Jarryd Wallace in action during the final of the mens 200m T44 on day nine of the IPC World ParaAthletics Championships 2017 at London Stadium on July 22, 2017 in London.
On Sept. 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, German long jumper Markus Rehm jumped farther than almost anyone — farther than Jeff Henderson of the United States jumped in the qualifying round before going on to win Olympic gold in the event — even farther than South African jumper Luvo Manyonga when he qualified for the final, where he would earn silver.
With a final distance of 8.21 meters, Rehm had them outmatched. There was just one problem — those jumpers weren’t his competitors. In fact, he wasn’t even competing in the Olympic Games.
Rehm is known as “The Blade Jumper,” a single amputee who jumps using a prosthetic. A two-time Paralympian, he’s pushing the boundaries of what Para long jumpers are capable of, giving able-bodied jumpers a reason to look over their shoulders — and giving other jumpers like Team USA’s Jarryd Wallace reason to hope that one day they can match or exceed the performances of their able-bodied counterparts.
It could happen sooner than we think; after all, the car Rehm’s chasing hasn’t accelerated in years. In 1968, American jumper Bob Beamon set a new world record of 8.90 meters at the Games in Mexico City. His record would stand for 23 years, until American Mike Powell jumped .05 meters farther in 1991. Today, Powell’s record still stands, and progress in long jumping has largely plateaued, with the winning distances from the 1980 Games to the 2016 Games all coming within .41 meters of each other.
Para jumpers, meanwhile, have made steady progress over the past few decades, with the top distance at the Paralympic Games increasing from 6.52 meters in 1980 to Rehm’s 8.21-meter jump in 2016. Rehm’s jump would have placed him second in qualifying at the Olympic Games held the previous month, and fifth in the final (while the Olympic and Paralympic finals were held in the same stadium, there are other factors to consider such as changes in wind speed).
Does this mean Para jumpers could soon out-jump able-bodied athletes?
“In perfect conditions, perfect jump … there’s definitely a chance that that could happen,” said Wallace, a Paralympic hopeful who recently added long jump to his repertoire. “I think it’s extremely possible in the foreseeable future, maybe the next decade, that the Paralympic gold medal champion maybe exceeds that of the able-bodied athletes.”
Wallace’s optimism is in part due to changes in technology that have allowed Para athletes to maximize their performance. In the past, running prosthetics were made to look like legs. Now, Para athletes use much more efficient 100% carbon fiber blades, which are made to be light, flexible, and durable, and factors like the shape and stiffness can be customized for each individual athlete. Once the blade is in the socket, Wallace is also able to make miniscule changes to the blade, like repositioning the toe.
This has led to an important development in Para jumping: single amputee jumpers actually using the blade to jump. Historically, single amputees jumped off their sound limbs. But according to Wallace, this changed in just the past decade, with jumpers taking advantage of blade technology to propel their bodies farther.
“It wasn’t until amputees started jumping off of their blade that we saw people jump over 6.5 meters consistently,” Wallace said.
Jumping off a blade takes practice, and precision. The blade position when Wallace pushes off the ground makes the difference between a great jump or a lackluster one.
“It’s definitely a hit or miss when it comes to the blade,” he said. “I could have a really good run up and if I don’t hit the blade on the ground properly, I barely go anywhere. And if I hit the blade right, I can float for a little bit.”
Every step — from engineering, to blade alterations, to, finally, execution — is part of a delicate formula that Wallace continuously tweaks, making changes that send him farther and farther into the sand. That is, after all, the secret to Rehm’s success, according to Wallace.
“Marcus has definitely cracked the code, if you will,” Wallace said. “He's obviously figured out how to use the blade in its most effective manner.”
So far, Rehm is the only Para long jumper who has surpassed the eight-meter mark. But once one athlete has done it, the others start asking questions — what is Rehm doing that we aren’t? How can we alter our formulas to do the same?
For the moment, Rehm might be in a league of his own. At the 2018 European championships, he set the Para long jump record of 8.48 — a distance that far surpasses other Para jumpers’ performances and would have won him gold in the last three Olympic Games. Rehm made an attempt to follow in Oscar Pistorius’ footsteps by competing in the 2016 Olympic Games, but the IAAF denied his request.
Wallace, for one, is on board with keeping the two sports separate. Regardless of whether Para athletes can hold their own or even surpass able-bodied jumpers, “I 1000% think they need to be separate,” he said, citing the importance of keeping opportunities open for athletes with disabilities. Plus, he said, adding Para athletes to Olympic events would be pointless because “you can’t compare apples to apples.”
Wallace hopes to jump in 2021 for Team USA, where Rehm will defend his title. Maybe they’ll jump farther than the Olympians again this time. Maybe they won’t. When it comes to Para long jumping, the possibilities seem to only be increasing.