Isaac Jean-Paul has been legally blind since birth, born with macular degeneration in both eyes. The incurable condition, caused by deterioration of the retina, means his vision decreased the first 20 years of his life and will begin to decrease again when he reaches 50.
But leave it to Jean-Paul — a suave, smooth-talking 24-year-old from Chicago’s north suburbs — to find an advantage for someone with his condition.
“I think I have an advantage in the high jump because I can’t even see the bar,” he said, laughing. “A lot of high jumpers look at the bar during their entire approach, so they see the actual height. Me on the other hand, I really don’t see it, so I’m just going up on feel. In my last two steps, that’s when I see the bar. I think that’s an advantage because of the mental aspect of the sport. I’m not mentally psyched out because I cannot see the bar when I first approach it.”
After hearing that, it’s no surprise Jean-Paul is the world-record holder among high jumpers in the T13 classification — for athletes with a visual acuity of less than 20 degrees radius.
Jean-Paul left North America for the first time in his life this week to compete in the World Para Athletics Championships, which begin Friday in London at the same venue that hosted the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games track and field competitions.
The high jump T13 event will take place on Tuesday, and will be just the third para track and field competition of Jean-Paul’s short, albeit already impressive, career.
Jean-Paul, whose favorite thing to do is talk to himself about anything and everything, grew up in a basketball family in Chicago, so it was only fitting that he spent much of his childhood and high school free time on the hardwood courts. His dream was to play in the NBA one day, but at 5-foot-9, 142 pounds, he got cut from his high school team as a sophomore and junior.
It wasn’t until his senior year of high school, three months before graduation, that he took up track and field, purely because of a bet with his friends that he couldn’t do it.
He was fast, but he didn’t enjoy running.
Pretty quickly, he found himself in the middle of the track at the high jump, and the rest was history.
He easily cleared six feet in his first high school meet, and 10 days later, he cleared his high school’s record mark of 6-foot-5, jumping 6-foot-6 — the height of his childhood hero, Michael Jordan.
Jean-Paul went on to be a five-time All-American in the high jump at Lewis University, where he won the NCAA Division II national indoor title in 2015.
Throughout college, one of his coaches would tell him about U.S. Paralympics and persuaded him to learn more and research potential opportunities. She said he had a “kinesthetic sense” for his body and could “feel” where to take off when he approached the high jump bar.
During Jean-Paul’s senior year, a woman he started speaking with at a meet ended up being the girlfriend of Roderick Townsend, a Paralympic champion in the long jump and high jump at the Rio 2016 Games.
She introduced him to Townsend, igniting a successful conversation between the two.
“He pushed me forward and pretty much opened the door for me,” Jean-Paul said. “So I figured, I may as well walk through it.”
Jean-Paul finished eighth at the 2017 USATF Indoor Championships before eventually crossing over to para-sport and competing in May’s Desert Challenge Games, which serves as one of World Para Athletics’ nine grand prix circuit events.
Despite failing to make it over the bar there, he rebounded in style last month. At the U.S. Paralympics Track & Field National Championships in Los Angeles, Jean-Paul jumped 2.10 meters to win the national title and smash a 14-year-old world record by seven centimeters.
With a world record now attached to his name and a personal best of 2.21 meters, Jean-Paul’s expected to be one of Team USA’s rising stars in London, even without a particular height goal in mind for the event.
He’ll go about the competition with his usual routine — focusing beforehand with old-school hip hop and R&B beats and eating gummy worms between jumps — with the simple goal of placing on the podium.
Because he’s found his advantage in life, he wants to inspire others to find theirs.
“I feel like everyone in the world has an impairment,” Jean-Paul said. “It’s not necessarily a physical or mental impairment, but it can be something in your environment. You could be coming from a rough neighborhood, or your family situation may not be the best. But just keep on keeping on, have faith and be patient, and you’ll find your advantage.”
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.