22-year-old American Paralympian Blake Leeper is on a fast track to sprinting success.
Three years ago, under the hot Oklahoma sun, Blake Leeper crouched down in his starting blocks with something to prove.
The 19-year-old double below-knee amputee had traveled 950 miles to get to the 2009 Endeavor Games, but he had no idea at the time the 100 meters that lay in front of him offered the opportunity to take him on an even greater journey.
Leeper, along with his mom, dad and older brother, had driven 14 hours from their home in Church Hill, Tenn., to Edmund, Okla., to see if he had a future in this new sport. He had played basketball and baseball as a kid and even played varsity basketball in high school, but it wasn’t until he received a pair of top-of-the-line prosthetic running legs, courtesy of the Challenged Athletes Foundation and the manufacturer, a small Icelandic company called Ossur, that track and field ever crossed Leeper’s radar.
Leeper was born without feet, ankles and lower leg bones, and had his legs amputated to the knee shortly after he was born. Although he had been using prosthetics since he was 9 months old, he was never the type of kid to ease into anything.
“We saw that the Endeavor Games were coming up so the thought was ‘Go big or go home,’” Leeper recalls. “Why not take a shot?”
Not only had he never run in a track meet before, Leeper had never seen one in person. All he knew is that he wanted to run fast.
“My main concern was not disappointing my family,” he admits. “Being my first track meet, my main goal was not falling down and making that 14-hour drive back home a whole lot longer.”
Leeper didn’t fall. He soared. He blitzed the 100m field that day in 11.95 seconds and also went on to win the 200m (25.44) and the 400m (56.79) in the same afternoon. Those performances earned him a spot on the U.S. Paralympic track team that would be competing in an international meet in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil where he’d truly start to realize the potential of his emerging talent.
It also landed him in the capable hands of Joaquim Cruz, the coach of the U.S. Paralympic track and field team since 2005. Cruz, a two-time Olympic medalist at 800m and one of the world’s most decorated track athletes of the 1980s, knew Leeper was a diamond in the rough, but he also knew Leeper’s talents would be lost without proper training or dedication.
“We met for the first time on that trip,” Cruz remembers. “It was his first time out of the country and he was scared. He took third in the 100m on just raw talent. Then he took second in the 200m, and I was like, ‘whoa, this kid is special.’ I could tell right away that Blake had something the other kids didn’t.”
After the meet in Brazil, Cruz started emailing workouts to Leeper—who was then studying applied physics the University of Tennessee with the hopes of developing high-performance prosthetics—but Leeper wasn’t very good about doing them.
When he would visit the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., though, there was no hiding his lack of conditioning.
“I’d ask him to tell me what percentage of the workouts he had actually done,” Cruz says. “Was it 80 percent? Or 50 percent? At least he was honest. It was usually around 10 percent. Blake was more interested in meeting girls and having fun than running track.”
Fortunately, Cruz is a patient man. He feels it takes a track athlete six to eight years to really learn how to train correctly. At the beginning, Leeper was undertrained, not entirely motivated and, as a result, a bit lost. During his basketball days, he went all-out all the time. He tried that tactic on the track, but dearly paid the price.
When a workout was supposed to be five 200m repeats with a moderate rest interval, Leeper had no idea how to pace himself and simply ran as fast as he could. “I wanted to impress Coach Cruz and go as hard as I could on every repeat,” Leeper laughs.
It took a while to mold Leeper into shape, but he’s made huge progress in a short amount of time.
“Until about four months ago, Blake was throwing up during every workout—he would go so hard on the first interval and then throw up over and over again,” Cruz says followed by a long pause and a smile. “And Blake doesn’t do anything quietly.”
Cruz’ patience is paying huge dividends, but so is Leeper’s dedication. He’s been living at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., since 2010, taking two years off from college to focus on the upcoming Paralympic Games in London. In April, he set new American records for a double below-knee amputee in the 100m (11.31 seconds), 200m (21.98) and 400m (51.97), earning the U.S. Olympic Committee’s athlete of the month accolades in the process.
