Unquenchable Spirit: The Cameron Clapp Story

By Sherry Metzger, MS
Photo courtesy of Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics Inc., www.hanger.com
Photo courtesy of Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics Inc., www.hanger.com

It was 3 PM on a Wednesday afternoon in sunny Pismo Beach, California, and 19-year-old Cameron Clapp was looking for a tuxedo while juggling his cell phone. The scene sounds like an average teenager getting ready for prom, but Clapp was gearing up for an important day in his young life: The Shining Star Awards Gala.

The 58th annual dinner/dance event, sponsored by Just One Break Inc. (JOB), a nonprofit organization founded in part by Eleanor Roosevelt in 1947, was honoring gold medal-winning Clapp for his achievements as a star athlete. On November 30, 2005, he became one of a few recipients of the prestigious award, along with such luminaries as Christopher Reeve and Ray Charles. "It's a black-tie event," he explained while preparing. "There are going to be a lot of important people there, I imagine."

In fact, Ann Curry, NBC's Today Show anchorwoman, gave a special introduction and ABC's 20/20 anchor, Bill Ritter, served as master of ceremonies. The gala honored "those whose outlook and achievements provide inspiration and encouragement for people with disabilities," read the invitation to the event, titled Silver Linings, "either by example or by supporting JOB in its mission of helping qualified applicants obtain sustainable employment."

One of three Shining Star recipients that evening, Clapp received a standing ovation after his acceptance speech. "I was very nervous," he said afterwards. "This was the biggest event of my life and something of which I'll always be proud." Having always been an outstanding athlete, Clapp's accomplishments are now especially impressive and inspirational, since he's missing three limbs.

Four days after the devastation of September 11, 2001, a young Clapp faced his own life-changing tragedy. "One night...I got hit by a train," he explained. Taking up the charge from President Bush to light candles in remembrance of the victims, Clapp, his twin brother Jesse, and several friends built their own memorial. After a night at a friend's house, where the mood was slightly somber and reflective, but included drinking, Clapp returned to his home in Grover Beach, California. "At 3 AM, I went outside for some fresh air and relit the candles," Clapp said. He crossed the street to proudly gaze at the memorial and, as speculated later, passed out on the train tracks. Witnesses said they never heard a train whistle, and Clapp wonders if it may have made a difference: "It might have alerted me back into consciousness, so I could have moved." However, Clapp maturely takes responsibility for the accident and has not let it quench his enthusiasm for life.

Achieving the Impossible'

Cameron utilizes a variety of custom-designed prosthetic devices, enabling him to enjoy an active, productive life. This includes participating in a wide variety of activities and athletic events. Photos courtesy of Hanger Pros­thetics & Orthotics Inc., www.hanger.com
Cameron utilizes a variety of custom-designed prosthetic devices, enabling him to enjoy an active, productive life. This includes participating in a wide variety of activities and athletic events. Photos courtesy of Hanger Pros­thetics & Orthotics Inc., www.hanger.com

The accident left Clapp a triple amputee, taking both his legs and his right arm. Yet, from the moment he awoke in the hospital, he remained optimistic about his chances to live life fully. Though Clapp's first doctors predicted he wouldn't walk on his graduation day, he amazed everyone and did walk, in addition to being elected the student speaker. After finishing high school a semester early, Clapp studied at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, California, where he was again elected student speaker and received the Zelle Diefenderfer Scholarship.

He said in an interview on CNN's Saturday Morning News, "Life is unfair. Some people get it hard; some get it easy." Although daily tasks are more difficult he said, "My accident was a good thing in some ways; I wouldn't be the person that I am today. It's not what I'm left with; it's what I've done. I've just adapted." His motto truly expresses Cameron: "Impossible' is an opinion, not a fact."

Clapp's state-of-the-art prostheses make the "impossible" a reality, allowing him to run 100 meters in only 18 seconds, swim 20 laps, and even play golf. In the Endeavor Games (a multi-sport event for athletes with disabilities), from 2002-2005, Clapp earned several gold and silver medals. He has high aspirations for future athletic competitions saying, "I'd love to be in the Paralympics, but there aren't enough athletes in my category. I'm the only triple amputee that runs!"

High-Tech Enables Goals

His legs were amputated just above the knees, leaving him with a "very long lever arm to move the prostheses," explained Randy Richardson, Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics Inc., on Clapp's website. "The way the prosthetic limbs fit onto the residual limbs is critical for using bilateral above-knee prostheses." Richardson continued, "Cameron's lower-extremity prostheses are made up of the patented Hanger ComfortFlexTM Socket System. They are held on by suction." Because the new socket design actually stimulates muscle growth, the size of Clapp's residual limbs has increased. "[The limbs] have grown quite a lot," Clapp said. "My old sockets would entirely fit inside the ones I wear now!"

