Aimee Mullins is a real life super woman. A double amputee before the age of 1, Mullins was the first "disabled" athlete to compete in the NCAA (and win) on the groundbreaking Cheetah Leg, which she helped test. Her outspoken advocation for imagination and innovation in prosthetics has led to countless collaborations with engineers, artists, and designers alike. She's walked the runway for the late Alexander McQueen and starred in Matthew Barney's Cremaster films. Today, Mullins continues to defy expectations, turning her focus towards acting and film production, while working on the Council for Women & Sports.

Do you remember your legs?
I don’t have any conscious memory but I have muscle memory. I imagine that muscle memory has to be conscious in some way. Like, right now I’m curling the fourth toe of my left foot. And I only had feet for a year.
Are there muscle memories with prosthetics?
That’s a very interesting question. Yeah, I think so. Every time I change my legs, it is a different physical experience. It’s kind of like how you have to carry yourself from heels to flat shoes.
What was your first pair of prosthetics?
They were small little wooden ones. I mean little baby legs that had a big leather cuff going around the side that had to be laced up. I was learning to corset my thigh at a very young age.
How advanced was this design for the time?
I mean there was nothing advanced about them. The design hadn’t changed much since after World War 2 There was actually a ton of medical advancement that came from that war; The need to basically take thousands of wounded service men and figure out how to help them re-enter civilian life and be earners. Prosthetics went from straight wood to these wood plastic composites.
Like moulded plywood?
Yes exactly. Those furniture designers, Eames, that’s how they learned how to bend plywood: prosthetics and assisted medical devices.
And that was the kind of legs you first had?
Yeah, there really wasn’t any innovation done until the late eighties when the flex foot was born, which was using carbon fiber.
So the wooden legs weren’t good?
I mean I would break those toes off all the time. They were unisex, the feet were unisex. The shape of the legs had a really mass market feel, even though each person has to be cast. There’s no mass market prosthetic that can just go on somebody. It’s not a ski boot. It has to fit your exact contours.
Did you get a new leg every year? Every time you grew?
It was supposed to be a pair of legs every three or four years. There was one year I grew five and a half inches and the insurance companies wouldn’t help. I remember both my parents having wars with them on the phone. “She can’t fit into them. This isn’t decadence, this is necessity.”
Is it like that as an adult?
Well, just recently in New York State, our lawmakers signed a new law for anybody who’s covered under Obamacare: if you have a prosthetic, insurance only has to cover one prosthetic for your whole life after the age of 18, which is...
Completely. My body’s still changed hugely after 18. I mean also if you think about pregnancy, the fluctuations of life that change your weight. It’s extraordinarily short-sighted and I hope they repeal it.
Were you were always into sports?
I wouldn’t say into sports. I certainly wasn’t a jock. I was into art. I was into pretending to be other people, writing plays, so I did everything. But I like being physical, I like competing. Even really goofy stuff where it’s like wheelbarrow races or an egg toss or water balloon toss, I love seeing how far you can get.
You were into skiing as well?
I loved skiing.
That’s really cool. I used to ski race. I always thought it was a real science-fiction kind of sport in general.
Just all the gear. The ski-boots really only make sense in a ski on a mountain covered in snow.. Its super specific. Did you ever do slalom?
I did. I raced. I never had to deal with shin guards.
That’s so cool.
I miss skiing.
I also read you went to college in Georgetown with a scholarship for international affairs? How did that happen?
Well, the scholarship was from the Defense Department but I didn’t know that when I applied. This is how they advertised it: “full scholarship opportunity provides full tuition, room and board and books to any accredited college or university of the student’s choice, provides challenging summer employment and a guaranteed job after graduation with a phone number.”
So you didn’t know what it was?
I just thought it must be a hoax and chucked it in the garbage can. I almost got to my next class and I had this weird stop, went and dug it out. I ran into our principal who I stopped and showed the piece of paper thinking he’s going to say this is bullshit. He said “you’re never going to forgive yourself if you don’t find out.” So we went up to his office, he called the number and it was the Pentagon.
It turns out this scholarship opportunity had been open nationwide for the last eight months and the deadline was the next day. You needed transcripts, three essays, letters of recommendation. The Principal wrote out a pass for the rest of the day and I started writing. I didn’t even have a computer, I wrote these things out long hand and one of my aunts who’s a secretary typed them up. The principal said he would do a letter of recommendation.
In a day?
Yeah, the principal faxed everything in. We didn’t hear anything for however many months and then I get a letter saying I’ve made it to the semi-finals, which was 16 students. I had to come for interviews and tests for character evaluation and drug tests. That’s when I realized what this is. It’s the Intelligence World. I had a kid come to me and say “what the hell did you do? Somebody pulled me out of math class, like flashed a badge and asked me all these questions about you!
What did they want to know?
They asked if I was promiscuous. They wanted to know if I did drugs. They wanted to know my reputation.
And none of this turned you off?
Well If I was going to be the first Mullins to go to a university. I knew I was gonna totally be on my own to figure out financially how I was gonna get there. Also coming from a blue collar family, having a guaranteed job after graduation was the dream.
And you got in.
I was one of the three. I show up in Washington at this school where the Prince of Spain was in my class, people with trust funds. Every day that I didn’t have class, I had to report to duty. I was basically a full-time employee.
At the Pentagon?
It was the Intelligence community so it was CIA, DIA, NSA, DEA. Every year I did a different thing. I worked in counter narcotics, following the heroin trade.
Were you into it?
It was really fascinating to be a teenager thrown into this world but I knew very quickly it wasn’t for me.
Were you doing athletics the entire time?
