NEW YORK – Blake Leeper was talking a mile a minute on Friday evening outside Madison Square Garden, sporting that notorious flashy smile of his as he made his way down the red carpet ahead of the 2015 NBA All-Star Celebrity Game.
He was like a recently opened energy drink, bouncing around on a pair of stilts.
Gold headphones around his neck and a U.S. Paralympics backpack on his posterior, the double-amputee sprinter was just excited to be there. He was representing the Paralympic Movement at one of America’s biggest sporting weekends.
“I’m going to show the world something they’ve never seen before,” said the two-time Paralympic track and field medalist prior to the game.
“A lot of people, especially in the States, don’t know much about the Paralympics, so we just have to educate them. That’s why I’m out here, to show them an American blade runner.”
Leeper, who played varsity basketball in high school and said it remains his favorite sport to this day, competed on the East team in the celebrity game, alongside the likes of comedian Kevin Hart, actor Michael Rapaport, and WNBA stars Tina Charles and Shoni Schimmel.
Prior to the game, Rapaport said he was looking forward to playing alongside Leeper more than anyone else.
“He’s considered one of the fastest men with no legs, and I’m one of the slowest men with two legs,” Rapaport joked. “So it’ll be great.”
Leeper’s East squad was coached by New York Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, ESPN Radio’s Mike Greenberg and NBA Cares Ambassador Isaiah Austin.
However, the East fell 57-51 to the West, losing to a team that included Little League phenom Mo’ne Davis, comedian Nick Cannon and WNBA star Skylar Diggins.
In 14 minutes on the court, Leeper had a three-pointer, two rebounds, three assists and three steals.
With the NBA All-Star festivities over, it’s now back to the track for Leeper, with the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games less than 600 days away.
The Kingsport, Tennessee, native will begin his season in April, with his two major competitions on this year’s calendar being August’s Parapan American Games in Toronto and October’s IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha.
He’s training at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, with Olympic champion Al Joyner as he tries to excel in four events — the 100-, 200- and 400-meter as well as the 4x100.
The 25-year-old won silver in the 400 and bronze in the 200 at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, and silvers in all three of his individual distances at the 2013 IPC Athletics World Championships in Lyon, France.
His lone moment atop the podium came with teammates Richard Browne, Jerome Singleton and Jarryd Wallace, when they won the 4x100 in Lyon. The quartet was named the 2013 Paralympic Team of the Year by the United States Olympic Committee for their performance.
But Leeper is still looking for his own breakout moment.
“The last Paralympic Games, I took a silver and bronze, but there was just so much going on around me, it was a lot to handle,” Leeper said. “But this time, in Rio, it’s going to be a business trip. I’m going there to win some gold medals for my country.”
Born without lower legs, Leeper’s mission has always been to use his success story as a platform to help people and change perceptions.
Growing up, he was teased, pointed at and eventually cut from his school’s baseball and basketball teams.
But every time someone laughed at him, that was just added fuel to the fire.
“Life is 10 percent of what you are dealt with and 90 percent of how you deal with it,” Leeper’s mother constantly told him growing up.
For Leeper, his missing limbs are that 10 percent, and his success on the track has made up that 90 percent.
Ultimately, Leeper would like to be a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, helping children in situations similar to what he has experienced. He enrolled in the University of Tennessee as a pre-med student, but put that dream on hold for his Paralympic aspirations.
Now, his focus is all on the track, where he has racked up sponsors such as Nike, Monster, Wheaties and Fathead.
“I was the first disabled athlete sponsored by Fathead and the first sponsored by Wheaties, but I don’t want to be the last,” Leeper said. “I hope I’m just the first of many, opening up doors to the future blade runners of America and the future Paralympians.
“I hope being in New York this weekend opens a lot of people’s eyes and that the world knows about U.S. Paralympics and will look to see who else is out there.
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.