Track Athlete Singles Himself Out
About three weeks ago, Jerome Singleton Jr. received his first-ever fan letter. A fellow American wrote to congratulate him on his success at the 2007 ParaPan American Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and to wish him luck last weekend in Tempe, Ariz., at the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Team Trials - Track and Field.
At the age of 21, Singleton has begun to turn heads in the track world, and on Sunday he qualified for the Paralympic Games for the first time.
"I just try to do what I can to the best of my ability and I hope that it inspires people," Singleton said about drawing attention to his recent surge on the track. "I got my first fan letter three weeks ago, so I guess I've inspired somebody."
The Trials, which ran at Arizona State University, was the athletes' sole chance to make the U.S. Paralympic Track & Field Team that will compete in Beijing, China. Singleton saw himself on the same level as any of the other competitors heading into the Trials.
"I feel that I have a pretty good chance of making the team," Singleton said before the trials. "I'm just working on relaxing, making sure I want to run the race."
The Trials concluded Sunday, and the team was announced as the sun went down. But Singleton did not attend the nomination banquet and would have to wait by the phone to find out if he made the team. As he sat by the phone, time passed in silence.
He was getting worried.
Eventually, Singleton, who was tired from the long weekend under the boiling Tempe sun, fell asleep.
Around midnight in South Carolina, Singleton was awakened by an awaited ring. His friend, David Prince, called with the good news. Singleton was going to Beijing.
"I was ecstatic," Singleton said about the phone call. "This takes a relief off my shoulders. This takes a burn off my shoulders. I was able to go to sleep without being nervous anymore."
It won't really sink in until September, though.
"It hit me a little bit," Singleton said about his nomination. "But it's not going to really hit me until I'm on the plane to Beijing."
Singleton was born without a fibula in his right leg (known as fibular hemimelia) and with an extra thumb. When he was 18 months old, his parents had to decide whether to amputate his leg or allow him to undergo surgery every year for about the next 20 years. His parents decided to amputate his leg, and Singleton said he would have done the same.
"I've seen people who kept their foot and they didn't have the same functionality," Singleton said.
Now at 5-foot-9, Singleton won the bronze medal in the 100m (men's T44 division) at the 2007 ParaPan Games and the silver medal in the 200m (T44). The Games served as his first formal international competition, giving him a better idea of the field he will face in Beijing.
"There's a (large) range of people outside of the U.S.," Singleton said he realized at the Games. "I felt a lot of pressure. My reaction was based off all of the different languages."
In 2006, Singleton had a successful showing at the Endeavor Games in Edmond, Okla., where he took home the gold in the 100m, long jump and high jump, and the bronze in the 200m.
Troy Engle, Associate Director and Head Coach, Paralympic Track and Field, said Singleton has definitely not gone unnoticed the last couple of months.
"Hands down, he's the most improved athlete on our elite squad," Engle said. "He's gone from an emerging athlete to a contending athlete to be on the podium in Beijing."
But the Greenwood, S.C., native is not just talented on the track, as he excels just as much in the classroom. Singleton said school is his primary focus, and that track always follows as a close second.
Singleton graduated from Dutch Fork High School in Irmo, S.C., where he was a member of the varsity football and track teams, and was also on the junior varsity basketball team.
He now attends Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., where he is pursuing a triple degree in math, physics and biomechanical engineering. Next fall, he will be transferring to the University of Michigan. Eventually, Singleton hopes to pursue a Master's in bioengineering and possibly a Ph.D. He then wants to go into consulting or become a professor.
"It's time consuming," Singleton said about everything he does, "but at least with track I can keep my body in shape."
Last summer, Singleton studied and worked in Geneva, Switzerland, in a program through Yale University, and also at the Park City Mathematical Institute in Park City, Utah. He flew back home just two days prior to the National Championships.
The track star averages just six hours of sleep per night, and sometimes gets only three or four.
"When it comes to sleep, it all depends on what I have to do," Singleton said.
Engle describes Singleton as a "fine scholar-athlete" who is driven in everything he does.
"He's a brilliant kid with the world at his feet both on and off the track," Engle said. "I can't imagine there's a lot he approaches in his life in a half-hearted fashion."
Most of Singleton's inspiration, both in school and on the track, has come from his parents, particularly his father. Jerome Singleton Sr. is the head of the South Carolina High School League and started his son in sports at the young age of five.
"They seem to be more excited than I am," he said about his parents when they found out he made the team. "Me, I'm more happy to see others do well. I get more excited when others do well because you can control yourself to a certain degree, but you can't control what others do."
The young star has come so far only because he admires others like he does.
"Everyone's story is so impressive," Singleton said. "Everyone's story inspires me."
For his parents, though, their son's story impresses them the most.
"They call me every day," Singleton said about his parents. "They keep me grounded."
If Singleton is stressed out about anything, all he has to do is pick up his phone.
In their daily conversations, his parents always reassure him with the words,
" ‘You'll get better. You'll fight through it.' "
But Singleton won't rest until he reaches his goal - the top.
"I have a desire to be the best in all aspects of life," Singleton said. "If I'm an athlete, I want to be the best athlete. If I'm a researcher, I want to produce the best research."
Many people do not know that Singleton also has a strong faith that pushes him both in his studies and on the track.
"I have a lot of faith," Singleton explained. "I'm a devout Christian believer. I pray a lot to help me."
Singleton's next goal is to medal in Beijing. He got a taste of competition at the Trials and wants to represent those close to him on the podium in September.
"I hope to make everybody proud," Singleton said. "I hope to make my country proud."
Now that Singleton knows he has inspired at least one other person, he feels he needs to keep gaining ground on the track and steadily rise to the top.
"You just need to be dedicated," the new Paralympian said. "Don't let your disability hold you back."
And after seeing international competitors for the first time in Rio de Janeiro, Singleton received all the inspiration he needed to qualify for Beijing and make his name known to the world at the Paralympic Games in September.
"I've seen the most abled disabled individuals - that inspires you to do well," Singleton said. "You want to be so good that people don't compare you."
According to Engle, Singleton is already there.
"He's gotten there because he's worked hard and shown commitment. I'm sure he didn't take the path of least resistance," Engle said. "He's Jerome Singleton."
Singleton is one of 44 athletes nominated to the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Track & Field Team that will compete in Beijing in September.