Raised to overcome: Blake Leeper

By Brian Hightower | June 25, 2012, 10 a.m. (ET)

Blake Leeper
Blake Leeper, who medaled at the 2011 Parapan American Games, hopes to be named to his first U.S. Paralympic Team on July 1.

In London, the men’s 100 meter sprint will be stacked with its fastest field ever.

But if Usain Bolt, Tyson Gay and Yohan Blake come to mind, think again.

The most hotly contested 100m in London this will happen at the Paralympic Games on Sept. 6, when the gun goes off at the Olympic Stadium for the final of the men’s T43/44 class.

Jerome Singleton, who calls himself “The Fastest Amputee in the World”, and the South African “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius are former champions in this event at the Games and the International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships. The intense rivalry between the two, who have finished 1-2 in numerous events, is already headline news.

And if two-time Paralympic gold-medalist Marlon Shirley can finish his comeback for a fourth Paralympic Games, his experience will factor into the mix.

But the big boys need to watch their backs in London; there are a few lesser known sprinters waiting in the wings who are just as eager to be going home from London with gold.

One of these contenders is Kingston, Tenn., native Blake Leeper, who will compete for his first U.S. Paralympic Team berth at the 2012 U.S. Paralympic Trials – Track & Field, June 29-July 1 in Indianapolis. He has a history of making people take notice. And he continues to turn heads with personal best times on the track.

Raising a Champion

When Blake Leeper came into the world, he arrived without lower legs and feet, a birth defect that took his parents, Edith and Bill, by surprise. “The doctor told me he’d never walk,” a devastating prognosis that Edith now recalls with amusement.

Amid the confusion and questions, Blake’s parents made a tough-love pact right there in the hospital that would set Blake on a bold path; a path that would, in essence, train him not only to overcome obstacles, but to deny that they ever existed in the first place.

“We decided that we were going to treat him as if he did have limbs,” she said.

“No exceptions.” 

First, they’d need to find a new doctor.     

They did. As a sign of things to come, Blake was fitted for prosthetic legs at 6-months-old, and was walking three months later. Just like that, he was just like every other child. 

“I can’t remember a single time my family took it easy on me,” Blake said.  He spent his childhood trying to keep up with big brother, Kris, who took him under his wing and shared his love of athletics.  Edith remembers that Blake got so good at sports, spectators often failed to realize that he was wearing prosthetics.

“Once, Blake got a trophy at school for being such an inspiration. And it was funny, because some of his own teachers didn’t know that he had no lower limbs. People would just forget, until one of his legs would fall off.”

His father played a key role as coach and motivator, but he never gave Blake an inch.  He’d ride him for ground balls that went through his legs or missing lay-ups on the court. 

“I was so hard on him,” Bill recalled. “He’d get so mad at me that he’d ask to ride home from practice with his mama.”

Questioned about whether he ever pushed Blake too hard, Bill said without any hesitation, “It never crossed my mind.”

The loving pact made over 22 years ago in an anxious hospital room was intended to raise a strong, independent man with the confidence to follow his dreams.  And now Blake Leeper dreams of Paralympic gold.      

Crowded at the Top

Leeper is headed to Indianapolis at the end of June to try to qualify for the 2012 Paralympic Games in the 100m, 200m and 400m events. And oh yeah, he’s the current T43 American record holder in each of those. But past results won’t get you to London, and there is a bottleneck of Team USA talent that will be competing in Indy for just three spots in the 100.

Fresh off a personal best, 11.2 just a few weeks ago, Leeper needs to be at his absolute best in Indianapolis.  “Right now, I’m just working on the details”, he said last week of his build up to the Trials. 

Among those details are his block starts. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of double amputees in a sprint is that they cannot feel a foot strike when their blade hits the ground, so the first few steps out of the blocks are about gaining their balance while also trying to accelerate. 

“My starts are feeling really good.” 

They had better be.

Among the field that Leeper will face at the end of the month is Shirley, the only Paralympian to break the 11 second barrier in the 100 at 10.91. Also on the starting line will be Singleton, the current World Champion.  Toss in Jarryd Wallace, the Parapan American gold medalist, and a few other runners who can run near 11 seconds.

It is wide open.

“I told him he’s got to go 10.8,” Bill said, again with no hesitation.

Still coaching, still pushing even now. 

Forget that a 10.8 has never been done before. 

That’s never stopped Blake Leeper from trying.