While most of Lex Gillette's success has come in field events, he is also an accomplished track athlete.
For Lex Gillette, 2014 is a year to refine his skills.
The three-time Paralympic silver medalist in the long jump doesn’t have a big international competition to focus on this year. The world championships are in 2015, and the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro are two years away.
So 2014 is an opportunity for Gillette to try new things, clean up old techniques and make himself better than ever for the marquee events of the next two years.
At 29, Gillette has accomplished much, including his first gold medal in the long jump at the world championships in 2013. But as he gets ready to make his 2014 debut on Friday at the Desert Challenge Games in Mesa, Ariz., Gillette isn’t satisfied with what he’s done before.
“There’s a lot of things that I’m not as good as I should be on, from the actual time that I take off and am in the air, so I want to take this year to kind of work on those things and really get a picture in my mind as to how I need to look technique-wise so I can maximize my potential,” he said.
He’s always working on his speed and strength, two things that help take him greater lengths into the long-jump pit. But right now, he’s particularly interested in making himself more aerodynamic once he’s blasted off the take-off board. When asked specifically what he needs to do, Gillette goes into a long discussion of his mental check list and how he must concentrate on his drive leg, his off leg, his arms, his elbows, his rear end and his feet. All need to work in concert; all need to be in perfect position if he wants to stay among the world’s best.
Of course, as a track and field athlete without sight — he competes in the T11 and F11 classifications for those with no light perception at all in either eye, the result of retina detachments when he was a boy — Gillette has the added challenge of reviewing and refining his techniques without being able to see what he’s doing.
“Not being able to visually see when you’re about to hit the ground makes it a little difficult, but in competition everyone has to do it, so it’s not like anyone has an advantage visually,” he said. “It’s just something I have to work on. Concentrate on that so I can continue to be successful.”
And success is something Gillette has had throughout a long athletic career.
Gillette, who grew up in North Carolina and attended East Carolina University, has lived and trained at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., since 2008.
In 2004, he set an American record (6.24 meters) and won a silver medal at the Paralympic Games in Athens. He improved that record to 6.46 meters in 2008 while winning another silver in Beijing, then made it three silvers in a row by jumping 6.34 meters in 2012 at London.
At the 2013 International Paralympic Committee World Championships in Lyon, France, he took the long-jump gold (6.32 meters) while also winning a silver medal in the 4x100-meter and triple jump. His triple jump mark of 12.66 meters set a U.S. record, as did the 4x100 time of 43.62.
Gillette also has won U.S. championships in the long jump, triple jump, 100-meter and 200-meter races, won multiple silver and bronze medals at the world championships and at the Parapan American Games.
He’s particularly proud of the long jump world championship he won in windy conditions last year in France. Not only was it a thrill to finally stand atop the highest step of the podium and hear the national anthem played for his victory, but it was gratifying to persevere in an environment that tested his abilities.
“I told myself, ‘I’m just going to suck it up and and I’m going to make this happen somehow,’” he recalled.
On his winning jump, in fact, he felt himself veering out of the lane as he sped toward the take-off board. At that point, he and his longtime caller, Wesley Williams — who stands at the end of the line and gives him verbal signals to let him know where to go — have an agreement that Gillette can run off and start over. Instead, Gillette kept going.
“In my mind, I was just like, ‘You know what? I’m pushing. I’m going,’ ” he said. “And I kind of recognized where I was on the runway and veered inside of the lane a little bit more and jumped on the board and got a good jump off, and that was the one that ended up winning it. So that was a great feeling.”
At the Desert Challenge this week, Gillette will compete in the long jump and 100-meter. The Desert Challenge is the fourth of nine events on this year’s International Paralympic Committee Athletics Grand Prix series. After this week, he’ll head to Europe for meets in Spain, Italy and France. If he can be among the top performers on this year’s series, he’ll qualify for the Grand Prix Final at Birmingham in the United Kingdom in late August.
His goal is to not only improve this year but to build some momentum for next season’s Parapan Games and world championships and the 2016 Games in Brazil. It’s a familiar buildup for Gillette, who’s prepared for three previous Games.
“We still have a bit of time,” he said. “It’s certainly going to move fast, but at the same time, you want to try to get yourself ready and put yourself in position to (succeed). … It’s a crazy season next year.”
He certainly feels fortunate to be in the position of staying at the top of the world’s elite and getting a chance for a fourth Games.
What’s been the key to his longevity?
“Never counting out anybody or anything,” he said. “I’m the type of person, I feel like I’ve acquired a lot of success. But it’s something … I really don’t think about it too much, because I feel like there’s always something else to top that. I feel like athletes are action-oriented. We’re always trying to up something, always trying to do something better. So all of the accolades, all of the records, I definitely appreciate them, but if you’re still competing, those don’t really matter. You enjoy them for the time being and then you move on to the next.
“There’ll be another opportunity, another day. … You have to be that person that does what’s necessary to be on top. So, I’m always trying.”
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.