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Sunday, July 19, 2009

Local Kingsport Athlete Qualifies for U.S. Paralympic Team

19-year-old Blake Leeper is one special athlete.

The Kingsport native, D-B alumnus and rising U-T student is making a name for himself in national track and field competition, and he's doing it, without the two things an athlete needs.

Legs, below the knees.

Blake is a bi-lateral, below-the-knee amputee from birth. In runner's language, he is considered a T-43, the official classification for a Paralympic amputee, and that's where Blake has begun making a name for himself.

Recently, Blake Leeper competed in the 2009 Endeavour Games at Edmond, Oklahoma, and the son of Edith and Bill Leeper and grandson of Lillian Leeper, and his time of 11:96 not only won the 100-meter race.. his running time in that single event has placed him on the Paralympic Team.

For the entire United States.

"It was wonderful.. just awesome," Blake says. "I did not know what to expect or how it would go, it being my first race. I had so many butterflies in my stomach, and man they were huge."

To see Blake's interview with the Kingsport Times-News, click Blake's Interview.

He had some formidable competition. In the 100-meter race, there were three competitors already on the national Paralympic Team. "You could see it in their faces, they were professionals..they do this all the time," said Blake's father Bill. "Blake kinda looked intimidated by them and he finally told me later that he was. He felt threatened by the fact that they did this professionally, where they'd traveled to, where they'd been. This being his first meet, I felt for him. It was something new for him and I thought he handled it great."

But Blake wasn't finished. He also placed first in the 200-meter race AND the 400-meter race. Only the 100-meter qualified him for the national Paralympic Team. "I did not expect to come in first in the other two races," he says. "The competition was just too great. I felt really blessed to be triumphant in all three."

In the 100-meter race, "he came off the block and just flew," Bill Leeper says. "It took a 12:19 to qualify, and he scored the 11:96. The second place Paralympic guy ran a 12:06, and the third one did 12:33. My wife Edith and I just looked at each other.. we wanted to scream out 'he did it!' but we didn't. We WERE asking ourselves 'did he do it, did he really do this? He beat the best."

Blake's older brother Chris attended the event with their parents, but then there was the proud grandma back home in Church Hill. "We called and told her (Lillian Leeper), and she was Praising the Lord and everything. She told us to tell Blake that she was proud of him, and to continue taking the Lord with him. She said she had been praying for him, and knew he would do well."

But now, the U.S. Paralympic Team has a "diamond in the rough" they did not know about.

"As soon as he came off the track with that time and those medals," Bill said, "the coach came over and told us 'now we have something to work with.' We've been watching him race since he was 4 years old, and never dreamed this would happen. He ran cross-country in middle school, but this is the first time we've ever seen him compete on the same level as national paralympic athletes."

Oscar "Bladerunner" Pistorius, himself also a T-43 double-amputee, ran the 100-meter in 11:06, and he is considered one of the fastest runners in the world. Blake's 11:96 places him in some good company.

"Oscar Pistorius also ran an 11:17 in the 100-meter in Manchester, England last month," says Bill. "He's considered the man, the golden child in paralympic running around the world. The United States Para-Olympic Team doesn't have anybody that can compete on his level. Blake has both limbs missing, and they classify him as a T-43.. on the Olympic teams, they do not have any T-43's, they're all T-44's meaning they're just missing one leg. They've got one good leg and one prosthetic leg, and they have nobody that's a T-43 like Blake. They were just really excited that they have finally found a T-43 that can compete on the level that Oscar Petorius competes on. There was another T-43 there, but Blake beat him in all the races.. he was good, but the coach said Blake's take-off speed was just too much."

So where does Blake go from here?

"I think this was the last qualifier for the year," Bill says, "so we'll have to wait and see what the coaches has planned for Blake, now that he's on the U.S. team."

Blake's focus is a bit more narrow.

"I'm planning to say in school," he says. "I plan to finish my bachelor's degree at U-T in physics. That's number one. I'm also pre-med at U-T and I will be going to medical school."

"Talking to the coach and everything, she said there's a really good chance of making a name for myself with the running for the U.S. Parylympic Team, winning more medals and really competing. It may open up another chapter in my life, and the sky may be the limit."

Blake's sponsors are Pro-Balance of Kingsport, and the Challenge Athletes Foundation of San Diego, California. Both sponsors paid for the Leeper family's trip to Oklahoma, and for Blake's prothetics.

Blake does spend time, talking to other paraplegics. "I always tell them, they can do it, too," he says. "We all have disabilities and challenges to life, and we just have to overcome them. I feel like when they see me out there giving it everything I've got on the track, or I'm in class giving the brain a good workout, I want them to know there are better days coming for them, too."

"God has Blessed me to peak in my life, and do the best that I can. That's their goal, too, that no matter what, you, too can overcome the obstacles and accomplish the hard parts and the challenges."