Richelle said.
Equipped with new legs, Cooper is yet again practicing for his upcoming triathlon and the next round of Endeavor games, which will lead him to the national competition in Minneapolis. If he qualifies at nationals, he can qualify for the world competition in Italy.
“If he keeps doing this year after year, when he reaches the right age, he can go to the Paralympics,” Richelle said. Participants must be 15 years old, she said.
“He hopes to run in the U.S. Paralympics ultimately. He wants to be part of the U.S. track team, and he’s gotten very close to a runner who was a silver medalist. He’s become a mentor and a great friend.”
“He constantly amazes me. We were sitting in the hospital all those years ago worrying about what he won’t be able to do,” she said. “But he doesn’t look at himself as being different. He’s perfectly happy with who he is.”
His confidence has helped him not only athletically, but also as a typical nine-year-old.
“Being a kid, I was worried he’d get made fun of. But kids at his school just love him. Every time he gets new legs, it’s like he’s a transformer,” Richelle said.
“He has to change clothes for gym class, and I wanted to go there and help him because he has to take his legs off, then get dressed, then put them back on. It’s a process. But he adapts well.”
“It doesn’t bother him. When we’re out, people will ask questions, and he answers them — ‘They’re my prosthetics; I don’t have any feet,’ ” she said.
“One day, I had to come to the school because his foot came off — a screw came out. I thought he was going to be upset, but he thought it was funny,” she said.
“Since he’s been born, he’s been the type of kid that if you say he can’t do something, he’s going to prove you wrong. He’s got that drive. If we see a climbing wall, we’re going to be there for a while because he’s going to climb it until he reaches the top. And he’s taught me a lot, too. He doesn’t complain. I look up to him as my hero.”
Information from: Charleston Daily Mail, http://www.dailymail.com