Jeff Skiba didn’t grow up watching TV crime dramas, playing cops and robbers or dreaming of the day he would put on a badge and be a police officer.
He had never even thought about working in law enforcement.
Yet when a friend was considering that line of work, it opened his eyes to the profession, and he liked what he saw.
After Skiba took a ride-along with the San Diego Police Department in 2008, he knew he eventually would put on a badge. Everything he saw that day convinced him.
“I said, ‘Wow, this is for me. This is what I want to do,’” he recalled.
It never occurred to him he wouldn’t qualify. That’s not the way he has ever thought about anything.
Skiba was born without a fibula in his left leg and has been using a prosthetic since his leg was amputated when he was 11 months old. Yet it’s never stopped him from doing anything he’s wanted to do, including playing high school basketball, winning the Washington state high school high jump championship or becoming the first Paralympic athlete to compete against able-bodied athletes in the USA Indoor Track & Field Championships (in 2007).
He has competed in three Paralympic Games in the F44 class, winning a gold and two silver medals in the high jump (in addition to a Paralympic silver medal in the now discontinued pentathlon) and is the first Paralympian to clear 7 feet in the event.
As he told Sports Illustrated back in 2002, “I don’t think of myself as disabled. Things are a bit different for me, but I’ve gotten used to it.”
Today, Skiba is in his fourth year as an officer with the San Diego Police Department. He lives in Chula Vista, just south of the city, and does daily patrols in the southeast section of San Diego.
And this month at the International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships in Lyon, France, July 19-28, he will be patrolling a different field, searching for a gold medal. He took the silver in the high jump at the last IPC Athletics World Championships in 2011.
The issue of whether he was qualified physically to do police work was quickly rejected during his time at the police academy when his class was taking a 5-mile training run.
“We all started out, we ran together the first mile, then the instructor turned us loose,” Skiba recalled. “Said, ‘Go, show us what you’ve got.’”
Skiba, who’d trained hard for the academy — just as he’s prepared for any endeavor — finished a couple of minutes ahead of the runner-up.
Since the academy, Skiba’s physical ability has been an asset, not an issue, and he said he has received the full support of his department, from the chief to his fellow officers.
“I don’t think they looked at me as someone with a disability,” he said of his classmates at the academy. “They looked at me as, ‘Oh, this guy is a Paralympian, a world-class athlete.’ The whole amputee, disability thing doesn’t really … I don’t think in their eyes they look at that.”
Now as he interacts with people he meets while in uniform, he said no one would ever have any reason to know he wears a prosthetic below his left knee. Not even the suspect he once chased a half of a mile before putting him in handcuffs.
“Even people I work with, other officers I’ve been working with for several months, they have no idea until one day they come into the locker room,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Are you kidding me? You have a prosthetic? I had no idea.’ And I’ve been working with these people every day for several months.”
Part of what he loves about police work is that it’s a constantly changing environment. He doesn’t like to sit still, and as an officer he has what he calls “a four-wheel office I can drive around from place to place and interact with different people.”
And his years as an athlete prepared him for it.
“I get to use my ability to react to situations and basically my competition experience of, you know, ‘OK, here’s a curveball thrown at you, how are you going to react to it?' I just like the constant challenge.”
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One of those challenges came after the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
After taking the silver medal in the high jump at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games, Skiba won the gold at Beijing in 2008. But in London, he finished second to Poland’s Maciej Lepiato. As proud as Skiba was to have medaled, the second-place finish threw fuel on his competitive fire.
Almost immediately, he sent an email to Jeremy Fischer, the noted jumps coach who has worked with many successful field athletes, including American Will Claye, who earned a silver in the triple jump and a bronze in the long jump at the London Olympic Games, and Brittney Reese, the women’s long jump champion at those Games.
Fischer agreed to work with Skiba, and the two have been fine-tuning his techniques and training regimen at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista five to six days a week. It’s been an opportunity for Fischer to give Skiba feedback from fresh eyes. Skiba said he feels energized from the change.
Without going into details about what techniques he has been fine-tuning or what he has altered in his training, Skiba said Fischer has made a variety of changes.
“You can only do the same thing for so long and then it’s going to lose its appeal,” Skiba said. “When you get someone like coach Fischer, who’s motivated, it motivates me. And I think that realistically at Rio, I’ll be 32, and that’s probably going to be my last push to really be on top, so I want to take advantage of it and leave with no regrets and put all my cards on the table.”
Rio, of course, is Rio de Janeiro, the site of the next summer Paralaympic and Olympic Games in 2016, and reclaiming the top spot on the podium is Skiba’s mission. Missing out on the gold in London “gave me more drive” to win it again, he said.
One of the first steps on that journey comes Saturday at the IPC Athletics World Championships in France, where Skiba is on the U.S. team that will take part in the event that will feature more than 1,000 athletes from 98 nations. Skiba won gold in the high jump at the 2002 and 2006 World Championships and silver in 2011. He’s eager to see how he fares against the world’s best almost a year beyond London.
But, he said, it’s a four-year cycle between Games, and the idea is to stay fit, prepare, fine-tune and peak when it’s time to jump in Rio. He would love to bring back a gold medal from Lyon, but that’s not the most important goal.
“The big picture for me is that four-year cycle and really getting ready at the end to be at your best,” he said.
For now, he has two full-time jobs: police work and training.
“There’s just not a lot of time for a lot of other hobbies right now,” he said.
But he believes with Fischer’s help, all the time and effort will have a payoff.
“I’ve got so much confidence in his ability and his track record proves what people are capable of if they stick with him, so we just have to stick with the plan,” Skiba said. “I’ve got faith in what he’s doing and he believes in my abilities and we’re going to get it done.”