Despite losing his left leg in a childhood train accident, German-born American George Eyser joined a prestigious gymnastics club that competed at the 1904 Olympics in his hometown of St. Louis. (At that time, Olympians represented their clubs, not their countries.) Outfitted with a wooden prosthetic, Eyser performed poorly in the first set of events. But he bounced back to win an astounding six medals on a single day, including three golds in rope climbing, parallel bars and vault. A bookkeeper by trade, he would continue performing at high-level gymnastics competitions until at least 1909.
Italian boxer Carlo Orlandi set a precedent for deaf Olympians at the 1928 Amsterdam games, winning four straight fights to take home gold in the lightweight division. Turning professional soon after, he would compile nearly 100 victories over the course of a 15-year career.
Following a childhood streetcar accident reminiscent of Eyser’s, Oliver Halassy had his left leg amputated below the knee. He nonetheless became a mainstay of the powerhouse Hungarian water polo team, collecting a silver medal at the 1928 Olympics and then back-to-back golds in 1932 and 1936. (In one game alone, a blowout of Japan, he scored seven goals.) A champion freestyle swimmer as well as a water polo player, Halassy was posthumously inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Another Hungarian, army sergeant Karoly Takacs, was one of the world’s top pistol shooters until a defective grenade exploded during a training exercise and permanently mutilated his right hand. Undaunted, he painstakingly learned to shoot equally well with his left, surprising everyone—who thought he had only shown up to watch—by winning the Hungarian national pistol shooting championship in 1939, just a year after the accident. Takacs remained in top form even as the next two Olympics were cancelled due to World War II. When the games resumed in 1948, he set a world record and claimed gold in the rapid-fire pistol event. He then followed that up with a second gold medal at the 1952 games prior to finishing eighth at his final Olympics in 1956.
At age 23, while pregnant with her second child, Danish equestrian Lis Hartel was suddenly paralyzed by an attack of polio. Intensive physical therapy helped her to eventually regain muscle use above her knees, and she resumed riding competitively despite being unable to mount or dismount a horse on her own. At the 1952 Helsinki Olympics—the first time women were allowed to compete in the equestrian dressage event—she and her horse Jubilee placed second, narrowly losing out to Henri Saint Cyr of Sweden. In one of the Olympics’ most famous acts of sportsmanship, an impressed Saint Cyr lifted her from her horse to the podium for the medal ceremony. Four years later, Hartel picked up a second silver, once again falling just short to Saint Cyr.
Paralyzed from the waist down in a motorcycle accident, New Zealand archer Neroli Fairhall competed from a wheelchair, winning gold at the 1982 Commonwealth Games and then coming in 35th at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Several other wheelchair-bound athletes have since followed her lead, including Sonia Vettenburg, a Belgian pistol shooter at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics; Paola Fantato, an Italian archer at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics; and Zahra Nemati, the Iranian archer who will be in Rio.
U.S. swimmer Jeff Float became legally deaf in infancy when viral meningitis erased about 90 percent of the hearing in his right ear and 65 percent in his left. At the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, he swam the third leg for his country in the 4×200-meter freestyle relay. During the final, as Float extended the Americans’ lead on their way to a gold medal, the crowd cheered so loudly that he said he heard it for the first time. Sixteen years later at the Sydney Olympics, another deaf swimmer, South Africa’s Terence Parkin, earned a sliver medal in the 200-meter breaststroke.
Though born without a right hand, pitcher Jim Abbott was chosen to represent the U.S. baseball team at the 1988 Seoul Olympics following an outstanding junior year at the University of Michigan. In the final game of the demonstration tournament—baseball would not become an official Olympic sport until four years later—he propelled his side to gold, hurling all nine innings in a 5-3 victory over Japan. From there, Abbott went on to have a 10-year career in the major leagues, compiling 87 wins and a 4.25 ERA and pitching a no-hitter in 1993. He even showed some skill with the bat, lining a triple during a 1991 spring training game and going 2-for-21 during his one season in the National League.
Rendered legally blind by Stargardt disease, which causes gradual degeneration of the retinas, U.S. runner Marla Runyan said in her autobiography that she can’t always see the curbs, potholes and roots in front of her (or even her own writing). Yet she’s excelled at track and field anyway in everything from sprints to marathons, as well as in shot put, high jump and hurdles. After winning several events at the Paralympics and a gold at the Pan American Games, she finished eighth in the women’s 1,500 meters at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Runyan returned for the 2004 Athens Olympics, this time participating in the 5,000-meter race, and then capped her career with a first-place finish at the 2006 Twin Cities Marathon.
Natalie du Toit
At age 17, having just missed qualifying for the 2000 Olympics, South African swimmer Natalie du Toit was struck by a car as she rode her motorbike from practice to school. The accident ripped apart the bones and muscles in her left leg, which had to be amputated at the knee. Back in the pool a few months later, she reportedly couldn’t swim more than a couple dozen yards without tiring. But she steadfastly progressed, winning several medals at the 2004 Paralympics and then securing a coveted spot at the 2008 Beijing Olympics in the so-called marathon swim (a 6.2-mile slog through open water). Racing against able-bodied opponents without the aid of a prosthetic, she finished 16th out of 24 competitors.
Nicknamed “Blade Runner,” double amputee Oscar Pistorius gained widespread fame at the 2012 London Olympics, riding his carbon-fiber artificial legs into the semifinals of the men’s 400-meter race. (He also ran in the 4×400 relay.) The South African’s feel-good story took a sharp turn for the worse, however, when he was convicted in the 2013 killing of his model girlfriend.