Running Man

The average person might think losing their legs in a car accident is the worst thing that could happen to them. Denny Chipolinni, a United Parcel Service worker from Ambler, Pa., isn't your average man. Maybe that's why he calls his accident the best thing that ever happened to him.

It was September 1989. When his car finally stopped, a guardrail had smashed through the windshield, crushed one leg and severed the other. “The left leg -- the better of the two -- was up on the dashboard. It had compound fractures. The right leg was severed completely and only held on by a single artery," described Chipolinni, 47. "The artery is stretched to its limit. I'm holding the top part [of my leg] trying to make a tourniquet. As soon as I saw my right leg, my heart started to race and the blood started to rush. I said to myself, ‘I have to calm down. I have to steady the flow of blood or I'm going to die.' I visualized, I took myself out of the car and put myself two hours ahead, in the emergency room, and said everything's going to be ok. After a while I noticed the blood slowing down.”

In the hospital, he insisted doctors remove his severed leg -- the one held by an artery -- so he could get on with life. They said he'd never walk again. But Chipolinni had faith in what he calls the mind/body connection. “When you say something like that to me it just motivates me more. A lot of people just accept something like that. They accept the excuses so they don’t try. That’s when the separation of mind and body happens,” he said.

Unsatisfied with the hospital, Chipolinni began his own rehabilitation program. He told his father to bring in his weights. He got into his chair and pushed himself 10 miles daily. After the amputation was completed, he walked on crutches. In less than a year he was walking on a cane.

Getting well wasn’t a matter of getting his body back in shape, though. He wanted to get his mind in shape for the challenges ahead and to be able to bring his message to the masses. “You have to go out and do things you never thought you could do," he said. "You take somebody with you, a cause, someone who needs help.”

Chipolinni’s cause was his son, Nicholas, 11, who was born with Neurofibromatosis -- a genetic anomaly causing tumors to grow along nerves that can also affect the development of body tissue, ADHD and Tourette’s. Chipolinni took a 4 a.m. shift so he could always be home when his son gets back from school. “We play with Lego a lot.  He exercises with me too. He loves to fish and we go often," said Chippolini, who also has a daughter, Elyse, age 7. "And, we all eat dinner together every night. That’s an important thing for the family.”

But last year was tough for Nicholas. Difficulty with classes and kids that picked on him led to a drop in his self-esteem. So Chipolinni and his wife, Suzanne, took immediate action. They went to the school and educated the teachers and the students. They also decided to take him off the soccer team -- where he was having the most trouble -- and enrolled him in Tae Kwon Do classes. “I’m impressed with the self-esteem aspect of the martial arts. I also like that his instructor doesn’t bend. He’s got to get things right before he can advance, just like the other kids,” Chipolinni said.

This year Nicholas is doing much better. His most recent report card was full of A’s and it's all helped his self-esteem. “One night last week we were just finishing dinner and he was carrying his plate over and he said ‘Mommy, I really like myself. I like who I am. I’m going to stay just as I am.’ I give him a lot of credit. I think the Tae Kwon Do had a lot to do with it. I think he had to get a niche,” he said.

Because of his son’s experiences -- and his own -- Chipolinni started going to local schools to talk to kids about believing in themselves and following their dreams. He speaks about people with differences and how they should be treated. He tells the kids about his philosophy, finding the person inside the body through the mind/body connection.

But lecturing wasn’t enough. Deciding that the best way to get his message across was to use himself as an example, Chipolinni started running. Four years after his accident he competed in his first 5K race. Since then, he's run three marathons and has four more on his plate.

He runs to make people aware of childhood illnesses and to raise money for research into illnesses like his son’s. "I’m trying to put a fund together for donations for Neurofibromatosis," he said recently. "I’m a one-man show. There is no organization backing me. In all the races I’ve done I’m the only amputee and I get a lot of publicity. I pick a city, like Pittsburgh, and go out and run and speak."

Running has also let him develop his mind/body connection.

“My first mind/body connection was during the car accident, now I use my running to totally exhaust my body to where the mind has to take over. When the body is exhausted you realize the power of the mind. You know then who you are," he said. "It feels great to compete. I compete against myself. I’m not out there to win the race. The race itself is such a high. During the San Diego Marathon I broke down in tears of joy three times. I honestly believe there is nothing in my life that I can’t do.”

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