Leeper trains with Cruz on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays in Chula Vista. He runs the track, hits the weight room, practices his starts from the blocks and works on his flexibility. As the intensity of the workouts increased prior to the U.S. Paralympic track and field trials, so did the amount of rest and recovery. After two years, Cruz had finally helped Leeper build a base of fitness.
“There is no more puking,” Cruz says. “Blake never had a base before, but he does now. He can run nine 200 repeats in a row … without puking.”
On this particular day in late June, two weeks before the trials, the two are working on starts on the OTC track. But even with London looming, Cruz is looking past that and feels the Paralympics are just step one for young Blake Leeper.
“I was never very serious about my training,” Leeper admits. “A few months ago, coach pulled me aside and told me, ‘You have no idea how good you can be … but I know how good you can be. If you dedicate yourself, there is no reason you can’t make the 2016 U.S. Olympic team and beat the best able-bodied sprinters in the world.” Leeper pauses and smiles his 1,000-watt smile. “That’s when I got excited and really committed myself to my training.”
At the 2011 Paralympic world championships in New Zealand, Leeper was in the 200m prelims with his hero and track and field legend, fellow double below-knee amputee Oscar Pistorius, the South African who has gained notoriety for competing in meets against able-bodied runners and trying to earn the opportunity to compete in the Olympics.
“I had only seen Oscar run on television,” Leeper recalls. “I was in lane five, he was in lane six, and I was really nervous. Coach Cruz took me aside before the race and told me not to be afraid, to just go out there and attack the beast.”
Athletes like Cruz understand. When he raced, he was so dominant at 800m that he knew—and everyone else in the field knew—that he was probably going to win the race. He was in the heads of his competitors and the race was often over before it began. For athletes racing Pistorius and Cruz, the intimidation factor is off the charts.
“I wanted Blake to go head-to-head with Oscar for as long as he could that day,” Cruz says. “I knew Blake wasn’t ready to beat him, but I wanted Oscar to know that one day he could.”
In that 200m prelim, they stayed together for the first 80 meters before Pistorius surged away. Leeper gave it all he had, qualified for the finals and came away with the sense the he could eventually run with Pistorius.
Leeper took fifth in the 200m as well as in the 100m and 400m finals. Pistorius won the 200m and 400m, but American Jerome Singleton handed him his first Paralympic loss in seven years in the 100m.
Although he could have been disappointed for missing the podium three times, Leeper left that meet more motivated than ever, and his 2012 results certainly reflect that. At the U.S. Paralympic track and field trials in Indianapolis in late June, Leeper punched his ticket to London in the 100m (10.95), 200m (21.70), and 400m (50.68), setting new American records in each event.
“All that did was fire me up to train harder so that I can run even faster when I get to London in September,” he says.
What he and Pistorius share in common, aside from relentless ambition and considerable natural talent, is their carbon-fiber legs. Both run with Ossur Flex Foot Cheetah prosthetics, the $30,000 futuristic-looking limbs that earned Pistorius the nickname “Blade Runner.”
Leeper hasn’t come close to beating Pistorius yet, but his rapid progression is similar to his idol. Pistorius, 25, started competing in 2003 and five years later won the 200m and 400m at the Paralympic Games. Although Leeper, 22, has only been running for three years, he’s already set three American records and is within a half-second of Pistorius’ 200m world record.
Still, it’s where Pistorius is going that has Leeper captivated. Last year, Pistorius became the first amputee to compete at the track and field world championships for able-bodied runners when he ran in Daegu, South Korea. Although he finished a non-qualifying eighth in his semifinal heat of the 400m, he earned a silver medal as an alternate on South Africa’s 4x400m relay team. He spent the early part of 2012 trying to earn an Olympic-qualifying berth, but he’s still planning to run in the Paralympics that follow.
When they meet on the track again, things will be different. Pistorius will still be favored to win, but Leeper will be ready to do more than just attack the beast.
“I wasn’t ready to beat Oscar back then,” Leeper says. “But I am now.”
This piece first appeared in the August 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.