Desert Challenge a welcome test for Blake Leeper
New to the sport, Blake Leeper viewed the London 2012 Paralympic Games like a "vacation," he said. "In Rio, I am going to work."
It’s technically the “down season” for sprinter Blake Leeper, a crucial time of carefully structured training between the 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games and the 2013 and 2015 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships.
Leeper, who has won five world championships medals and two Paralympic medals, sees this as a period to tinker with his running blades, get stronger and, ultimately, get faster.
He will be competing in the Desert Challenge Games, held May 9-11 in Mesa, Arizona, an opportunity to check on his progress at an IPC Grand Prix event.
Leeper, who commandingly won the 100- and 200-meter events in the 2013 Desert Challenge, is paring his schedule back this year. He is planning to run the 200 and will pick between the 100 and 400, depending how he feels.
“The 200 is my race, no question; I enjoy it a lot,” Leeper, 24, said. “I love to give a show every time, show the level we can perform at. But as a runner, you’ve got to listen to your body, and that is what I am going to do. I love running in the Desert Challenge Games, it’s always a great crowd, a great atmosphere.”
His focus is sharp, seeing the 2015 Parapan American Games in Toronto, the 2015 world championships in Qatar and the 2016 trials for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic and Paralympic Games as his most important stages. Leeper, who has worn prosthetics below both knees since he was a toddler, hopes to drop enough time in the 400 to be in serious contention against able-bodied sprinters for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Team.
“I am all about pushing barriers, and breaking them down,” Leeper, a native of Church Hill, Tennessee, said. “I think the Paralympics are amazing, and I couldn’t be more proud to be a Paralympian. Putting our hard work, our talent and our disabilities on the world stage is showing everybody what can be achieved. Taking it to another level, and competing with the able-bodied, yeah, that would be the ultimate.”
He would have to drop about two seconds from his 400 time, to 46.00, to hit the provisional, or B, qualifying standard from the 2012 U.S. Olympic Team Trials. The 2012 U.S. 400 trials winner, LaShawn Merritt, ran a 44.12 to qualify for the London Games.
Leeper has a wildly ambitious goal, but he feels he can follow in the path of groundbreaking South African Paralympic/Olympic sprinter Oscar Pistorius.
“I am a realist. I know it’s going to take a lot of hard work to do it,” Leeper said. “For me, running right, training right, getting comfortable blades, training to get my legs right for like 6-7 years — which I will be at by like 2015, 2016 — is what it takes to get to the pro level.
“I’ve got a brand new pair of blades, my body is changing, I’m getting stronger. I am working on getting it all dialed in. And when I do, it’s going to be amazing. I will be faster. I am getting faster now.”
Leeper’s experience in the 2012 London Games, where he won silver in the 400, finishing second behind Pistorius, and a bronze in the 200, spurs his hard work now.
“We had 85,000 people cheering us on, inspiring us to do our best, you don’t forget something like that — ever,” Leeper said. “The competition is always getting better. I saw how hard everybody worked, how hard everybody competed. You just don’t show up and get a medal.
“I see the London Paralympics, my first time at something like that, as a vacation. In Rio, I am going to work.”
Because he is a double-amputee, getting the exact fit and tuning of his running blades is a daily experiment and an art. The blades are tinkered, trying to get the right alignment, energy return and stiffness.
Leeper feels he’s getting closer to the perfect set-up, with events like the Desert Challenge working as a live test.
“It can be really frustrating, and you have to be really patient to figure everything out,” Leeper said. “It’s all about getting that rhythm, rhythm, rhythm. There is no rulebook you can follow for this, and you do a lot of double-guessing. It’s just hard work, getting yourself in the best shape of your life, and doing it every day.
“And that’s what I am doing by being at the Olympic Training Center to train, and having the best people around me. I’m giving this everything I have.”
Joanne C. Gerstner has covered two Olympic Games and writes regularly for the New York Times and other outlets about sports. She has written for USParalympics.org since 2009 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.