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Running for a chance at glory

Blake Leeper has become a top Paralympic sprinter in quick time

June 20, 2012|David Wharton

CHULA VISTA, CALIF. — His new legs arrived on a Saturday in late summer. They were made of carbon fiber, glossy and sleek and shaped like boomerangs.

Standing on them for the first time, Blake Leeper tested their flex. Just like the real thing, he thought, so alive.

"I was scared," he says.

All his life, Leeper had worn what amputees call "walking legs," which are built sturdy for getting around but are not so great for running or jumping.

Those legs had carried him through countless basketball and baseball games, from youth leagues to high school. But how many times had they kept him from grabbing a rebound? How often had they popped off as he rounded second base?

"They'd be lying in the dirt behind me," he says. "You learn there are some things in life you can't control."

Things the young man from Tennessee had endured with a shrug and a tenacious smile. Now he had some help -- a pair of $30,000 prosthetics made for sprinting. Though everyone warned him to start slowly, he headed straight for the track at the local high school.

His parents came along. So did his prosthetist and the prosthetist's wife because, in the small town of Church Hill, no one had ever seen legs quite like these.

Leeper walked the first 100 meters a little unsteadily. Then he began to run. Fast.

"The way the wind was hitting my face," he says, "it was the feeling that had always been missing."

So many frustrations evaporated in those few seconds. Leeper felt like a superhero in a comic book.

A cool breeze scuttles across the Olympic training center, a rambling complex of playing fields, sand volleyball courts and an archery range in the suburbs south of San Diego.

The early chill doesn't make it any easier on Leeper as he emerges from the dorms, tired, and shuffles down to the track. The 22-year-old, just back from a meet in Manchester, England, prepares for his daily workout.

Cotton hose protect the nub ends of his legs, just below the knee. He slides into custom sockets, fiddling with valves that create a suction fit. His sprinting legs, too slender for anything other than straight-ahead speed, must be aligned perfectly.

An able-bodied runner stops by to chat.

"Blake is a little goofy," says Yvette Lewis, an accomplished hurdler. "But he's a hard worker."

Olympic and Paralympic athletes train side by side at Chula Vista. Eager to field winning teams, the U.S. Olympic Committee pays to house them in the same compound with trainers, nutritionists and massage therapists.

No sooner has Leeper jogged a few warmup laps -- shaking the kinks from a compact, muscular body -- than his coach arrives. It is Joaquim Cruz, one of the greatest 800-meter runners ever.

A Brazilian who carries himself with the quiet confidence of track royalty, Cruz is not accustomed to losing; he doesn't like hearing that Leeper ran poorly at the Paralympic World Cup event in England.

"This is all new to him," the coach says. "Right now, he is trying to build some history of running."

Four years after that first dash around the high school track, Leeper ranks among the top sprinters headed for the 2012 Paralympic Games, which will be held after the London Olympics this summer.

Although his times warrant a world ranking, he occasionally feels out of place in the realm of elite sports. That smile of his, framed by bright eyes and a scruff of a goatee, turns wistful as he says: "I did not plan for this."

No one could explain to the Leepers why their youngest son was born without feet, ankles or calf bones. Doctors amputated his few dangling toes so he could wear prosthetics.

"They said he'd probably never play sports," recalls his mother, Edith. "But we never put any restrictions on what he could do."

The little boy tagged along with his older brother, Kris, who loved baseball and basketball. If neighborhood kids underestimated him, they did not make the same mistake twice.

"He played hard," Kris says. "And if you told him he couldn't do something, he practiced until he could."

Leeper could swing a bat and shoot a basketball as deftly as anyone in Church Hill. The townsfolk got used to his making light of his disability.

Like the time one of his legs came loose during a game and he writhed around as if grievously wounded. Or the time he stepped onto the field with his feet pointed backward.

But frustration simmered beneath the jokes. Those legs kept him from being anything more than average and, after high school, his playing days appeared over.

At the University of Tennessee, Leeper studied applied physics, intent on developing high-performance prosthetics. Only then did he discover they already existed.

Ossur Cheetahs, developed by an orthopedic company in Iceland, were helping disabled athletes shatter Paralympic records around the world. One sprinter -- Oscar Pistorius of South Africa -- had managed an unprecedented crossover, racing in able-bodied meets.

Call it gut instinct or simply an impulse, but Leeper, who had never competed in track, imagined himself running beside Pistorius.

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