Lex Gillette is a four-time Paralympic long jumper with four silver medals. Since the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Gillette, 33, has been among the world’s elite track stars, competing in the long jump, triple jump and as a sprinter.
One of the things he has loved to be a part of is the Olympic and Paralympic training program at the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, California. Every day, he’s working out alongside Olympic medalists such as long jumper Brittney Reese and triple jumper Will Claye. There’s no separate practice times or facilities to divide the Paralympians from the Olympians. They’re all together as Team USA.
“We’re training alongside these athletes and no one says anything about the disability,” says Gillette. “That’s something they just don’t talk about from athlete to athlete. We just learn from each other.”
It’s a daily occurrence he’d love for the public to see: top-echelon athletes training side by side, both working hard, with the same coaches, facilities and training regimens.
“It’s really a great environment,” he says.
And, he believes, if the public were able to see that, it might enhance perceptions of what Paralympians and the Paralympics are all about.
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With the Paralympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 beginning Friday and running through the 18th — Gillette was one of five Paralympians we asked to weigh in on the topic of what they’d most like the public to know about the Paralympics.
Lex Gillette, Track and Field
“Just the fact the Paralympics is a competition for elite-level athletes. Elite athletes — comma — with a disability,” said Gillette, who is visually impaired. “Athletes who devote five, six, seven days a week to a particular craft. I think at this point a lot of people focus on the disability. You see it so often in the public media or maybe marketing ads, they may put a lot of focus on the disability itself rather than putting the focus into the athlete’s craft and how amazing and physically dominant and great they are at what they do.
“I think when you focus on that, when you shed so much light on the disability, it kind of places people in this space where they’re blinded, so they can’t appreciate how amazing (rower and cross-country skier) Oksana Masters is or how amazing Mike Shea and Evan Strong and all the snowboarders are. … Thinking about them and what they do, I’m like, ‘I can’t do that!’ So the public, I want them to know that these athletes who are about to compete, these are people not just picking up a sport and being able to be successful. This is something they’ve worked at for years.”
Brenna Huckaby, Snowboarding
“I want people to know that what we’re doing isn’t some watered-down sport,” said Huckaby, 22, a former gymnast who lost a leg to cancer in 2010 and has three world championship golds. She will be making her Paralympic debut in PyeongChang.
“We’re working just as hard and we’re working to prove that we are just as good as any Olympian. I know that once people watch, not only will they feel that but they’ll see it and they’ll know that we’re pretty dang amazing.”
Stephanie Jallen, Alpine Skiing
“There’s a common misconception that in the Paralympics para is an abbreviation for paraplegic or paralyzed,” says Allen, 22, who won bronze medals in the super-G and super combined at the Sochi Winter Games in 2014. “Paralympics means parallel to the Olympics. It has nothing to do with the disability class or the definition of an issue. It means it’s the same thing. It runs side by side. What the public needs to know is we are not just — I don’t want to say we’re average people because many of us, each one of us is unique — but we are the same as Olympians. We are not just poor disabled children who they’re going to throw out a gold medal to everyone who competes.
“I mean, these people have dedicated their entire lives and have made sacrifices for decades to compete at the highest level. We are at the same venue, we are on the same hill, we have the same criteria and everything to compete and I think it’s important for people to know, especially if they’re watching it for the first time — which there are going to be a lot of first-time viewers — that this is just the same. We simply have disabilities. But we are competing at the same elite level and it’s a lot of fun to watch, especially the crashes,” she added, laughing. “Because we’re traveling at the same speeds but have quite a few different challenges that can sometimes cause some pretty unique wrecks.”
Aaron Pike, Nordic Skiing; Track and Field
“I’d like people to know it’s not solely about … we’re not just competing for a story, an inspirational story,” said Pike, 31, a winter/summer multisport athlete who suffered a spinal cord injury at age 13 and has competed in two summer and two winter Games. “We’re competing to be the best in the world in each of our respective sports and everybody’s trying to get to the podium, whether it’s skiing or basketball or whatever. People can get inspired from that, then that’s also great and it’s a bonus, but it’s not the sole thing. It’s not why we’re out there competing.
“We’re spending just as much time to training and nutrition and everything else, as any Olympic athlete.”
Amy Purdy, Snowboarding
“I’d like them to know just how exciting our sports are,” says Purdy, 38, who at age 19 lost both legs below the knee because of the effects of bacterial meningitis. She won a bronze in snowboardcross in Sochi.
“(Snowboardcross is) incredibly adrenaline-packed and it’s an extreme sport. There’s a lot of risk involved and everyone’s going so fast, so it’s exhilarating. At the same time, these athletes have such incredible stories.
“When we race side by side down the mountain you say, ‘That guy right there, he lost his arm in Afghanistan, he’s a wounded veteran. That girl right there, she lost her legs from meningococcal meningitis at 19 and built her own leg to snowboard again. And that guy, (snowboarder) Mike Schultz, built everybody’s legs in his garage because nobody made a leg for him.’ It’s just every single person has an outstanding story and on top of that, they’re outstanding athletes. So, it makes it even that much more exciting to watch the Games.”
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.