Upper-extremity specialist Chuck Anderson, CP (center) and Kevin Carroll, MS, CP, FAAOP work with Cameron and his new body-powered arm prosthesis. Photo courtesy of Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics Inc., www.hanger.com
Upper-extremity specialist Chuck Anderson, CP (center) and Kevin Carroll, MS, CP, FAAOP work with Cameron and his new body-powered arm prosthesis. Photo courtesy of Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics Inc., www.hanger.com

Richardson continued, "Cam­­eron has several diff­erent com­ponents that attach below the sockets. For everyday walking, Cam­eron uses the Hanger Com­plete System, which uses the Com­fort­Flex Sockets with the Otto Bock C-Leg® computer knee system." The C-Leg con­tains a microprocessor that reads weight distribution via sensors throughout the prosthetic legs and adjusts the hydraulics accordingly.

Said Clapp, "The C-Leg greatly improved my independence and mobility. It's a system that reacts to how I'm walking."

An ankle device replaces the computer knee allowing for swim fins to fit over the feet. "Since the movable ankle joints are attached directly to the ComfortFlex Sockets, there is less resistance when kicking the legs while in the water," Richardson described. "Cameron also has a specialized pair of running legs, which utilize ultra-lightweight hydraulic knee units and carbon-fiber sprint feet."

Clapp focused all of his attention at first on his lower-extremity prostheses. But after a year and a half, he realized that an upper-limb prosthesis could greatly benefit his active lifestyle. It was a challenge for upper-extremity specialist Chuck Anderson to successfully fit such a short residual limb, amputated almost to the shoulder. "His current upper-extremity prosthesis is made up of an Alps silicone liner with a distal pin attachment. This locks into the carbon fiber frame, which also has a suspension strap that hooks around his left arm," said Richardson.

"Cameron has a body-powered, full-length prosthetic arm with a voluntary opening hook attachment for everyday use. He also has a specialized swim [attachment]." Richardson concluded, "It is Cameron's positive attitude and determination that has been paramount to the success he has earned using prosthetic limbs."

TV Embraces Clapp

Of the many new opportunities since his accident, Clapp said, "I've met great people and been to awesome places." He adds, "It's a lot of hard work, practice, and training--physically and mentally." But, with family support, the teamwork of great prosthetists, his motivation and determination, Clapp has been able to live quite an amazing life. In addition to athletic competitions, Clapp has made several TV appearances. His story was featured on the Discovery Channel's "Medical Incredible," NBC's Today Show, and CNN. He also has appeared on the HBO series "Carnivale" and most recently NBC's My Name is Earl, starring Jason Lee.

"Jason Lee is hilarious!" Clapp exclaimed. "He is one of my role models, and I was so excited to meet him. To be filming with him was amazing!" Clapp played the boyfriend of hip-disartic amputee DiDi, and chased Earl. Earl exclaimed, "As handi-capable as one-legged Didi was, her no-legged boyfriend was handi-capabler!" Clapp explained that shooting the few seconds of footage required, "a lot of running on uneven surfaces, but they improvised for my situation."

Helping Others

Today, in addition to intensive running and swim training, Clapp travels extensively as a patient advocate, educating others about his rehabilitation process at Hanger workshops and clinics. He also is a certified peer visitor for the Amputee Coalition of America (ACA). His experience with highly skilled prosthetists has led to his decision to pursue the field as a profession. "Great prosthetists have made my life much more enjoyable; they've inspired me. I've always wanted to do something that involves helping others." He also responds to more than 100 e-mails a week, encouraging and supporting others.

A recent trip to Washington DC afforded him an opportunity to help soldiers returning as amputees from the war. At the Walter Reed Medical Center, Clapp presented various prostheses and said, "This was a major accomplishment for me because I helped soldiers who put their life on the line for our country. I thanked each one of them." As he explored national monuments, he picked up the issue of People magazine that included his story and said proudly, "I saw myself as an inspirational person and realized I've had a lot of accomplishments in my life despite my accident."

When questioned about his greatest accomplishment, Clapp responded, "I recently got my driver's license!" The statement is a reminder that this amazing man, after all, is still a teenager. He concluded, "I don't live in pity or sorrow. I don't have regrets or remorse. There are lots of things people can take from my story, but the best is hope."

You can learn more about Cameron Clapp by visiting his website, www.cameronclapp.com 

Sherry Metzger, MS, is a freelance writer with degrees in anatomy and neurobiology. She is based in Westminster, Colorado, and may be reached at metzgerfive@hotmail.com