U.S. Paralympics

U.S. Paralympics

Clemons' Road to London goes straight through Iraq

Nov. 10, 2009, 1:49 p.m. (ET)

Kortney Clemons made a name for himself as a sprinter, co-authored a book, served his country in the military and earned a Purple Heart honor and now is a hopeful for the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

And Clemons managed to achieve all of this success even though he didn't have an auspicious start in life.

He didn't grow up in the big city. He was raised in Little Rock, Miss., a dirt road hamlet without much more than a gas station.  He didn't go on to play at a big-name university. Instead, he went to East Mississippi Community College. He wasn't exactly an imposing physical presence either.  At 5-9 and 125 pounds, Clemons was told he was too small to play football, even at a community college.

"I was real fast," he remembers, "but a bit on the small side."

He worked out, bulked up a bit, and made the team after all.  And, when it became clear after a year that college wasn't going to help him achieve his athletic goals, he came up with a Plan B.

Clemons dreamed of a health-care career, and of playing serious football.  But, he needed training for the first, and to get a lot bigger for the second.  So, he joined the U.S. Army, hoping to come out with a pharmacy tech certification and enough size to go back and play football with the big boys.

While in the Army, he trained as a medic, and worked out hard, bulking up to about 180 pounds. But, deployments in Kosovo and Iraq kept him from pharmacy training.

"I got in (the military) at a very busy time," Clemons said.

And then, there was his last mission.

Clemons' was due to return home in January 2005. But, the Army issued a stop-loss order, keeping him in Iraq for a few more weeks.

On Feb. 21, 2005, Clemons, then 24, and his fellow medics saw a Humvee flipped over at the side of the road. The Humvee had been blown off a dirt road by a roadside bomb. As Clemons tried to help the soldier in the Humvee for a helicopter evacuation, a second bomb exploded.

"I stopped to help out," he recalls, "and right when we got ready to take the guy and put him inside the Blackhawk, an IED exploded."

Three soldiers were killed, and Clemons lost most of his right leg.

Unfortunately, as it turns out, the incident occurred shortly before his tour was supposed to end.

"As I understand it, that was pretty much our last mission anyways," Clemons said.  "We were already showing our replacement unit around. It was only a matter of a couple more weeks."

To Clemons, it seemed his dreams were shattered along with his leg. Big-time football was no longer an option. And, a career in health care, much less anything else, seemed far away. He wondered what he'd do with his life.

But then again, Clemons isn't much of a quitter. With family and faith to support him, he was soon working hard to learn to walk again.

Then, it just so happened that the Brooke Army Medical Center, where he was recuperating, was going to host a Paralympic running clinic in San Antonio. The military has a long history with the Olympic Movement, and several veterans-some disabled and some able-bodied athletes-have gone on to become high-level competitors. Clemons decided to check out the event.

"At the time, I could barely walk," Clemons said. "I sat in the grass and watched a guy like myself run up and down the track, and I knew right then and there that I wanted to run."

"I transferred from the hospital bed to running on a track one day at a time," Clemons added. "I tried to push my limits a little bit every day ... 'Okay, I did this today, let me try this tomorrow. Let me continue to try to add on to what I'm doing.' "

The hard work paid off.  Six months after the explosion, he was using a prosthetic limb to run. And, barely 17 months after losing his leg, Clemons won his first competitive race: the 100-meter dash at the 2006 U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships in Atlanta.

And, he discovered that running wasn't the only sport where he could excel.  Soon after that fateful running clinic, Clemons also attended a Paralympic powerlifting demonstration. He decided to give it a shot.

"I always wanted to run," Clemons said.  "But, I knew powerlifting was something I could get going right away. All I needed was my upper body strength."

Recruited by a coach he met at the weightlifting demonstration, Clemons enrolled at Penn State University and started training for both sports. Progress came quickly, and he placed 13th at the 2006 International Paralympic Committee Powerlifting World Championships.

In 2007, he was a member of the U.S. Paralympics Powerlifting Team, competing at the Parapan American Games in Rio de Janeiro.  He also repeated his first-place performance in the 100-meter at the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships that year.

Training for two sports at the same time, while pursuing a college degree, is quite demanding.  While enjoying great success in both events, eventually Clemons felt he needed to make a choice. In late 2007, he opted to follow his passion, and focus on running.

Unfortunately for Clemons, he may have made the choice too late. Despite a strong performance, he fell just short of making the team for the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games.

"I ran out of time," Clemons said. "I had a lot of things going on with school, and internships, and having to work so many hours. Track and field is not a sport where you can just jump in and be at the top."

Despite the setback, Clemons is still pursuing his dreams. He's earned a degree in recreation, park and tourism management from Penn State, finally opening the way to a health-care career, and hopes to use his experiences to help others. He's also co-authored a book, titled "Amped.''

But now he is focused on representing his country once again, this time in the Paralympic Games. He's training full time alongside able-bodied athletes at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., and has his eye on the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.

"It's motivational just to see those guys running up and down the track," Clemons said. "And, they tell me all the time that I'm inspirational to them. I'm in an environment right now where we can feed off each other-it's great just to be part of the dream."

"I'm feeling good about it," Clemons said of his chances for 2012.  "There's no reason not to be there."

Story courtesy Red Line Editorial, Inc. Bruce Troetschel is a freelance contributor for teamusa.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.

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