By Jane Nambi
Armless bodybuilder who lost her arms at the age of 2, Barbie Thomas is inspiring crowds.
Thomas lost both her arms at the age of 2 when an electricity burnt her arms to the bone. She was playing outside her Texas apartment complex, climbed onto a transformer and grabbed on to the wires which burnt her arms.
“They were like charcoal,” she writes in her biography on her website, Fitness Unarmed. “They were completely dead and had to be amputated at the shoulders.”
At 37, despite no hope for her to live, Thomas is a competitive body builder and model. “I thank God I am alive,” said Thomas, who now lives in Phoenix with her two sons, aged 13 and 17. She uses her shoulders as arms, which her children call her “nubs.”
What helped her most was her positive attitude upbringing. “I was not allowed to be negative and say I can’t do something,” she said. “I was always taught to focus on what I can do, not what I can’t do,” she said. “It probably has a lot to do with my personality — I can’t imagine being a negative Nancy all the time,” she added.
Fitness competitors must do a two-minute performance routine incorporating dance, cheerleading or gymnastic flexibility. “They are in the same realm as body builders, but instead of seeing the deep-cut muscles, they want to see a nice feminine shape,” Thomas said. Her dance routines include splits and high kicks and even the ninja kip-up.
She was placed sixth in June at Jr. Nationals and fifth in August at the North American Championships. The National Physique Committee (NPC), which is the amateur division of the International Federation of Body Builders gave Thomas their first-ever Inspiration Award. “She chose the most difficult division of all,” said Miles Nuessle, Arizona chairman of the NPC. “We were thinking, ‘How can she do that routine?’ but she blew our minds. She was absolutely beautiful. She was on the floor jumping up and doing splits. I don’t know what half the moves were called. She was rolling all over the place and shaking it — sexy, athletic, fun and emotional. The crowd went nuts. You can’t use the word handicapped with her or she may punch you in the face,” he said. “Barbie is not handicapped,” he added.
After the accident, doctors said Thomas might live like a vegetable for the rest of her life. But her mother prayed, “God would just take me,” Thomas writes. “She also made a promise to God that day — if he let me live, she would make sure that I became ‘somebody.’ The doctors were boggled by my recovery. They decided I must have survived because of the rubber soles on my tennis shoes. True, they may have played their part, but I believe I survived because God saw the bigger picture and had plans for me.”
Thomas went through extensive physical and occupational therapy. “Every now and then, we would have to put our thinking caps on or call a therapist,” she said. “I learned to be creative and think out of the box.” She uses her feet in both dance competitions and at home. “Reaching for high stuff in the grocery store is hard, especially if it’s breakable,” said Thomas, who uses her shoulder. “If it’s a cardboard box, I can usually reach — I am tall enough — and knock it into the grocery cart. Sometimes I have to go get help. When I had long hair, I couldn’t put it up in a ponytail.”
Thomas raised her first son with the help of a husband, though she is now divorced. “I did have to pick my therapist’s brain to help with a few things with the newborn baby,” she said. “But the second one was a piece of cake. I had to kind of prop them up on a pillow and lay next to them as a holder when I nursed them. I could hold them the right way in my lap by using my leg when they were a little older.”
As to why she chose fitness, Thomas said fitness had been part of her life. “I’d go to the gym doing aerobic lifting with weights after the oldest son was born. I read about [fitness competition] in athletes’ magazines and thought it was cool. Finally, I was encouraged by a friend and decided to go for it.”
Her first competition in 2003 was at first not received well. “In the first few competitions I felt that when they were calling me to go up, in their hands and their manners, they looked at me like, ‘What the heck is she doing here?’ I put their doubts to rest when they saw my fitness routine. There are certain routines that you use your hands for that I can do — I can kip-up,” she said. “When you are laying on the ground it looks like you are falling backward and then you come up. Most people use their hands to push themselves up.”
“The reason I keep going is to prove to myself that I will get on stage and do my damn flip,” Thomas said. “I know I can and I will.”