Young Gymnast Tumbles on One Leg After Overcoming Cancer

PHOTO: College senior Adam Starr attempts a one-legged flip after losing his leg to cancer.
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Adam Starr stepped into the Northfield Gymnastics Club last week; it had been two years since he last tumbled.

Gymnastics skills aren't like riding a bike.

Any gymnast would be rusty after two years of no physical preparation. It takes enhanced muscle memory, daily practice and sheer mental strength to convince the mind to tumble.

It takes courage for any gymnast to jump into the air and flip the human body backward in unnatural ways, fully knowing the danger that waits on the ground if one small mistake is made.

But Starr's situation was different. This time he was attempting his first gymnastics trick with only his left leg.

Starr started gymnastics at the age of 3 and continued practicing as a teenager. His mother, Leslie Starr, said he was always a "monkey" climbing around their home. His father, Garrett Starr, said that his son was always an acrobat.

"When he was little, he used to climb all the way to the top of our street sign and wave good bye to our guests as they left," he said.

The 21-year-old senior at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. lost his leg to cancer in 2009. Being a lifelong gymnast, captain of his high school track team and an All-American diver, losing one a leg was devastating.

"It was depressing. I had a couple friends that I really enjoyed doing acrobatics with, and I wasn't able to dive anymore. It was tough to realize I wasn't able to do those things anymore and that I probably wouldn't be able to ever again," Starr said.

Starr was born with a rare condition called Lymphedema, which causes swelling in limbs. In this case, Starr always had swelling issues with his leg that would come and go, but he was still able to compete in athletics.

During his freshman year, Starr went to the doctor for swelling and a bruise on his foot that would not go away. The doctor called him on Valentine's Day in his college dorm room and told him he had a form of low-grade cancer, but it still required amputation of his leg.

"At that point, I wasn't able to do the diving and gymnastics that I was able to do before because I was so swollen. I had faced the fact that I wasn't able to do athletics about six months earlier," Starr said. "I went through the period of grieving about four to six months before the amputation but it was choosing the pathway to survival rather than choosing a much darker road."

Starr Family Devastated by Aggressive Cancer News

The doctor gave Starr two choices for his surgery, either to have his below the knee amputation in just one month over spring break or to wait until his summer break. Starr chose to go ahead and have his surgery over spring break. A decision his parents agreed with, but were worried for their son.

"I thought of the other students at St. Olaf and how he spent his freshman year spring break in the hospital rather than what most freshmen would have been doing," Garrett Starr said. "He's just always had the attitude of get done what needs to be done and deal with it later."

Once the doctors did the surgery, they found that Starr actually had a very aggressive and rapidly growing cancer that had spread?a stage four angiosarcoma, which has a very high mortality rate.

"Had I picked summer break, I probably wouldn't be here," Starr said.

His mother said they were shocked by the news, but her multi-talented son, who is also a guitarist, kept them grounded after the devastating diagnosis.

"We all went back to the room and all of the family was teary. Adam quietly said, 'Can someone bring me my guitar?' He sat back in his hospital bed and played the most beautiful music and everyone in the room was crying. He just touched everyone's heart," Leslie Starr said.

Two days later, Starr went through another amputation, this time above the knee to remove the aggressive cancer that had spread. He said it was odd to see where his leg should have been after the amputation.

"It was total surprise. You can't imagine what it will look like. You're just so used to seeing your body the same way day and day again and then to see such a huge change. There's no way to prepare someone for that," Starr said.

Starr took the spring semester off from college and for the next seven months he endured a rigorous schedule of chemotherapy.

"Just imagine how it feels when you first wake up, and you feel super tired and you don't want to get your day started. That's how I felt most of the time> It just totally takes the energy out of you. It just knocked me out," Starr said. "There were a few times I got very sick."

Starr Learns to Walk and Attempts Gymnastics

Starr was fitted with a prosthetic leg and learned to walk with his new body. He said the most difficult part was building up his endurance to walk long distances.

"I can remember going back to school and walking across campus and my left leg burning and totally exhausted, because it was doing all the work," Starr said.

Starr said one thing that pulled him through his cancer was his desire to become a doctor. He is a pre-med student and will be applying to medical school after he graduates next year. He is considering the field of physical medicine and rehabilitation after going through his illness.

Starr spent the last two years rehabilitating, and just last week he decided to go back to the gym to see if he could still tumble.

"I had stood on one leg in my room balancing a few times. I thought, man I feel strong enough to do a back tuck," Starr said.

Starr walked into the gym with a couple of friends and a camera, with a goal in mind of completing a back tuck.

"I was really surprised how the beginning of the back flip wasn't that different but the landing was," Starr said. "It's all about finding the right balance?that was the part I was most nervous about because I wasn't sure if I would fall over or grab for my leg that wasn't there."

Starr's One-Legged Tumbling Video Goes Viral

To Starr's surprise, he could still land a back tuck and began attempting other gymnastics tricks that were also successful.

"It was really exciting that I was able to do something I hadn't been able to do for so long. I was getting in touch with a part of myself that I hadn't been able to for a long time," Starr said.

Starr posted the tumbling video online for his family and friends to see. The video became a viral sensation online with hundreds of thousands views. Messages came pouring into Starr's inbox from all over the country, some from amputees who were inspired by what Starr could do.

"I've been really surprised; it's all been really positive. I never expected for it take off like this," Starr said.

Starr says his return to the gym serves as an affirmation that he can achieve his goals and be successful.

"Being able to do gymnastics again means more to me than just knowing that I'm capable of doing flips. It makes me feel like I'm still the same person I was before," Starr said.

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