As an athlete who is blind, Lex Gillette has ultimate faith in his guide, Wes Williams.
The two have worked together since 2007, a span in which Gillette has won two of his three Paralympic silver medals in the long jump and set a world record in his classification.
In August, Gillette leaped 6.73 meters (22 feet, 1 inch) at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto, matching the world mark he set in 2014 for visually impaired athletes (T11/12).
Williams has been with Gillette for eight years, guiding him on the track and alongside the long jump runway, providing Gillette his eyes and insight.
“I always tell people that you have to have a really good relationship with your guide,” said Gillette, who trains with Williams at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California. “It’s definitely not something you can just have somebody jump into. There’s so much that goes into it, whether I’m jumping or whether I’m running, you’re putting your trust into this person’s hands.”
So it’s only appropriate that when Gillette, 30, takes part in the Team USA Road to Rio Tour stop, presented by Liberty Mutual Insurance, in San Diego on Sept. 5 and 6 — one of nine such tour stops across the nation through August 2016 — Williams will join him.
The Road to Rio Tour stop in San Diego, free to the public, will allow visitors to meet and speak with Olympic and Paralympic medalists and hopefuls, get autographs and take part in some interactive sports demonstrations (long jump, high jump and diving) and virtual-reality experiences (pole vault, diving, beach volleyball and gymnastics). There also will be Team USA giveaways.
The Saturday and Sunday event will run from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day at the B Street Pier.
It will also serve as a chance for fans to get to know Gillette and how he and Williams work together. In running events, Williams sprints alongside Gillette, often connected by a tether. In the long jump, Gillette runs to the sound of Williams’ voice near the take-off point.
“It’s just an opportunity to create more awareness,” Gillette said. “Teach them about the sport, the athletes, our daily routines and the path we’ve taken to get to that point.”
To Gillette, Williams is far more than his guide. He’s a friend, terrific athlete in his own right, certified USA Track and Field coach and confidant. They go to movies together, enjoy the same kind of music and often eat together. And after all these years, Gillette said Williams knows exactly what to say and what not to say. Sometimes, it’s better Gillette doesn’t know everything.
Take for instance the recent Parapan Am Games in Toronto, when Gillette tied his world record and earned a gold medal.
In warm-ups, Williams noticed that Gillette was flying down the runway, eating up so much ground on the quick Mondotrack surface that he was fouling on his takeoffs. So without telling Gillette, Williams moved back Gillette’s starting mark just a bit to give him more room.
“Making that adjustment put me in the perfect spot to be able to jump and not foul,” Gillette said.
On his first jump, Gillette knew it was a good one.
“I landed … and it probably took me just a step and a half and I was at the back of the long jump pit,” he said of his record-tying mark. “I knew it was something big.”
It was just another in a long line of success stories for Gillette with Williams. Gillette won the gold medal in the long jump at the IPC Athletics World Championships in 2013 in France to go with a silver in the triple jump and silver in the 4x100-meter. At the 2011 world championships, he won bronze in the triple jump. He won silver medals in the long jump at the London 2012 Paralympic Games and the Beijing Games in 2008, to go with a silver in the long jump at Athens when he was working with guide Jerome Avery.
In 2007, Avery introduced Williams to Gillette and the pair have been a team ever since.
“It’s been awesome,” Gillette said. One of the reasons the two have thrived together is Gillette said Williams knows how to keep him loose.
“He knows my humor,” Gillette added. “He knows when I’m thinking about something, he knows what to do and to say to ease the mood, take my mind off it a little bit, to keep me in a mental state that’s more conducive to what we need to do at that time, which is go out there and win.”
After the Road to Rio Tour stop in San Diego, the next big thing on Gillette’s competition calendar will be the world championships that begin Oct. 21 in Doha, Qatar. Gillette plans to do the long jump, 100-meter and 4x100-meter. All his training this year has been designed to get him primed for a strong showing at the world championships.
“It’s what we’ve been peaking for,” he said, adding that he feels very good about the progress he’s made in training this year.
First, however, comes the San Diego tour stop, just a few miles up the road from the Olympic Training Center.
He’ll be joined at the event by four Olympians: five-time medalist diver Greg Louganis, who grew up in San Diego; current San Diego resident Susan Francia, a two-time gold medalist rower in the women’s eight; gymnast Nastia Liukin, a five-time Olympic medalist; and Brenda Villa, who won a gold, two silvers and a bronze medal as part of the U.S. women’s water polo team in four Olympic Games.
Also taking part will be four other hopefuls for the 2016 Olympic or Paralympic Games, all based with Gillette at Chula Vista: sprinter Blake Leeper, who won silver (400-meter) and bronze (200-meter) in London; rugby sevens players Perry Baker and Bui Baravilala; and javelin thrower Cyrus Hostetler, who recently took silver at the Pan Am Games. Joining them is Anaheim Hills resident Courtney Mathewson, who won water polo gold in 2012.
The first stop on the tour was in Philadelphia on July 4. The next stop after San Diego will be Oct. 17-18 in Boston.
Doug Williams covered three Olympic Games for two Southern California newspapers and was the Olympic editor for the San Diego Union-Tribune. He has written for TeamUSA.org since 2011 as a freelance contributor on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.