Nicole Ver Kuilen is on a mission - she's swimming, biking, and running down the entire West Coast to protest legislation and health insurance policies that follow the 'One Limb for Life' model. With the support of the Challenged Athlete Foundation, she's trying to make a difference for other athletes who are hindered by old prosthetic technology and insurance limitations.
Nicole has been an amputee for 16 years, but she's been an athlete for over 20 years. When she was 10 years old, insurance denied her request for a waterproof leg, deeming that it wasn't medically necessary. If she had one leg that allowed her to walk, that was all she needed. When she went to college, she continued running 5ks and 10ks, ratcheting up to half marathons, open water swims, and long distance cycling events. But the stress that the athletics put on her body, especially the non-amputation side, started to cause asymmetries because her basic prosthetic leg wasn't designed to take the load of activity. When she asked if she could have a more advanced leg that could sustain higher levels of activity, she still had to settle for a more basic set up that was easier to walk in.
As Nicole undertakes her journey down the West Coast, she and her support team are sporting XX2i Optics - performance France2 and France1 frames for the riders and runners, polarized casuals for the drivers to help with eye fatigue. We'll be doing a 3 part series, following her down the coast, and getting to know this amputee, cancer survivor, and athlete who goes by the moniker "Forrest Stump."
Why are you doing this?
We are biking, swimming, and running 1,500 miles to raise awareness about the barriers that limit access to prosthetic technology. For 16 years I’ve been limited in what I can do, not by my physical condition, but rather by the type of prosthesis that I could afford. My story is not unique. Along this journey I’ve met dozens of amputees fighting for even the most basic “medically necessary” devices. We are doing this to bring about a change in healthcare policy to provide the appropriate technology to every amputee in need.
What is motivating you?
I am motivated by the opportunity to right a wrong. When I see an injustice, I am compelled to act. This is my action! The way I see it I have two choices. 1) to sit and be content with the way things are or 2) do something to change it. I am hopeful that what I’m doing is making a difference and it is that hope that keeps me moving forward.
I am motivated by the outpouring of support that we have been shown. I love talking to people about the journey of Forrest Stump. Each and every person I speak with is inspired by what I’m doing and shares some connection with our cause. I am motivated to share my story because I know there is someone who will come across it and be inspired to overcome some barrier in their life whether it is cancer or amputation or something different entirely.
Why the west coast?
The west coast may seem like an odd choice for four people who met in Michigan, but in reality it is the perfect place. The idea of Forrest Stump culminated from a conversation between Kathleen and myself. At first we were going to run across the country, hence the name Forrest Stump (a play on the movie Forrest Gump). Then we decided it would be faster to bike there. On second thought, there isn’t a whole lot to see in the middle of the country…and that’s when we decided on the West Coast. We knew the topography would be challenging but the views would be with it, what a perfect place to embark on the journey. As luck would have it, our destination being San Diego happens to be the headquarters for the Challenged Athletes Foundation, the perfect finish line for our journey. We also decided to swim, bike, and run to show that amputees could benefit from access to activity-specific devices. Each of these activities requires a differently designed leg; but unfortunately insurance does not believe being active is medically necessary.
What are the goals?
Forrest Stump is more than an athletic endeavor, it is an awareness campaign. Our goal is to spread awareness in order to change the healthcare policies that directly impact amputees. We aim to reach out to as many people as possible in order to spread our message. We are creating a documentary of the journey with the help of Snowday Studios and we have partnered with various organizations (i.e. Amputee Coalition of America, Challenged Athletes Foundation, etc.) who are working toward the same goal. Put simply, our goal is to provide coverage for the most appropriate prosthetic technology for every amputee in need, regardless of their insurance plan.
What kind of obstacles are you going to face?
We are going to face the same obstacles that any other cyclist will face as they set out on the 1,500 mile-long Pacific Coast Bike Route. The trip will be physically demanding, weather will be unpredictable, refueling stops may be few and far between, and mechanical breakdowns are bound to happen. Being an amputee I will face other obstacles as well. Perspiration becomes one of the biggest annoyances for me when I’m biking. On a hot day I may have to stop every 5-10 miles just to readjust my prosthesis. Over 1,500 miles, that is a lot of stops. But if I don’t stop, I risk my prosthesis falling off or creating painful sores and blisters which can keep me sidelined. That’s not a risk I’m willing to take. Additionally, the wear and tear on my prosthesis and on my body will be a huge obstacle. Even though I am in great physical shape, the muscle strength asymmetry (as a result of my amputation) and the fact that my prosthesis is not made for running or biking affects the way I bike and run…which over the long term leads to pain. And my prosthesis is not waterproof, so the components can rust if caught in a rain storm.
Who is on the team?
- Nicole Ver Kuilen (founder of Forrest Stump) - me!. I've been an amputee for 16 years (and counting!) and want to be a voice for a change in the system. With the help of a grant from the Challenged Athletes Foundation, and YOUR support, I knows we can make a difference by telling my story.
- Natalie Harold (the mechanic). Every team needs a good pit crew, and that is Nat! Nat is Nicole’s mechanic, or as they call it in the industry, her “prosthetist.” She even built the leg Nicole will be completing the journey on.
- Kathleen (Captain Social). Kathleen is a social butterfly and never backs down from a challenge. In fact, that’s how Nicole and Kathleen met… Nicole taught her how to bike and swim (did we mention this just happened in June?!) Now, she wants to help. She’ll be taking a break from her day job as a cancer researcher and putting her new skills to work, handling everything from PR to sponsorships to social media…oh, and biking of course.
Look for more from Nicole and team, coming soon...