How I Survive … Playing Water Polo as an Amputee

Chapman University sophomore Wilson Parnell talks about sports, psychology, and the struggles of being different


Fibular hemimelia is the name of the condition I was born with. No fibula bone. I’m also missing two major ligaments and some tendons in the knee. My leg is deformed, basically.

My parents had two options: amputation, or a set of leg lengthening procedures, which are really painful. So they decided to amputate when I was 16 months old. I had a surgery a year until I was 7, when I had a pretty big one. My knee was growing but I couldn’t extend it, so they cut some tendons and my leg snapped back into place. But my kneecap still has a tendency to dislocate. A lot.

After that surgery I was good to go. I started walking and using my prosthesis every day. I played a lot of basketball, but in the eighth grade my kneecap kept dislocating during games, and I finally tore my meniscus. That’s how I got into water polo. I was spending a lot of time in the water to rehab my knee, and there was something about the eggbeater motion of my legs—you’re always treading water in water polo—that wasn’t as painful as basketball. So now I play for Chapman.

When I was younger, I didn’t recognize myself as being different. I was just Wilson. But in middle school, you’re hitting puberty, and if you have a prosthetic leg on top of that, that’s a curveball. And in high school, and now in college … I guess sometimes you wonder if girls don’t like it, you know? Do people think it’s weird? Are my teammates gonna be scared because my legs look different? I mean, I’ve got scars and stuff.

There’s always the occasional person who tries to take a shot. I scored a goal during a high school water polo tournament and a guy on the other team said something about my leg. I really can’t remember what he said. But I was ticked off for the rest of the game and I really, really wanted to get back at that kid. We were already losing, which made it worse. After the game, when we were shaking hands, I kind of shoved him.

I’m majoring in psychology, and it’s rooted in my leg, I think. My biggest question—the thing that I’ve never understood—is why I don’t have a lot of recollections of my surgeries. You’d think I’d remember a lot of those traumatic experiences, but I’ve completely shut them out. I don’t remember anything from that time, even the later surgeries when I was 9, or 10, or 14. I want to understand that. I want to understand the way the mind works.

People stare. They point from their cars. I’ve got multicolored legs and I have a colorful prosthetic. When I was a kid I wanted my prosthetic to look like a real leg, but at some point I decided that if I was going to stand out I might as well stand out to the max. I think it’s a way of pushing back. If people are going to notice me, I want them to see that I’m OK.

 

A Patient Recommends

Parnell received his custom legs from Mark Schaal at Quality Care Prosthetics in Anaheim

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