|A.J. Digby poses for a photo at the 2015 U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships on June 21, 2015 in St. Paul, Minn.|
ST. PAUL, Minn. -- A.J. Digby is on the precipice of becoming the next U.S. Paralympics dual-sport athlete to steal the headlines.
The 17-year-old double-amputee is quickly rising through the ranks in both track and field, and sled hockey.
He’s a Blake Leeper-Declan Farmer mashup, if you will.
Two months ago, Digby traveled to Buffalo, New York, with the U.S. national development sled hockey team to play a three-game series against Canada, an event that was scheduled alongside the IPC Ice Sledge Hockey World Championships. He showed much promise in his first season on the development squad, and was nurtured by several players on the national team that won gold in Buffalo.
This past weekend, Digby competed in five events at the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he set two personal bests in the T43/44 class.
In the men’s 400-meter, he failed to defend his national title, finishing fourth, yet he clocked a personal-best time of 51.55, which would have placed him second in the world among all T43 athletes who ran the event last season.
The 100-meter heats were so stacked at the championships that Digby’s 11.6-second sprint — also a new personal best — wasn’t enough to make the finals. Two years ago, a 12.5 would have put him in the finals, showing just how far his competition has also come.
Digby also finished 10th in the 200 (24.59) and 14th in the long jump F42-47 (5.19 m), and in the men’s 4x100 T42-46 he teamed up with Leeper, Rob Brown and Hunter Woodhall to clock a 44.19. They beat the USA B team by 7.07 seconds.
Born with bilateral fibula hemimelia, which is the absence of fibula in the lower legs, Digby had both his legs amputated just below the knee when he was 10 months old, receiving his first pair of prosthetics shortly afterwards.
As a sports fanatic who watches at least one hour of ESPN’s “SportsCenter” every day, Digby said he has always been a student of the game, taking the chance to compete in any sport he is able to.
Back home, Digby is a valued member of Otsego High School’s football team in Bowling Green, Ohio, playing starting quarterback on the junior varsity squad and special teams on the varsity squad. He had to get approval from the Ohio High School Athletic Association to play, wrapping his prosthetic legs with tape on the gridiron and bolting them to volleyball kneepads for extra protection.
He first learned about Paralympic track and field when he tuned into the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games online.
“I was like, ‘OK, now where can I get myself a pair of those running legs?’” Digby said.
“So at the end of seventh grade, I got my first pair of running legs, and I’ve just been running ever since.”
Luckily for Digby, there’s been talent aplenty in the U.S. men’s amputee sprinting world, and everyone’s been jumping at the chance to give the up-and-comer some guidance.
“The first Paralympian I ever met was Jerome Singleton, and he flat out took me under his wing,” Digby said. “I was 13 or 14, and he gave me a bunch of training drills to get better. I see him around once or twice a year and it’s always a fun time, and David Prince and Blake Leeper have also been very helpful. The older guys just embrace you and help you out any way they can.”
Digby is coming off the best season of his track and field career thus far. He was named the U.S. Paralympics 2014 Male Track Athlete of the Year after a dominating performance at last year’s IWASF World Junior Games, at which he won the 100-, 200- and 400-meter sprints.
Despite not winning any national titles this season, he’s recorded several personal bests and will now wait to see if his name is called for August’s Parapan American Games in Toronto or October’s IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, Qatar.
Whether or not he is selected to those teams, he remains confident his chances of making a “SportsCenter” appearance of his own, and that fans can look forward to seeing him at either the Rio 2016 track or on the PyeongChang 2018 ice.
“With track and field and sled hockey, they’re two totally different sports, but with the seasons, they work in my favor,” Digby said. “I want everyone to know the Paralympics are becoming a real force here in the U.S., and that those sponsorships will be coming for athletes like myself in the next few years.”
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.