Lex Gillette in action in the men's long jump T11 final during the IPC Athletics World Championships on July 27, 2013 in Lyon, France.
When three-time Paralympic medalist Lex Gillette started losing his sight as an 8-year-old, he quickly learned to rely on his family, friends and mentors in his community as he slowly transitioned to life without sight.
Fast-forward to today, and as one of the world’s top visually impaired long jumpers, he is serving as a mentor himself for kids around that same age.
Leading up to the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, Gillette has been taking time from his busy training schedule to mentor youth in person and over video through Classroom Champions, an international virtual education and mentorship organization.
“It was really important for me to have that person there who could give me some guidance and advice and just teach me about life and things that I would need to be successful,” Gillette said. “Somebody did that for me, so it’s my responsibility to turn around and help these kids have that same opportunity so they can go out there and do amazing things.”
Gillette is one of the 12 athletes around the world — and one of five athletes with Team USA ties — who was bestowed this month with the Athletes in Excellence Award by the Foundation for Global Sports Development for his service.
The Foundation focuses on global access for youth in sports in areas of the world where the doors are often closed to girls, the disabled or the poor.
The organization’s awards honor competing and retired athletes around the globe who have been role models, leaders and champions in sport as well as in their communities, with a focus on changing the lives of less-privileged youth.
In addition to Gillette, other award recipients with Team USA ties include:
- Reynaldo Brown (1968 Olympian): The former high jumper has spent decades of his life volunteering with various organizations as a mentor and volunteer coach to young people across Southern California.
- Victoria Burke (2016 Olympic hopeful): The rower from Connecticut volunteers as a mentor with RowLA, teaching program participants about nutrition, college recruitment, rowing skills and more.
- Anne Warner Cribbs (1960 Olympic gold medalist): The swimmer, who was the Olympic Torch Award honoree at September’s U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Assembly, has become a powerhouse in fostering the development of positive sport in California and elsewhere.
- Katy Sullivan (2012 Paralympian): The track and field athlete, born without legs, has served has a powerful role model for young people with impairments and is a constant advocate for inclusive sport.
All award recipients were nominated by a colleague or organization.
Taking a closer look at Gillette, he was recruited to Classroom Champions by the organization’s co-founder, Steve Mesler, a U.S. Olympic bobsled gold medalist who was one of the 2014 Athletes in Excellence Award Program recipients in its inaugural year.
Gillette, the 2015 long jump T11 world champion, is in his second year as an athlete mentor in the program, now working with two classrooms in New Jersey, one in Ohio and one in Michigan.
“It’s a lot of ‘oohs and ahhs,’ and a lot of, ‘How are you able to do this without being able to see?’” Gillette said.
“A lot of times, talking to the older crowds, they’ll tend to censor questions because they don’t want to feel like they’re stepping on your toes or crossing that line. But kids, they just genuinely want to know and want answers.”
Gillette’s students aren’t afraid to ask exactly what’s on their minds:
How do you put on your shoes? How do you dress yourself? Can you cook? How do you walk around? Do you drive?
Gillette focuses on a different topic each month, such as goal-setting or perseverance, explaining to his classrooms what it means and how he incorporates it into his life. He then presents each classroom a challenge to help them incorporate that theme into their own lives.
For example, for this Thanksgiving month, Gillette has centered his classroom lessons around the theme of community, explaining how important it is and what kids can do to make their communities a better place. As a result, several kids have gone out to volunteer at their local food banks.
While most of the interaction is virtual, like a 21st-century pen-pal, last year Gillette had the chance to visit all of his classrooms in person, and this year he hopes to do the same.
In fact, when he visited his classroom in Indiana last year, the school had found someone in its community who knew how to write in Braille and filled an entire notebook with hand-written letters from every student that were transcribed into Braille.
“At home, I have that notebook and pull it out every now and then and read those letters,” Gillette said. “It lifts my spirits and reminds me of the times we’ve had together and that relationship that we’ve built.
“I really get attached to the kids because they just become that group of people that you influence and can give guidance to help them out along the way. They like to look up to all athletes, but also hear that at the end of the day that we go through the same things that any other person would.”
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.