Greta Neimanas' Story
The Ride of Her Life
Greta Neimanas’ eyes were as big as saucers as she watched the cyclists zipping around the slanted, bowl-like wooden track at speeds exceeding 40 miles per hour at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece. It was that moment that the then 16-year-old Chicago native was hooked. “This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” she thought. “I’ve got to try it!”
Neimanas’ first shot at competitive cycling proved that she was an ace. Now, she will be representing the U.S. at this summer’s Paralympic Games in Beijing in September. With a big smile and bring-it-on attitude, Neimanas has been tackling new challenges all her life.
She was just three years old when she first came to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC), having been born with her left arm missing below the elbow. Neimanas had been fitted for her first artificial arm when she was six months old, allowing her to crawl with more ease. “It looked like the arm of a Cabbage Patch doll,” she recalls. RIC’s specialized therapists taught the young child to functionally use the prosthetic device and provided expertise in designing new limbs as she grew.
An Evolution of Care
RIC has grown with Neimanas through an evolution of different prosthetic styles and fittings. When Neimanas was first fit with these artificial arms, she worked with occupational therapists to learn how to use them and accomplish daily tasks such as playing, bathing and dressing.
As Neimanas grew, her goals and needs changed, and the RIC Prosthetics and Orthotics Clinic designed and fit her with several artificial arms.
“Greta has tried a number of different types of prostheses to help her determine which style will accommodate her changing lifestyle and activity levels,” said Robert Lipschutz, one of Neimanas’ prosthetists. “At RIC, she has been able to try manual and myoelectric styles and figure out what works best for her needs.”
When Neimanas became involved in cycling, RIC’s prosthetists designed an artificial arm with a universal joint that would snap into her handlebars and would help provide stability and motion control. “I remember her whizzing back and forth on her bike, pretty happy with it,” Lipschutz recalls.
Neimanas has made a number of friends at RIC through the clinical care programs and in the many community and support programs she participated in growing up.
Jamee Heelan, now an education program manager in the RIC LIFE Center, was coordinator of the pediatric amputee program for many years when Neimanas entered as a child and has watched in awe as Neimanas has grown up.
“She has challenged our prosthetic team with each idea she has, which challenges us to find a better prosthetic socket to meet her ever-growing interests in kayaking and cycling," said Heelan.
“She has always been determined and focused. She is simply remarkable,” says Heelan of the woman she has known since she was a toddler, but who she still calls "my little Greta."
Discovering New Talents
This determination and focus motivated Neimanas to accomplish great things as she grew up. When she was 10 years old, she began participating in outdoor activities organized by RIC’s Pediatric Amputee Program, such as ski trips and camping excursions. Taking part in these exciting endeavors not only boosted her confidence, but introduced her to other children her age with physical disabilities.
“It was real cool,” says Neimanas. “We formed lasting friendships, not because we had similar disabilities but because we found we had a lot of other things in common. We just happened to be missing a limb.” Now, nearly 15 years later, Neimanas is still friends with many of the people she met on these outings.
Soon Neimanas became involved in RIC’s Caring for Kids program, offering year-round adaptive sports, recreation, special events and social activities for young people aged 7 to 17 with disabilities. Prior to this program, the only sport Neimanas had played was organized soccer. Now she was exposed to new activities she had never imagined undertaking, such as kayaking, sailing, rock climbing and golf. Neimanas was drawn to kayaking, and was able to indulge herself in the exciting sport thanks to the help of a special prosthetic hand developed by RIC’s Prosthetics & Orthotics Clinical Center. The device was shaped like a hook and fit perfectly around the paddle. “How many kids growing up in Chicago get to learn how to kayak?” asks Neimanas. “It was an eye-opening experience, and it showed me that even though I have only one hand or one arm, anything is possible.”
The program did wonders for Neimanas’ self-confidence and sparked her competitive spirit. She spent two summers at Caring for Kids as a camper, before becoming a junior counselor and ultimately, a counselor.
“Greta always played a mentor role for the younger kids in the program," said Janet Lutha, CTRS, the Caring for Kids Program coordinator. “She had this level of maturity and would to try and do anything that inspired the other kids. She was an incredibly positive reinforcement to everyone else in the program.”
Many of Neimanas’ care team members at RIC credit her family for her strength and determination. Her mother even started a Chicago-based support group called Families of Amputee in Motion (FAIM) to support families of other children born with limb differences. They built a network of families all over the Chicagoland area and offer support to one another.
Evolving into an International Athlete
It was during high school that Neimanas participated in an essay contest sponsored by RIC and the U.S. Paralympic Academy in which she had to write about “What Ability Means to Me.” Neimanas’ impressive essay won her the grand prize — a trip to the Paralympic Games in Athens.
When she returned from Greece, Neimanas dreamed of one day being a Paralympian. In May 2005, she began her training by entering bike races in Chicago. Within a year, she was invited to the U.S. Paralympic National Team training camp in Chula Vista, California.
Neimanas has come a long way in short time. In 2007, she finished second in the National Championships time trial, road race and 3K individual pursuit. She also placed third in the World Championships time trial. “One day I will be world champion,” she says.
These results helped her qualify for the Paralympic cycling team that will represent the U.S. in Beijing. With the competitive spirit driving her, Neimanas hopes to medal in both track and road cycling.
Neimanas knows that none of this would have been possible without RIC and the role it has played in transforming her overall quality of life.
“Today I am doing what I love every day because RIC gave me the confidence to try new things, set goals and follow my dreams,” she said. “RIC has been a constant in my life and as corny and clichéd as it might sound, it has really changed my life.”