A Year After Taking Up Paralympic Sport, Roderick Townsend Is A Rio Medal Favorite

By Scott McDonald | May 11, 2016, 2:47 p.m. (ET)


Roderick Townsend won gold at the IPC Athletics World Championships in his first year of Paralympic competition.

Jet lag and food poisoning appear to be the only things that can derail Roderick Townsend from getting to Rio de Janeiro. And even they probably won’t stop him.

Townsend doesn’t like to sound obnoxious when asked about his track and field prowess. He knows he’s good, but the 23-year-old wants to remain humble. So when asked what he needs to improve upon to qualify for the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Paralympic Games, he says it’s the little things, like mechanics.

“I hold myself to a different standard, and I want to continue striving to be the best,” said Townsend, who will celebrate his first year competing in Paralympic sport this weekend.

Townsend, who competes in the long jump, triple jump, high jump, 100-meter and the 4x100-meter, has already made quite the name for himself.

The qualifying standard for high jump among T46 athletes is 5 feet, 7 inches. Townsend already owns a personal best of 7 feet. He holds the leading marks in the world in most of his events, and he shows no signs of slowing down. After all, even though he’s new to Paralympic sports, he’s long been an athlete.

Townsend, who has grown into a 6-foot-7 frame, was big from the start. When his tiny-framed teenage mother went into labor, the doctors noticed Roderick was too big for her, yet it was too late for an emergency Cesarean section. Townsend said his umbilical cord was wrapped around his head twice, and that the best way for delivery was for the doctors to break his right collarbone and dislocate his shoulder to perform the delivery.

The procedure left Townsend with a condition called brachial plexus, which is the damage of a network of nerves in his right neck and shoulder area. Doctors told his family he’d most likely never move his right arm. That logic went out the window when he began moving it at 2 months old, he said.

His right arm to this day is still smaller and weaker than his left, and he can’t fully extend his right arm. But that never stopped the Stockton, California, native from becoming a stellar athlete. In fact, when he discovered Paralympic sports, Townsend was a decathlete on scholarship at Boise State. He ran, jumped and threw against some of the best able-bodied collegians in the country.

Townsend learned of the Paralympic Movement through two-time U.S. Paralympian Jeff Skiba, who encouraged Townsend to compete for Team USA. Townsend first got classified as T46 at the 2015 Desert Challenge Games, an event at which he set a new U.S. high jump record and won the 100-meter. He’s been on an upward trajectory ever since.

At the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships, he won gold in the 100-meter, high jump and long jump while winning silver in the triple jump. At the Parapan American Games, he was first in both high jump and long jump.

Then at the 2015 IPC Track & Field World Championships in Doha, Qatar, he won the high jump and notched silver in the long jump, triple jump and 4x100. The whirlwind year has had its challenges, though.

Townsend had never left the country before last year. Now, his travels have racked up more frequent flyer miles he can go anywhere he wants for free. But prior to the world championships, he was jet lagged and hadn’t prepared himself right for the travel and training regimen for a long trip. And the day he arrived there, Townsend said he came down with food poisoning, which didn’t bode well with his body in the 107-degree Doha heat.

“I’m still adjusting on how to prepare for meets like that around the world,” he said. “I’m still learning how many days to work out, which days to take off and even if I need to do my own workouts at the airport.”

Townsend graduated Boise State and now works as a graduate assistant for the Northern Arizona track and field team, working primarily with the jumpers. He’s also studying for his master’s in education, he said. When the college season is complete, he’ll be back at the track training harder than he is now.

“I know I’m supposed to win some of my events, but anything can happen on any given day,” Townsend said. “I’ll work hard because I know it comes down to a matter of centimeters when it comes to training.”

Though Rio is on his radar, it’s something that once seemed a little too far out of his sights.

“The Olympics was always a goal, but I didn’t think it was a realistic one,” Townsend said. “To be in a position to make the Paralympic Games is an incredible feeling. I’m extremely grateful for everyone involved and hope to make everybody proud.”

Scott McDonald has 18 years experience in sports reporting and feature writing. He was named the State Sports Writer of the Year in 2014 by the Texas High School Coaches Association. McDonald is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.