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On new prosthetics, former UNH football star running toward Rio

By DAVE SOLOMON
New Hampshire Union Leader

May 07. 2015 9:07PM

Muji Karim, former University of New Hampshire football captain and bilateral amputee, works out with his new running prosthetics at Arms Park in Manchester on Thursday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

MANCHESTER -- Muji Karim has been defying the odds ever since he survived a fiery one-car crash in 2011.

The former University of New Hampshire football captain, who lost both legs and most of his left hand in the accident, has turned his story of recovery and resolve into an inspiration for other amputees, including victims of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Now, working with coaches at UNH and prosthetic professionals at Next Step Bionics and Prosthetics in Manchester, he has set his sights on the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro — a remarkable goal, considering he was just fitted for his “running legs” eight months ago.

The odds are long, but that has never stopped Karim, whose life seemed charmed until an August night in Boston, when his brother Husein, also a former UNH football player, lost control of their white Infiniti with Karim in the passenger seat. The car crashed into a tree on Storrow Drive and burst into flames.

First responders to the scene of the horrific crash at first thought no one in the mangled mass of burning metal could possibly be alive. They were able to pull the two men from the crash using extrication tools after dousing raging flames that burned both badly. Both survived.

After emerging from a coma and enduring multiple surgeries, doctors told Karim to be ready for a prolonged convalescence. He was out of bed with some assistance by December.

He was told it would take 12 to 18 months before he could walk on prosthetic legs.

He was walking by January 2012, and discharged from the rehabilitation hospital a month after that.

Most of 2012 was spent in more surgeries, recovering from infections, and becoming acclimated to his prosthetic “walking” legs.

“Once I was relatively healed, I started working out again,” he said during an interview Wednesday at the Next Step offices on Dow Street in the Millyard, part of the launch for “Muji’s Run to Rio.”

“My workouts were a little ambitious,” he said with a broad grin. “I started walking 15 to 20 miles a week on the treadmill.”

He walked his first mile in 57 minutes at the end of 2012, but within a year was walking more than five times as fast.

Getting ‘running legs’

Doctors at Next Step were impressed, and in 2014 they began working on Karim’s running legs — the kind of wide, blade-like prosthetics made famous by “Bladerunner” Oscar Pistorius.

He left Next Step with his running legs on Sept. 19, and two days later attended a running clinic for amputees at Harvard.

“By the end of the clinic, I was running up and down the field myself,” Karim said. “For so long, I had been confined to a wheelchair, or walking slow with a crutch or a cane. To be able to move fast was such a liberating and addictive feeling. On the ride home I said to myself, ‘I am going to figure these things out, and get as fast as I can, as efficient as I can, with them.’”

Doctors attributed the fact that Karim survived the crash and recovered so quickly to his athletic conditioning, which is immediately obvious to anyone who meets the former football standout.

The fact that he is running at competitive speeds only months after being fitted with running legs is a tribute to his sheer determination.

“This is not normal,” said Matt Albuquerque, president of Next Step, which is sponsoring “Muji’s Run to Rio.” Next Step is providing the running prosthetics and all the associated services, which are not covered by insurance, at no cost to Karim.

“We wanted to be part of this journey,” said Albuquerque. “This isn’t just about running; it’s about sprinting at world-record speeds. We’ve helped people run, but we’ve never helped anyone get to the Olympics.”

Qualifying events

The next step in that journey comes as Karim begins to attend pre-Paralympic qualifying events, competing against athletes already selected as part of the U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Team in the hope of earning a spot for himself by bumping one of them.

“Competing, wanting to be better, having someone on your heels, that’s been my life,” Karim said. “Be stronger, be faster, be better. That’s what I’ve known since I was a kid. The monkey wrench thrown at me only strengthened that.”

The Paralympic Games are an international competition for elite athletes with impairments. Modeled after the Olympic Games, the Paralympics are held immediately after the Olympics at the same venues.

The road to Rio starts next week at the 2015 IPC Athletics Grand Prix Desert Challenge in Meza, Ariz., where Karim hopes to compete in the 100- and 200-meter sprints. His best time so far at 100 meters was 14.8 seconds, about four seconds behind some of the best times ever recorded in his class.

A good showing there could lead to a spot at the U.S. Nationals, followed by the PanAm Games. A CrowdRise account has been set up to help with expenses (http://bit.ly/1zPlrcw).

Karim will be cheered along the way by the many amputees he has inspired in the four years since his accident, along with old classmates and teammates from UNH, his fiance and their nine-month-old son and his sponsors from Next Step.

“All I know is, I have to run as fast as I can, and the rest will take care of itself,” Karim said.

June 6 will be Muji Day at Northeast Delta Dental Stadium, where the Fisher Cats game-day crowd will watch as Karim tries to beat his personal best, sprinting toward the grandstand.

Source of inspiration

He expects on that day, as with many others, he’ll be reflecting on an encounter he had one lonely morning on an abandoned football field behind Medford (Mass.) High School, as he began training on his prosthetic legs.

“I was by myself at 5:30 in the morning, no spotlight, no cheering. It seemed impossible at the time,” he recalls, “when I heard something rustling in the bushes I was sitting by.”

Glancing in the direction of the noise, Karim says he saw a fox, perfectly still and glaring back at him, just inches away.

When he was a 5-foot-11-inch, 200-pound strong safety, he would not have given the fox a second glance, but on that day, he was momentarily filled with fear, immobilized and vulnerable.

“I thought, ‘If that fox charges me, the only option I have is to fight.’ When you can’t move, anything will scare you.”

The fox retreated, but the moment left a lasting impression. A stylized fox head has since become an icon for Karim’s odyssey, adorning promotional materials for Muji’s Run to Rio and otherwise serving as his source of inspiration.

“Whenever I am tired, or hurt, or discouraged, I look at that fox,” he says, “and I remember that I have no place to run, nowhere to escape, no option but to stand and fight, and never give up.”

dsolomon@unionleader.com


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