A 3,000-pound drop-hammer is used to demolish slabs of concrete. It's designed to pound and pulverize.

In 2003, such a device fell on both of Jeff Nolan's legs. Initially he was told he might never walk again. There were bouts of depression and alcohol abuse. He learned to live with pain. What he wasn't sure he could live without was athletic competition.

After 16 surgeries, he met Emily. A year after they married, they were parents of a baby boy. Now the young father felt an even greater need to figure out how to give his life greater meaning and purpose.

He wanted, most of all, to enjoy an active lifestyle with his young family.

How could that happen, though if he was physically limited? Could he play catch in the front yard? Would they ever enjoy fishing or boating? How about a foot race in the park or a swim in the ocean? Nolan wasn't interested in adjustments or making do. He had always approached life at full speed.

His sheer determination to "make things work" was being tested. Through therapy, one leg was quite strong and functional, but the other was limited by a crushed ankle that left Nolan despondent and unable to do everything he wanted to do.

He soon learned that he might gain greater enjoyment from life if he would consider losing something in the process.

A new lease

Nolan was introduced to Richard Blalock, a below-the-knee amputee. It was Blalock who demonstrated what life might be if Nolan considered amputation. This was no small decision. On March 4, 2010, Nolan's left leg was removed below the knee. All during recovery, Nolan dreamed of running again. He knew it might just be a jog, but even a small breeze in the face with sweat on the brow would be worth all the hours of recovery and therapy.

In addition to a prosthetic leg for walking and general movement, he also desired a blade for running. Seven months after the amputation, he entered a fundraising race in Mount Pleasant. He and Emily arrived an hour before the race started, but there was a problem. He forgot to bring his running leg. They decided to hurry home, retrieve the leg and hustle back to the starting line. By the time they returned, the race had started but organizers said he could still participate.

Nolan immediately broke into a slow trot, found his gait and 25 minutes later crossed the finish line with a huge smile across his face.

Because of all the strides made to assist those injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, it is a new day for amputees. But getting a leg or arm to move is just part of the equation. The mind also has to be willing.

No stopping now

Nolan, 31, is now biking and swimming and running. As a matter of fact, he's started to compete in triathlons, a sport that incorporates all three of these athletic disciplines. His goal is to make the 2016 U.S. Paralympics in Brazil. To do that, he'll have to post a time in some upcoming competitions that qualify him for consideration. Already, though, he's been accepted into a training camp for carefully selected athletes who have been identified as potential members of the U.S. team.

The Nolans now have another child. Both he and Emily work for a local orthotic and prosthetic company and have founded an amputee support group called Limbs Without Limits.

If Nolan makes that Olympic team, that'll be terrific. He and Emily still laugh about the race where he "forgot his leg."

If the Olympic experience doesn't happen, the Nolans are still a family experiencing life on the run that might never have happened without determination and a desire to chase some dreams. Dreams that not even a drop-hammer could crush.

Reach Warren Peper at 937-5577 or wpeper@postandcourier.com.