Jaleen Roberts smiles during the Women's Long Jump T37 at the IPC World Para Athletics Championships 2019 Dubai on Nov. 10, 2019 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
When a lot of people see Olympic and Paralympic athletes they see world records, gold medals and success.
“Sometimes people forget that as athletes we’re people too and we face a lot of the same struggles that everybody else faces,” Para track and field athlete Jaleen Roberts explained. “I think it’s important for people to realize that we face struggles that they don’t see and that we’re not just these extremely happy and positive people all the time. It’s okay for us to have bad days and to struggle with things too.”
Roberts candidly discussed just how difficult the postponement of the Games was to process as a first-time Paralympic hopeful.
“I took it really hard and seemingly lost all of my motivation and drive. For four years I had been looking forward to competing at the Games and becoming a Paralympian and medaling, it felt like in a second it was all taken away from me,” Roberts explained.
She admitted that it took a few weeks and a new perspective for her to really come to terms with the postponement. A new lens allowed her to embrace the extra time to prepare physically and mentally, but that doesn’t mean her struggles with mental health are over.
“I feel like a lot of us try to put on a facade because we don’t want to show weakness,” Roberts said. “Since the pandemic and the postponement began, it hasn’t been super easy. But I’m taking steps to work through it and I’m just trying to be patient with myself and giving myself a little bit of grace. Small progress is still progress.”
At just 21 years old, Roberts is one of the younger members of the national team. Her journey to the world stage was a fast one.
Roberts spent the first years of her athletic career competing against able-bodied athletes. She ran on her high school track team and competed at the state level for the wrestling team as well. It wasn’t until her junior year of high school that Washington State introduced ambulatory races into the state meets. Her high school coaches approached her, but she was initially hesitant.
“My whole life I competed against able-bodied athletes. I didn’t necessarily want to highlight or draw attention to my disability,” Roberts explained. Roberts was born with cerebral palsy, a condition that impacts her muscle coordination.
After learning more about the Paralympic movement and connecting with her now coach David Greig, Roberts competed at her first national meet. From there, it all happened at a rapid pace. Roberts began traveling around the world, competing on the international stage.
“It was really cool because before I joined the Paralympic movement, I had never even been out of the country,” Roberts laughed. “It was crazy to feel such a sense of belonging where I never thought I would, to be on a team with athletes like myself.”
And that, to Roberts, made all the difference.
When Roberts loses motivation or becomes frustrated with training, her coach often encourages her to remember her ‘why’ - the reason she took the leap in the first place. Roberts explained that for her, her motivation often has more to do with others than with herself.
“Growing up, I never had female athletes with disabilities to really look up to,” Roberts explained. “I want to be the person that these little girls can look at and say ‘She’s the reason why I joined track, she’s the reason I was able to believe in myself.’”
As Roberts continues to use the extra year to train, her sights are set on success in Tokyo.
“Medaling at the Games is the plan. Specifically, I really want to get gold in the long jump. I’ve finished second in the event at the past two worlds to [Xiaoyan Wen]. We’re both in the five meter club, but I’m going to jump further this time,” she smiled.