Roderick Townsend has never left the United States.
But boy, is that about to change.
Last month, Townsend flew straight from his Boise State University graduation to Mesa, Arizona, to get classified for his first Paralympic competition, an IPC Athletics Grand Prix event that doubled as the Desert Challenge Games.
He left the event a T46 classified athlete, having broken the American record in the high jump (1.90-meters) and also winning the 100-meter (11.39 seconds) across the T45/46/47 classes. Both of his marks were above the ‘A’ qualifying standards for October’s IPC Athletics World Championships, meaning he could be traveling to Doha, Qatar, later this year. His performance could also secure his spot on the U.S. team that will compete at August’s Parapan American Games in Toronto.
But first, Townsend will head to St. Paul, Minnesota, for the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships, which take place from June 19-21 and will serve as the official selection event for both the Parapan Am Games and world championships teams.
At the Hamline University track, Townsend is hoping to take the U.S. titles in the 100, high jump, long jump and triple jump. He said the championships would be the high point so far for what he deems has been a rocky start to the season, because he hasn’t had a coach in two years.
“Before the Desert Challenge Games, I was really down,” Townsend said. “When you’re at the track practicing by yourself all the time with no coach, you really get in your own head and become your worst enemy. And I became my worst enemy for a while.”
At the Desert Challenge Games, Townsend hit it off with two-time T44 world champion sprinter Jarryd Wallace and up-and-coming T44 sprinter Trenten Merrill, establishing friendships with new teammates who put him back on track mentally.
In high school, Townsend, whose right arm is smaller and weaker than his left and doesn’t extend straight, played defensive end on Lincoln High School’s varsity football team in Stockton, California.
After two years at San Joaquin Delta College, which included one football season and two track and field seasons, he transferred to Boise State, where he competed on a full track and field scholarship for three seasons. Townsend was a five-time all-Mountain West Conference team selection at Boise State, both indoors and outdoors.
An entirely new path opened for Townsend nearly 15 months ago, when three-time Paralympic Games champion Jeff Skiba spotted him high jumping at a meet. Skiba zealously approached Townsend, persuading him to give adaptive sport a try.
“In junior college and college, I didn’t know about the Paralympics. I never realized how big they were,” Townsend said. “Jeff Skiba really got the wheels moving on everything for me.”
Townsend didn’t even have the national championships on his radar when he started his 2015 collegiate track and field season in January, but he regrouped as soon as that season ended so he could focus on his Paralympic track competitions.
“I’m stronger than I’ve ever been, and I’m faster than I’ve ever been, but my technique is not where it needs to be simply because I’ve built up a few bad habits,” Townsend said. “Once my technique gets to where it needs to be, it’s going to be a whole new world.”
Townsend, now focusing all of his efforts on the national championships, plans to head to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, later this summer, where he is looking forward to having a coach after not having one for three of the last five years.
His goal is to reach the 2.25-meter mark in his specialty event, the high jump, by the time he reaches the world championships later this year.
“I feel like if I were able to make it this far without coaching, come the next couple of months, with some of the best coaching in the world, the opportunities are endless for me,” Townsend said. “I’d like to be able to look back at today and realize I’ve come a long way. I know that there’s so much potential I have that I haven’t been able to tap into yet.
“Three or four years down the road, I should be able to laugh at the marks I have now.”
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.