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Nonprofit teaches amputees the mechanics of running

Braylon O’Neill, 4, tried dribbling a soccer ball with a new pair of prosthetic legs in Boston Sunday.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Braylon O’Neill, 4, tried dribbling a soccer ball with a new pair of prosthetic legs in Boston Sunday.

After nearly six months, four operations, and more physical therapy than she cares to recall, Heather Abbott stood on the artificial turf, adjusted her new, high-tech prosthetic leg, and did something none of the other Marathon bombing amputees has since the attacks.

She began to run.

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At first, the 38-year-old from Newport, R.I., moved awkwardly down the wet field at Harvard University, careful not to jam the blade of her new prosthetic into the turf and tumble. But as she kept at it, doing one drill after another in the rain, her gait became more fluid and her confidence rose.

“It feels pretty good — different, like there’s more spring in my step,” said Abbott, who compared the new prosthetic and the one she uses daily to the difference between driving a Corvette and a Volkswagen. “It feels better the more I do it.”

Abbott was one of 41 amputees, including several victims of the bombings, at a special running clinic Sunday organized by the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a San Diego-based nonprofit that provided Abbott a $5,000 hook-shaped blade designed for running.

The prosthetic takes getting used to, and the organization’s trainers put Abbott and the others through the paces on Harvard’s Cumnock Field. They learned about balance, practiced proper posture, and with help from a large number of physical therapists who held many of them by a special belt, they worked on gait. They also discussed how to overcome the inevitable pain.

“It takes a long time to get used to this, to getting through the chafing and the blisters,” said Roy Perkins, a senior marketing director for the foundation. “You can’t just slap on a leg. It takes a lot of confidence.”

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Andrew Walther, a spokesman for the Knights of Columbus, a New Haven-based nonprofit helping finance the costs of prosthetics for Marathon bombing victims, said watching Abbott and the others run was a testament to their resilience.

 coach Bob Gailey.

The Boston GlobeJessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Boston Marathon survivor Heather Abbott (left) was helped by gait analysis coach Bob Gailey.

“We don’t want evil to have the last word,” he said.

The amputees gathered on the field beside Harvard Stadium ranged in age from 2 to 70.

Four-year-old Braylon O’Neill, a double amputee from Cranston, R.I., was practicing dribbling a soccer ball with his new blades, also a gift from the foundation.

His mother, Kelli, said she felt a deep peace watching her son play like any other kid. “He looks so free,” she said, noting he was born without the tibia and fibula in both legs.

When Braylon stopped for a minute, he called his new legs “awesome.”

“I never want to take them off — for the rest of my life,” he said.

Among those trying to improve their gait was Celeste Corcoran, 47, of Lowell, who lost both of her legs after being hit by the first bomb near the Boston Marathon finish line.

Using the same prosthetics she has had since July, Corcoran joined the others braiding down the field, moving sideways with one foot after the other. After several trips, she was sweating and exhilarated.

Braylon O'Neill, 4, was born without the tibia and fibula in both legs.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Braylon O'Neill, 4, was born without the tibia and fibula in both legs.

“It feels really good – awesome,” she said, with a physical therapist holding one hand and a Marine who lost both legs in Afghanistan holding the other.

She doesn’t expect to run marathons like her sister, for whom she was cheering on April 15, but she definitely wants a pair of the blades.

“I still feel like a toddler learning to walk,” she said. “Maybe I’ll be able to trot across the finish line next year.”

After laboring across the field again, she said she had no fear of falling, even when walking backward, traversing cones, and padding through rings.

“Everyone else worries, but it doesn’t hurt,” she said. “You go down and you get up. I just giggle.”

Over the past few months, she has done Pilates to strengthen her core and learned lessons about life.

“Nothing comes from nothing,” she said. “You have to work at it.”

She added: “In the beginning, it was so hard to stay positive. Now, even though I’m still healing inside, I know that it’s about the limits you put on yourself. ”

Her daughter, Sydney, who was wearing a matching Boston Strong cap, began to tear up as she watched her mother. She, too, is still recovering from her wounds, including a severed femoral artery. But after five surgeries, the 18-year-old said she’s feeling much better than just a few weeks ago.

She said she felt inspired as she watched her mother manipulate her two prosthetics almost as if they were her own legs. “I know how hard she has worked just to keep her balance and to stand up straight,” she said.

Some amputees may never wear the blades.

Participants in the Challenged Athletes Foundation's clinic ran through a drill in Boston.

Jessica Rinaldi For The Boston Globe

Participants in the Challenged Athletes Foundation's clinic ran through a drill in Boston.

Jim Kane, 62, of Mansfield, said he would love a prosthetic designed to make it easier to run, but he said they are expensive and his insurance company won’t provide one. Getting one for free or raising enough money for one was difficult for most amputees, he said, unless they are children or bombing victims. With fittings and therapy, they can cost between $15,000 and $40,000, depending on the amputation, foundation officials said.

After heaving across the field, however, Kane smiled.

He was happy to be moving around again, to be increasing his heart rate. “This feels good,” said Kane, who began using a prosthetic after losing a leg to leukemia five years ago.

Another bombing victim, Roseann Sdoia, watched from the sidelines. Like many who use prosthetics, she was coping with blisters. The friction would have made it too painful to join the others.

After five surgeries, she has no time for bromides. She was a runner, too, and is eager to get back to it.

“But just because we get legs doesn’t mean we’re cured,” she said. “Every day is a different challenge.”

She spoke as Joan Benoit Samuelson, who twice won the Boston Marathon, roused the group, telling them that they had to stick with it.

“There is no finish line,” she told those gathered around. “There’s always another goal out there to overcome.”

Afterward, Benoit Samuelson watched Abbott move gingerly across the turf. She said the new runner had perfect form.

“She certainly has a killer attitude,” she said. “She was at the Marathon supporting our sport, and I’ll support her in any way I can.”

By the end of the two-hour clinic, Abbott was feeling the toll.

She decided to pass on the final obstacle course, but she was still smiling as she watched the others sprint back and forth.

“I’m definitely a little sore,” she said. “But this is just the beginning.”

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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