Monday, June 24, 2013

Working for Rio Kingsport’s Leeper sets sights on both Paralympic, Olympic Games in 2016

The Tennessean

  The first time sprinter Blake Leeper began training, he didn’t know how to use the starting blocks or how to line up on the track.

By the time he learned, Leeper quickly became the fastest Paralympian in the world, tying the 100-meter world record set by South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius at 10.91 seconds during a meet in Canada last July.

Leeper, who is from Kingsport, was born with a rare congenital birth defect where neither of his fibulae developed. He has no limbs below his knees. He learned to walk using prosthetic legs. 
Leeper grew up in a no-nonsense household, raised by Southern Baptist parents. His older brother, Christopher, played baseball and basketball growing up, and Blake followed. His prosthetics didn’t stop him.

“Sometimes people are dealt with difficult situations and people think, ‘Why me?’ ” said Blake’s mother, Edith Leeper.

“Instead of ‘Why me?’ people can pull up their pants, lace up their shoes and make the best of the situation.”

Leeper continued playing both sports and ran cross country throughout high school. 
“Sports let the community and people know that even though I’m different, I can still compete at a high level,” said Leeper, who is currently in Chula Vista, Calif., training for the July 14 International Paralympic Committee World Championships in Lyon, France.

After high school, Leeper thought his sports career was over. He enrolled at the University of Tennessee. But then his life changed during the summer of 2008.

While watching the Paralympic Games on television, Leeper saw Pistorius and others race with ease on their prosthetic blades. Leeper wanted to give it a try.

Immediately, Leeper began his pursuit of getting blades to run. Over the next several months and into the next year, Leeper applied for grants and contacted organizations to help him get the $15,000 legs that would make running track a reality.

“Blake never mentioned wanting to run track (in high school),” Edith said. “We had no idea he would pursue it like he did.”

Once Leeper got his blades, it took him three months to get used to running with them. He put off college and dedicated himself to running track.
In 2009, the Leeper family drove 14 hours to a track meet in Oklahoma to help Blake support his new dream. It was his first race on his new blades.

Leeper won the race to qualify for a spot on the U.S. Paralympic team. The next month, he was racing in Brazil and traveling the world with the team.

In 2012, he qualified for the Paralympic Games in London, where he raced in front of seven family members and 80,000 spectators. He won bronze in the 200 meters and silver in the 100 meters.

“The bronze medal is good and silver medal is good, but we want the gold,” Leeper said. “I don’t realize my full potential yet.”

Since returning from London, Leeper’s sights are set on Rio de Janeiro, the site of the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

He will also attempt to become the first American Paralympian to compete in the able-bodied Olympics, something Pistorius did last summer in London.

“You know, (Pistorius) kind of paved the way for me,” Leeper said. “He opened the door, and now I want to walk through it.”