Paralympic sprinter Jarryd Wallace addresses the media at the USOC Olympic Media Summit at The Beverly Hilton Hotel on March 8, 2016.
For Jarryd Wallace, everything happens for a reason.
From the painful syndrome that took over his leg in his late teens, to the amputation that ended his elite running hopes in 2010, to the postponement that put his goal of getting his first Paralympic medal on hold ... you wouldn’t know it, but for this world champion, there was a plan the entire time.
“I realized that it was the Lord’s plan, not my plan, that was coming to fruition,” he said of his decision to amputate his leg below the knee. “And I didn’t have anything to worry about.”
Wallace’s original plan had fewer twists and turns, for sure. Born into an athletic family, the 30-year-old Georgia native said he grew up playing tennis and running with his family before deciding to become a competitive middle-distance runner in high school.
“That was when I really fell in love with it and set the tennis racket down and got really serious about running,” he said.
Wallace, who won state titles in the 800-meter and 1600-meter, had high hopes for his career: his goal was to become a professional runner and to compete internationally. But in his junior year of high school, he developed a nagging injury that would bring his once-promising career to a grinding halt. What was thought to be a stress fracture in his leg turned out to be compartment syndrome, a painful swelling that caused decreased blood flow to the tissues in his leg. Wallace decided to have surgery in hopes that he could return to running and stay on track toward his professional goals. Then, that plan was thwarted, too.
“We just had complications in that surgery … we ended up having a bunch of revisions,” he said.
Those “revisions” included 10 total surgeries and a two-year battle to save his leg. At this point, Wallace was living in tremendous pain. So he made a decision.
“I ultimately decided that instead of living the rest of my life in pain,” he said, “I was going to elect to have my leg amputated and begin a road to recovery to have a normal life.”
The prospect of losing a limb would be daunting for anybody. But looking back, Wallace doesn’t describe the decision to amputate as a drastic one, or a distressing one. In fact, he says he felt hopeful, saying it was part of a greater plan for his life.
“It was the hope of being pain free,” he said. “It was the hope of having a second shot at life that really allowed me to be in that place of saying, hey, you know what, this is clearly the path that the Lord has for me.”
Before the surgery even began, he had already set new goals: one was to break a world record, and another was to go to the Paralympic Games. Wallace had faith that God’s plan would work out — and it did. Wallace worked hard in rehab and took his first steps two weeks after surgery. Three months later, he had running blades and was learning to be a sprinter. His first race took place a year after the amputation date. From there, his career escalated quickly: he qualified for nationals and the 2011 Parapan American Games, where he won a gold medal and set a world record in the 100-meter.
His next stop was the Paralympic Games London 2012, which he described as “unbelievable.” Wallace didn’t medal, but making it to the Games nonetheless meant that he had checked off both the goals that he had set just two years earlier. At the same time, he wanted more.
“That experience kind of lit the fire for me,” he said.
In 2013, he “shattered the world record” and won a world gold medal with his team in the 4x100 relay, and he won gold in the 200. How could someone come back from an amputation to accomplish so much in just three years? Wallace credits his persistence and goal setting. But he’s also quick to thank the people around him, supporting him and helping him heal.
“It was definitely a team effort,” he said. “I really was blessed.”
Today, Wallace is preparing for next year’s postponed Paralympic Games in Tokyo, taking advantage of the time away from competition to nurse nagging injuries and spend time with his wife and 11-month-old son Levi. After competing at his second world championships and his second Parapan Games, Jarryd went to the 2016 Paralympic Games as a favorite, but suffered an unfortunate respiratory infection that kept him from competing his best there.
“That was a heartbreak and a hard thing for me to have to overcome,” he said. Now, his goal is the only thing that’s eluded him so far: “I’ve won every gold medal on the national and international stage except the Paralympic Games.”
Toward that end, he’s adding the long jump to his repertoire for the Games. Wallace knows that the plan for him goes beyond running, though.
“Running’s a platform,” he said. “It’s a platform to create a legacy and a platform to create opportunities for people.”
He knows that many people who have lost a limb have not the opportunities that he’s had, to run, and to stay active, something he calls a “human right.” That’s due in part, he says, to the high cost of running blades. Right now, Wallace says it can cost around $7,500 just for a blade, on top of another $7,500 for a socket. This makes running inaccessible to many amputees, as insurance usually doesn’t cover blades.
“Because the technology is so expensive, the access is so low,” he said.
To help solve this problem, Wallace has become the director of the Affordable Blade Project at a prosthetics startup. The goal of the project is to cut costs for running blades for the consumer.
“The goal is to be able to get running blades into the hands of individuals for at or under a thousand dollars,” he says. “The blades should be for everybody.”
Becoming an advocate for affordable prosthetics on top of being a world champion certainly was not the plan Wallace had when he started running back in high school. But now that he knows he’s found his purpose, he wouldn’t change a thing.
“If you had asked me 10 years ago would I be an amputee, world record holder, Paralympian… all those things? Absolutely not,” he said. “If I could go back 10 years and change anything, would I? Absolutely not. Because this is way better of a plan and of a journey than I ever dreamed of.”