By Susan Donaldson James, Good Morning America
Barbie Thomas lost both her arms at the age of 2. She was playing outside her Texas apartment complex and climbed onto a transformer, grabbling on to the wires. The electric current traveled through her little body, from her hands out her feet, burning her arms to the bone.
“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.”
No one expected Thomas to live. But today, at 37, she has accomplished what was once regarded as the impossible: 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.”
Thomas said her positive attitude is rooted in her upbringing.
“I was not allowed to be negative and say I can’t do something,” she told ABCNews.com, holding the phone between her ear and her right-hand shoulder, which is more substantial than her left side.
“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.”
Fitness competitors, in addition to having beautifully sculpted bodies, 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. Experts say something in between a body builder and a bikini girl.
Her dance routines include splits and high kicks and even the ninja kip-up. Thomas 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, was so impressed with her performance in their fitness division last year, they 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,” he said. “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.”
After the childhood accident, doctors said Thomas might live like a vegetable for the rest of her life. But her mother prayed that if that were the case, “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,” she said. “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. Adapting to a world without arms was a challenge and even years later, when she was independent, she’d have to improvise to do ordinary tasks.
“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 makes full use of her feet in both dance competitions and at home, using them to open doors, plug in her music and grab her bags. She uses her mouth to fasten the Velcro snaps on her dance shoes.
“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.”
Thomas said fitness had been part of her life “forever.” Growing up, she played soccer, danced and did aerobic running. When her first child was born she got into aerobic lifting with weights and later became an instructor.
“I’d go to the gym doing aerobic lifting with weights after the oldest son was born,” she said. “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.”
She began competing in 2003, and she faced some odd stares.
“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?'” she said. “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.”
Thomas admits she is anxious about doing a back flip, which requires arms to get height and momentum, even though she is capable.
“I have to compensate and use my upper body more and my leg a lot,” she said. “My core is pretty strong.
“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.”
Nuessle, who runs NPC Miles Productions, said he once made a comment to Thomas that she said gave her the “fuel” to keep competing.
“At one of the shows I said without pulling any punches, ‘It’s hard to win when you don’t have upper extremities.’ The judges look at symmetry,” he said. “She got a fire in the belly and said, ‘Don’t tell me I can’t win. I’ll use that to motivate me.’ … She did make me eat my words.”
The sport is grueling, demanding weight training five days a week, and cardio work every day. Athletes like Thomas must pay attention to the nutrition in their diet and stay focused.
But Thomas thrives on the challenge, especially because it sends a strong message to others.
“I realize it inspires many people, and not just those with physical challenges,” she said. “Follow your dreams and keep pushing and where there is a will, there is a way. We all have our own stuff to deal with and our own limitations and handicaps. Mine are just more visible. There’s always someone else out there who has it worse.”