WAYNE — Alex Manna insists he’s “just like any ordinary kid.”
When it’s time to work out, Manna needs a bit of extra equipment: a workout prosthetic fired by nerve impulses in his brain.
Manna slowly rolls a silicone sleeve over his left arm, past the elbow, “like how you put a sock on your foot.” That stabilizes a carbon-fiber prosthetic, which has a socket on the end for attachments: a clamp for dumbbells and a hook for barbells or a pullup bar.
Manna adds the weight, then screws it into his prosthetic, turning the Seton Hall Prep student into a modern-day Inspector Gadget, Cyborg, or Bionic Man.
“It really changed my life,” Manna said of the device, which was funded by the Massachusetts-based Born to Run Foundation.
“It’s not just about going to the gym like everyone else. It’s helping me become healthier, stronger, more fit. … I do the same things as everyone else. But it has helped a lot.”
‘He’s going to try’
Manna was born without his left hand and forearm, “a one in a million” congenital defect, according to his mother, Connie Manna. His right arm is ordinary, but the left extends just below the elbow and ends in foreshortened fingertips.
Connie Manna “pushed him” into taekwondo when he was 2½, then soccer, baseball, basketball and lacrosse.
“‘Oh, but how’s he going to play?'” people would ask Connie Manna.
Her answer: “He’s going to try. We always put him in and let him do what he could on his own. He was the first one in day care to zipper his jacket. ‘I want to do it myself.’ That’s why most of the time, people don’t even realize he doesn’t have a hand until they look. He’s used to doing everything.”
The summer before fifth grade, Manna joined Rogie Turco’s youth fitness program at RPM Performance Training inside Turf City on Route 23 in Wayne. Manna would come in early and borrow Turco’s lacrosse stick to play wallball, developing his own style to cradle the stick one-handed. Turco also ordered a hook strap that Manna could wrap around his vestigial arm to grip the pullup bar.
“He was fearless,” Turco said. “If he couldn’t do something, he would keep trying until he could. … I could throw anything at him and there would be no excuses. He wanted to try everything.”
Turco encouraged Manna to get his first “workout arm” from Shriners Children’s in Philadelphia. Almost immediately, Manna could keep up with and even surpass his peers in the gym with the aid of the specially designed prosthetic. Connie Manna almost cried when she first watched her son swing on ropes or bench press with both arms.
“At first, I was a little skeptical,” Alex said. “I was used to doing everything with one hand. Do I really need it? We were shown how it would change weightlifting completely.”
Manna’s biggest adjustment was to the new weight of the prosthetic on his left arm. Though he used both arms for daily tasks, he had to build up his left shoulder, bicep and tricep to catch up to his right.
More than a game:Montville hockey to play for mental health awareness
But Manna had outgrown the original prosthetic, both in terms of age and what he wanted to do. The socket would slip off his arm while he was lifting, leaving him in potentially hazardous situations.
Manna applied to Born to Run in August, and received the upgraded prosthetic a few weeks later. The nonprofit was founded by Noelle Lambert, a former NCAA Division I lacrosse player-turned-Paralympian. Lambert’s left leg was amputated above the knee following a moped accident in 2016.
Manna had learned about Born to Run from Kevin Herbert, a Marlton resident who was born with similar congenital limb difference. Herbert posted his workouts – with and without a prosthetic – on Instagram, which Connie Manna spotted.
Herbert, a liaison with Allcare Orthotic & Prosthetic Services in Rochelle Park, had received a prosthetic from Born to Run in 2020. Though Manna’s new workout device has a basketball-specific attachment, he prefers to go without it during pickup games at the Wayne YMCA, joking, “I have moves to get around that.” He also tried out for Seton Hall Prep’s junior varsity basketball and freshman lacrosse teams prosthetic-free.
“His mindset and his drive of wanting to live the life he wants, it reminded me of myself,” said Lambert, who set an American record of 15.97 seconds while finishing sixth in the T63 100 meters in last year’s Tokyo Paralympics.
“He’s a kid who wants to live an everyday normal life. He doesn’t want to come up with excuses about being an amputee. Just because you’re an amputee doesn’t mean you’re broken. It means you’re different.”
Jane Havsy is a storyteller for the Daily Record and DailyRecord.com, part of the USA TODAY NETWORK. For full access to live scores, breaking news and analysis, subscribe today.
Want to share your story with me?