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Athlete Aimee Mullins: Beauty in Sports Can Be 'Liberating'

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Courtesy L’Oréal Paris

Her accomplishments are quite impressive: softball star, record-setting runner, Alexander McQueen muse, L’Oréal Paris spokeswoman. Add the fact that she had her legs amputated below the knees at just 1 year old, and you can easily say Aimee Mullins is an inspiration.

The model/athlete, named one of PEOPLE’s Most Beautiful in 1999, is one of two retired athletes leading the United States into the Paralympic Games Opening Ceremonies in London on Wednesday, serving as a Chef de Mission for the country.

“I’m very nervous,” she tells PEOPLE. “It’s a huge honor, and I’m flattered, but it’s going to be strange to be on the other side of the experience.”

Aimee Mullins Legs
Courtesy Aimee Mullins

To mark the occasion, Mullins is wearing a special pair of prosthetic legs (left) — nicknamed “Winged Glory” because of the gold wings painted along the shins — for the big event.

“They’re pretty awesome,” Mullins says. “The motto [of the Olympics] is ‘Higher, Faster, Stronger,’ so the wings kind of felt like very much a representation of that.”

Though Mullins is all about athletics — and inspiring others, too — she believes beauty does play a role in sports nowadays. “I look at when Sanya [Richards-Ross] won gold and Dee Dee [Trotter] won bronze,” she recalls of the recent track events at the London Olympics. “Dee Dee had appliqué crystals on her face, Sanya had this awesome hair whipping down. I think about Flo-Jo; as a little girl, she was just the most captivating, mesmerizing thing to watch. There’s something about a personal expression of beauty that’s really related to being powerful.”

Mullins had such a moment when running a recent “Spartan Race,” something akin to a “Tough Mudder.” “I had a great [L’Oréal Paris] Colour Caresse in bright pink, because I knew that once the mud got on me, the only thing visible on me were pink lips,” she shares. “But there was something awesome, looking in the mirror in my black woven carbon fiber shock legs — like something out of Terminator — and putting on a bright pink lip balm. There was something empowering about that moment.”

In fact, fans seem interested, too. “I can’t tell you how many emails, Tweets I get asking what my manicure is going to be [when I race],” she shares. “A decade ago, if you were a girly-girl athlete, you weren’t taken as seriously. But I think now, it’s liberating for all of us to realize that we can define for ourselves what beauty means — and what powerful looks and feels like.”

Catch the Paralympic games on usparalympics.org and on various NBC stations in the weeks ahead.

–Kate Hogan