I hadn’t competed since high school. For two years of not having that outlet I was almost desperate for some other way out of this scholarship thing. When you’re a kid, five years after graduation seems like an eternity and I was desperate to figure out a way to pay back and sever ties.
How did you get back into competing?
It was a bartender in one of my college haunts who had been a miler at UMASS that suggested this disabled sports meet. I was like “Where are you going with this?” I had never competed in anything like that. I was so hurt until I realized there was something to explore here. I had no actual experience of what he was referring to and yet I was judging it, so I knew I needed to go check it out.
What was your first “disabled” track meet?
It was the National Disabled Sports Championships at MIT. And I had wooden legs. When I got there and I saw all these people and they all have way better technology than I had.
How did you do?
I won. I won and set a new national record in the 100 meter. It was out of sheer adrenalin and terror. I realized immediately I had to be on the Paralympics team. I was gonna make this team. I had 11 months to the trials. Georgetown has one of the best track teams in the country and the coach agreed to coach me on his lunch break, which I did for the fall semester. Then spring semester I joined the track team.
You were the first amputee to compete in the NCAA track and field, right?
Yeah, NCAA period.
How did that happen?
In ignorance. I didn’t know. It’s not like I set out to be the first but I had never competed in what they called “disabled” sports. I was never part of a support group. I knew there were other people that were amputees but it wasn’t like I knew any or sought them out.
Did you end up getting better legs?
After the MIT race this guy had given me his card and he was the guy who invented that flex foot. He told me to call him. I figured I was gonna get these regular flex feet, with the shock absorber in it. I flew out to San Diego and this whole other thing happened with the Cheetah leg.
He wanted to work on it with you?
Yeah. In some ways I was the perfect guinea pig for it. Most amputees are missing one leg- they’re unilateral. All of the measurements are based off of the flesh and bone leg, your height, your weight, your pronation, alignment. With me it’s a big “x” factor. which drove every prosthetist crazy my whole childhood.  With an engineer  there’s no baggage about what you need to do and what it should look like.
What was the idea behind the Cheetah Legs?
The idea was to get the fastest woman in the world in prosthetics: not just try and replicate a human leg.
Was it a totally different running experience?
Oh, yeah. It took me a full month to be able to run 100 meters on it. But you get used to it. It was all about coming back and be a member of this nationally ranked track team.
But on a different level.
Yeah. I would go out every weekend and just invite stares as I was literally trying to figure this thing out. It was intense, a major shift. When I was able to reflect on it later, it was really a metamorphosis.  I went from trying to blend in to the complete opposite.
They’re really beautiful in comparison to the flex-foot.
They’re so striking. Realizing there’s something beautiful about these was a real moment. Today, it’s 20 years this month that I was running to the championship on those legs. And it would still be another couple months before they would really make the magazines.
There was a big media splash?
In ‘97 there was 10 pages in Sports Illustrated. There was a double page thing in Life magazine. It got to the point where I was just saying no. The phone would be ringing all the time and it was like this is blah, blah, blah from Inside Edition. But I was very cognizant of the certain kind of trajectory that was completely expected for somebody with what people perceive as a disability, which is like you’re “inspirational.”
You spoke about that in your TED talk in ‘98.
After that TED talk for the rest of the conference, I was having all these people approaching me, architects and designers, people that deal with aesthetics in the way I never had really examined. That led to talking  to Chee Pearlman was the kind of wunderkind editor at the time of ID magazine, which led to the cover story. Which in turn led to Dazed and Confused.
How did that happen? That was Nick Night, Peter Saville and Alexander McQueen?
Peter Saville, the graphic designer had given the ID to Nick Knight and McQueen. Then they called me and sent me their press kits saying they loved what I was talking about and if I would get on a plane next week to come to london and be photographed. Which I did. That shoot for Dazed and Confused  was a life size plan for what became the carved wooden legs.
That you did with McQueen?
Yeah. After the show he asked me to open his show fall. I had the summer to basically go from an athlete who had taken weight gainer to put muscle on because I naturally was scrawny to a model watching carbs. I was a complete neophyte in that world.
But this was the beginning of your modelling career.
Yeah, I shot a lot of amazing photos with lots of awesome people. My frustration was that models get paid basically because they disappear in the clothes. Everyone wanted to write an article about me so it was weird. I had the press that any model would want but all I wanted was to earn a paycheck, which didn’t happen. It was not long after that that I started working with Matthew Barney.
How did that start?
He wrote me a bunch of letters and I didn’t respond. I guess he sent one to my agent, because called me and was like “this guy’s legit.” I was getting a lot of interest from people who ran the gambit from interesting to totally crazy.
What did he want?
He wanted me to play three different characters which ended up being seven, I think. We could never quite end. He would always call me late at night asking what I thought about this idea for a new character. It ended up being about 2 years. We had such a good fun but it was very hard.
Like physically exerting?
Absolutely. But there was a strong connection because we had both been athletes, so we were very symbiotic from the start. I will go to my limits with someone that I trust.  
OK I have a few more questions: How did you get your first pair of heels?
I was 19 years old in London for the first time and and saw Jerry Hall replicated at Madame Tussaud’s wax museum. And I was like you can do that? Then I found this company in England called Dorset Orthopedic run by a prosthetist named Bob Watts. I just saw him the week before last when I was there. Dorset took that that kind of wax museum technology where it’s intrinsically painted silicon. They rub these paper thin layers of silicon and they put pigment in.
And they made it a heel?
Yes, those legs were made for a two-inch heel, very sweet. I still have them.  Then I started really going for it, three and a half and four. They said it couldn’t be done. “You’ll never be able to walk on that kind of an angle.”