How I became a Paralympian: Lex Gillette

By Lex Gillette | July 15, 2014, 8 a.m. (ET)
Lex Gillette
Lex Gillette, seen competing in the long jump at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships, has three silver medals in the men's long jump (F11) at the Paralympic Games. He is the 2013 world champion.

For the first eight years of my life, I enjoyed playing video games, riding my bicycle through the neighborhood and running to catch lightning bugs that flickered in North Carolina's evening skies. I was living life and having fun just like the next kid. On one particular night, I was sitting in the bathtub getting cleaned up for bed. I suddenly noticed something was different. The bath water now looked cloudy. I stared up at the bathroom lights. The lights were blurred. I hopped out of the tub and jumped onto the bathroom counter to look at the mirror. My reflection seemed faint. I was losing my sight.

An examination revealed that I was suffering from retina detachments and I needed to have an emergency operation. The first one was successful and I could see fairly well for about three weeks. After the third week, I experienced another retina detachment. There was a second operation and I could see again for another three weeks. Unfortunately, the same problem continued to occur and after 10 operations, the doctors said there was nothing else that they could do. I bawled my eyes out when I heard the news that I would become blind. Over the next few months, I watched as the images of my family and neighborhood faded before my eyes.

The first few years without sight were tough. Fortunately, my family and friends believed in me. They told me that I would still be successful, but I would have to do things a little differently than most. I learned how to read braille so I could get through school. I began to rely on my ears more because I had to.

During my freshman year of high school, all students had to participate in a nation-wide physical education test where students had to do as many pushups, pull ups and sit ups as he or she could. There was also a standing long jump that each student had to participate in. We discovered that I was really good at standing long jump. I was actually one of the best in the school. At that point, Brian Whitmer, my high school teacher, told me about the Paralympic Games and how I could compete for Team USA, travel to different countries, win medals and break records. That became my goal.

Whitmer took me to a sports camp for athletes who are visually impaired and blind in Kalamazoo, Michigan. This is where I learned about the running long jump. Whitmer taught me to remember the number of strides to take and at the appropriate step, I would catapult myself into the sand. I followed the sound of his voice to make sure I stayed straight on the runway. My first attempts weren't the best, but we kept working, and working and working. After returning home to Raleigh, North Carolina, I joined my high school track team. Whitmer continued to help me train. We began to train harder, and I began to jump farther. By my senior year I had become one of my school's best athletes.

I graduated from Athens Drive High School and the next year, I competed in the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games. It was an overwhelming experience to compete in front of thousands of screaming spectators. It was even more overwhelming to compete and win my first Paralympic medal. I just couldn't stop smiling as the medal was placed around my neck. All of the hard work had paid off. All of those days when I thought I would never overcome blindness had faded far off in the distance. Just like Whitmer told me I could, I currently compete for Team USA. I'm traveling the world. I've won a medal at every Paralympics I've attended. I have broken a world record and multiple American records.

Being a U.S. Paralympian means a lot. It means that life may throw you a curve ball but that doesn't mean you have to strike out. You just have to figure out how to knock it out the park. Never in a million years would I have imagined competing for Team USA, but being a Paralympian showed me that I could leave the blindness behind and look to bigger and better things ahead.

Lex Gillette represented the United States at the Athens 2004, Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Paralympic Games, winning the silver medal in the men’s long jump (F11) each time. He is the 2013 world champion in the event. Also at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee World Championships in Lyon, France, Gillette won a silver medal in the triple jump and the men’s 4x100m relay (T11-13). He is currently training for the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Team.