Ranjit Steiner had entered enemy territory. Catching the football with nine minutes and forty-six seconds left on the clock, he jolted across the fifty-yard line. The only obstacle between him and a touchdown was the opposing team’s kicker. As he rushed toward the end zone, the kicker tackled low, his helmet drilling into the side of Ranjit’s right knee.
At that moment, Ranjit heard two pops. He fell to the ground and gripped his right knee in pain. He would soon find out he had torn his Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL).
Ranjit hobbled off the field and spent the rest of the game on the bench, watching his high school team lose twenty-eight to fifty-four. It would be the last football game he’d ever play.
Five years later, Ranjit, now a junior at the University of Oregon sits on a bench near the University’s practice fields. His right leg no longer hurts anymore.
His last surgery amputated his leg at the knee.
Ranjit rises from the bench and slips his running prosthesis, a carbon fiber blade outfitted with hydraulics, onto his stump. Compared to his walking prosthetic and peg leg—a vital component to his recent Halloween pirate costume—the running prosthesis is his favorite.
He trusts his right side as he locks in his running blade and ties his track shoe on his left foot. There are only 210 days left until the Paralympics in London, and Ranjit wants to compete.
Learning to run like an athlete again after his amputation wasn’t easy for Ranjit. Some might consider his recovery a miracle. Ranjit believes the surgery allowed him to be an athlete again.
Five months after his ACL injury, Ranjit, then a sophomore at Henry M. Gunn High School in Palo Alto, California, believed his body had healed and was ready for track season. His coach noted his limp and told Ranjit not to come back until it was gone.
Soon after, Ranjit noticed swelling in his right quad. Within the next few days, Ranjit’s orthopedic surgeon took some x-rays and found a grapefruit-sized tumor in his right femur. The doctor couldn’t tell if it was benign or malignant. A test later revealed that the tumor was osteosarcoma, a form of cancer that grows in bone tissue.
Still, Ranjit didn’t see chemotherapy or his cancer as an obstacle. He only had one question: “When can I get back to football and track?”
On April 27, 2006, after relentless persistence, Ranjit’s oncologist delivered her answer.
“She told me I was never going to play football or run track again,” Ranjit remembers. “That’s when I was like, ‘Shit, this sucks.’”
From his initial diagnosis, amputation had always been a secondary option. “I always knew amputation would allow me to do sports,” Ranjit says. “But I thought maybe I didn’t have to have a life with sports in order to be happy.”
After undergoing chemotherapy, Ranjit’s surgeon performed internal prosthesis in which his knee and lower femur were replaced with a metal rod. The process caused infections, requiring him to endure three more surgeries. The surgeries left him unable to straighten, bare weight or walk on his leg without pain.
In fall of 2009, Ranjit followed in his older brother’s path and began his freshman year at the University of Oregon. He found it difficult to adjust to his new life while living in the residence halls. The pain and immobility of his leg restricted him from activities such as playing football with friends and limited his ability to walk to class or parties.
“Trying to fit in was different because the things I had always fit in weren’t really there anymore,” Ranjit says. His leg simply became dead weight.
Battling depression, Ranjit went back home during winter break. His mother, Meb Steiner, received an e-mail with research her son found about amputation before he returned. She knew the conversation was approaching.
According to Meb, Ranjit was always the most active of her three children. As a child, he never stopped running.
“His athleticism and movement is an integral part of who he is,” Meb says.
A week before the surgery to remove the cancerous lesion from Ranjit’s leg, San Jose State University’s running-back coach called and expressed interest in the young athlete. If Ranjit chose to amputate, he didn’t see how he would be able to play college-level football as an amputee.
“You could always change your mind and cut off your leg,” Meb told him. “But you can’t cut off your leg, then change your mind.”
After four years of infections and immobility, Ranjit made his final decision.
“I had exhausted all other options and knew that [amputation] was the best choice for me, even though there’s no turning back,” Ranjit says.
In June 2010, nurses wheeled Ranjit into the operation room for the last time.
The period after an amputation is the most psychologically critical time for a patient explains Matthew Garibaldi, Ranjit’s physical therapist and director of the Orthotics and Prosthetic Center at the University of California San Francisco. Patients generally begin to feel reassured about their choice after they start a rehabilitation program.
“They realize that this isn’t the end of their life, but rather, the beginning of something entirely new,” Garibaldi says.
Ranjit, however, awoke after surgery feeling no regret or uncertainty. He was ready to begin his new life at full speed.
With the help of Garibaldi, Ranjit began walking with his prosthetic leg and a cane. A few months after the operation, Ranjit’s mother signed him up for a clinic hosted by former Paralympians Dennis Oehler and Todd Schaffhauser.
Ranjit had little desire to watch others receive instruction as he stood by as a spectator. However, upon entering the clinic Oehler and Schaffhauser took away Ranjit’s cane and ordered him to the parallel bars. He stood on a stack of phone books while Oehler and Schaffhauser taught him how to swing his prosthesis like a runner. His face glowed.
“I saw all the energy that had been drained out of him come back in,” Meb says of that moment.
After one day, Ranjit successfully strung together three to four steps. On day two, he was walking without the cane.
Although regaining his ability to run was Ranjit’s ultimate aim, he still set minor goals throughout his recovery. He would push himself in strength exercises to finish ten repetitions, then eleven the next week. He focused on walking with his prosthetic leg for six hours, then eight. Like other amputees, Ranjit also had to re-learn equal stride length, re-establish his center of gravity, and train new muscles to compensate for the ones that had lost their function, Garibaldi explains.
Ranjit started out going to the physical therapist four days a week. Over time, he decreased his weekly visits by half. After six months Ranjit made a full recovery but continued to make various appointments for physical therapy. Those gradual increases in exercises, stamina, and confidence helped Ranjit accomplish his ultimate goal—to be able to run again.
Ranjit had taken a year off from school for his recovery. During that time he worked and took a trip to India for a family wedding. Ranjit gained confidence with his right leg. The Paralympics had always been in the back of Ranjit’s mind, but to qualify for the 2012 Paralympics seemed too ambitious at the time.
Now with his confidence with his prosthetic and natural athleticism, Ranjit has the chance to compete. Last fall, he finished a race only two seconds over the qualifying time needed to participate in the Paralympics. Ranjit currently trains for the 100- and 200-meter sprints as well as the long jump and hopes to qualify for the Paralympics in London in August.
Each week Ranjit lines up alongside members from the University of Oregon running club to practice his sport. Cued by the coach, the runners sprint down the track. Ranjit’s right knee creaks and bounces as he follows the other runners. He usually comes in last from the group, often falling behind by multiple sets.
But when Ranjit finishes a set of sprints, he lines up to run another.
“It’s a race,” Ranjit says. “You’re judged by your time, not the way you run or how you look when you run.”
Regardless of what happens, Ranjit continues to push himself to the limit.
“Can’t have any excuses,” Ranjit says during a solo practice session.
He takes his stance at the track.