Alexis Gillette competes during the men's long jump T11/12 at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 on Aug. 24, 2019 in Lima, Peru.
Lex Gillette has been around a bit.
It’s now been nearly two decades since he first began long jumping as a high schooler in North Carolina, and he hasn’t missed a Paralympic Games since his 2004 debut. Even his home base, the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California, is probably getting tired of seeing him, Gillette jokes, after he keeps coming back every year since 2008.
“I need to see if I can lobby to get a statue out there,” he says.
One thing he hasn’t done, however, is compete the whole year through, almost to Thanksgiving.
That changed this year, with the World Para Athletics Championships beginning Thursday in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. Gillette is scheduled to compete Sunday morning local time in the T11 long jump, which is for visually impaired athletes.
A typical season ends in August, Gillette said, though in 2015 the world championships in Doha, Qatar, were held in October.“But this is even later than that,” he said last month in Minneapolis, where he was in town to promote next year’s U.S. Paralympic Team Trials for road cycling, swimming and track and field.
For Gillette, the world record holder in T11 long jump since 2011, the immediate goal is winning a fourth world title, adding to those he won in 2013, 2015 and 2017 (he’s also won a long jump silver medal and four medals in other events). Though now a grizzled vet, his body perhaps not quite as fresh as it was a few years ago, Gillette remains one of the best in the world, and he’s confident he can clinch another title.
With the extended season running right up to the start of the 2020 Paralympic year, however, the stakes this year are especially high.
“This is the last major international competition before Tokyo,” he said, “so using this as a trampoline of sorts to put yourself in a good position for going into the next track and field season, ending things off on a good note. It’s the culmination of all of the workouts, all of the competitions through the duration of this season and putting it all out there on display and trying to be the best version of yourself and hopefully winning gold in the process.”
Gillette, along with his coach Jeremy Fischer and his sighted guide Wes Williams, has been preparing for this unique situation all season, adjusting workouts and doing what they could to stay locked in.
“Because at this time usually you’re somewhere on the beach chilling,” Gillette said. “But there’s still work to be done.”
And soon after that work is done in Dubai, the next stage is already beginning.
The Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 start on Aug. 25, and Gillette expects to have just a few weeks of offseason before jumping back into Paralympics prep. Now 35 years old, Gillette goes into Tokyo as the four-time defending silver medalist in long jump, and he’s determined to contend for that elusive gold medal in 2020.
“That’s the box I haven’t been able to check,” he said.
Gillette has come frustratingly close to the top step of the podium. In 2016, he took the lead on his fifth jump only for Brazil’s Ricardo Costa de Oliveira to surpass him on his final attempt.
“In my mind, this was my year,” Gillette told TeamUSA.org that day.
It proved not to be, but it wasn’t necessarily his only opportunity.
“The fortunate thing is that Tokyo is coming up, I’m healthy, I feel good,” he said, “and, you know, the name of the game is just executing, not taking anything for granted, going through those workouts with the same fervor and tenacity that I would any other one.”
Now heading into what could be his fifth Paralympics, Gillette has reached the status where training partners now refer to him as “OG,” or Original Gangster. He can look back at his career and see how he’s improved from a raw 19-year-old at the Athens Games to a more polished athlete after moving to the Elite Athlete Training Center and taking advantage of all the resources there.
He’s also eager to reflect upon the growth across Paralympic sports during that time, with watershed events like the 2012 Games in London showing how compelling Para sports can be with the right mix of organization, promotion and knowledgeable fan support.
“London put it out there, they set the standard,” he said. And Tokyo, he added, “will be remarkable."
What Gillette is really looking forward to, though, is 2028, when the Paralympic Games return to the U.S. in Los Angeles.
“That’s going to be the Games where the Paralympic Movement absolutely explodes in the United States,” he said.
As to whether he’ll still be around the Movement, Gillette confirms he will — though maybe no longer as an active athlete. He can’t say for sure. As for what exactly he’ll be doing in nine years, there’s plenty of time to figure that out.
Right now, though, he knows exactly where he wants to be in 2020.
“Gold is definitely what I want,” he said. “I think Tokyo is a great place to get it.”