True warrior

Patient who underwent amputation to compete on American Ninja Warrior

By Tiffany Wilson
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Stephen France (center) will compete this season on American Ninja Warrior

Stephen France spins right and then left, kicking and chopping the air in a blur of motion as he practices the same karate techniques that almost took him to the Olympics. Next, he scrambles up a rock-climbing wall, working on his upper body strength.

If he were wearing longer pants, no one would be able to guess that France, a contestant on this season’s American Ninja Warrior on NBC, only has one foot. He chose to have his other foot removed after an industrial accident left it more painful than useful.

France, then 25 and a second-degree black belt, had spent all his free time preparing to try out for the Olympics when a 2-ton press at his workplace crushed his leg in 2006. The press stopped on top of him, pinning him until emergency crews partially disassembled it and propped it up with air bags. A TraumaOne helicopter flew him to UF Health Jacksonville, the only place in the region with a Level I trauma center equipped to deal with such a serious injury.

Screws were placed in his badly damaged foot, which was broken across the top from side to side. His open calf was put back together, and he had to undergo multiple procedures to remove dead skin, followed by skin grafts to replace the skin.

When he finally went home, France still had his foot, but it locked into uncomfortable positions, and he was in pain all the time. He underwent operations to ease the pain, but nothing worked. For a while France walked with a cane. But that lifestyle didn’t suit the Yulee man, who had been immersed in karate since he was 10.

“In the martial arts, you know the mechanics of the body, and I knew what my body was telling me,” France said.

He went to Hud Berrey, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at UF Health Jacksonville, in October 2012 to have the foot amputated. After he healed, France received a custom-built carbon fiber prosthetic.

He quickly returned to his martial arts forms, drills and kicks, but sparring was no longer an option. The blade at the end of his foot would be too dangerous for any opponent. He needed something new to channel his energy. The answer? American Ninja Warrior, a TV show that pits some of the world’s most physically skilled men and women against each other on challenging obstacle courses. France trained for the show for months, made an audition video and was invited by the show to try out in Miami in early May.

He said he hasn’t looked back since deciding to have his foot removed. Choosing to undergo an amputation is a huge decision, and France recommends finding peace with it before deciding.

“It’s one of those things you’ve got to see in your mind,” he said, tapping his finger against his head. “You’ve got to believe it in your head and your heart first. Trust in God, and trust in yourself.”

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