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Monday, May 16, 2011

Finding Ability in Disability

Record-Holding Parathlete takes time to visit amputees in Haiti


Blake Leeper was born without legs from the knee down. He got his first set of prosthetics at 16 months old, but says he has never thought of himself as someone with a disability.
“My parents established a mind set within me that I was no different than anyone else and that I can do anything I want to do and, if I give it my all, I’m just as good as anybody else,” said the 21-year-old Kingsport native and 2007 Dobyns-Bennett High School graduate.

(Blake is the son of Billy and Edith Leeper of Church Hill, and the grandson of Clifford and Lillian Leeper of New Canton. He is also a Douglass-Riverview descendant--EDITOR).

And this mind set is what has helped lead Leeper right where he is today –– to Chula Vista, Calif., training for the 2012 Paralympic Games in London. Leeper has been in California since December 2010.
Leeper, who currently holds this year’s parathlete world record for the 100-meter dash with a time of 11.32 seconds, first discovered a passion for sports when he was only 4 or 5 years old.

“I have an older brother who is two years older than me. So, of course, everything he did, I had to do, and do it better,” Leeper said, laughing. “My dad always coached us growing up. Anything [Kris] decided to play or even thought about playing –– from rollerblading to basketball or baseball –– I wanted to do it, too, and I wanted to be just as good as him. I looked up to him and wanted to be on his level, but in the process this was making me a better person and a better athlete.”
Sports being his niche, there was no stopping this young man once he got to high school.

At Dobyns-Bennett, he played right field and second base on the baseball team as a sophomore. He commanded media attention by making the varsity basketball team — the nation’s winningest high school basketball program — as a senior. Leeper was selected to the seven-member Times-News Elite basketball team in 2006-07. However, Leeper’s interest in track and field didn’t begin until after his graduation from high school.

“I had played something all the way through high school. When I graduated and that was done, I still had this urge to play something, to compete. That’s when track and field came along for me,” he said.
But the major turning point for Leeper came when he discovered a special kind of prosthetic he calls “Cheetah Legs.” Cheetah Legs are manufactured by the prosthetic company, Ossur.

“I wear general prosthetic legs, known as walking legs. I can get them through insurance because they are declared a necessity. But there’s this special leg out there strictly for running. To actually get a hold of them, you have to get a sponsorship or somebody to invest in and buy the legs for you. [Sponsors or investors] hope you will do right by the legs and use them to the best of your ability,” he said.

Michael and Gilgia Prumbs of Kingsport’s Pro Balance and the Challenged Athletes Foundation helped Leeper land his first pair of Cheetah Legs two years ago. Today, Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics and Ossur are Leeper’s sponsors.
According to Ossur’s website, Cheetah Legs capture the running characteristics of the world’s fastest land animal –– the Cheetah –– and replicate the big cat’s hind legs with a foot that extends and reaches out to paw at the ground while the large thigh muscles pull the body forward.
“They say it takes about two years to really get used to the legs. The energy return on Cheetah Legs ... you get almost a 93, 94 percent energy return when you step down. There’s a lot of bouncing and a lot of energy every time you step. It’s like putting on springs. The first time I put them on I was able to run on them. I guess it was easier for me than for most people because I was so athletic in high school. This allowed me to adapt to the situation a little bit better. But it still took me a couple of months to really get used to them. After four months, though, I ran my first race in Oklahoma. This was when I made the Paralympic Team,” he said.

It was while in his fourth year in a five-year program in applied physics at the University of Tennessee that Leeper was presented this opportunity to move to California and train.
“My mom was upset. She wanted me to stay close to home and finish school, but this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not too many people are able to get into this program. They only take the lead athletes. If you can get in, you should take advantage of it,” he said.

The Paralympic Games were first organized in the late 1940s for injured World War II veterans returning home.
Today, the Paralympics are elite sport events for athletes with a disability, emphasizing the participants' athletic achievements rather than their disabilities.
The Paralympics have grown considerably since those early years. The number of athletes participating in Summer Paralympic Games has increased from 400 athletes from 23 countries in Rome in 1960 to almost 4,000 athletes from 146 countries in Beijing in 2008. The games are always held in the same year as the Olympic Games.
Leeper points out he is training side-by-side with the Olympic athletes also headed to London in 2012.
“Everybody’s here together. It’s a nice atmosphere to become a better athlete. The Paralympics are very, very competitive. Everything is the same as with the Olympics. We have medals and different countries competing. We have relay teams, 100 meters, block starts. Everything’s the same. That competition level is on a professional and elite level,” he said.
Leeper will be competing in the 100- and 200-meter races as well as the 4 x 100 relay in London.

Taking some time out of his busy training schedule earlier this year, Leeper spent a couple of days in Haiti visiting with and encouraging children who lost limbs in last year’s devastating earthquake. He went as a representative of the Challenged Athletes Foundation, a foundation based in San Diego, Calif. that helps provide opportunities and support to people with physical disabilities, allowing them to pursue active lifestyles through physical fitness and competitive athletics.
The Knights of Columbus and Project Medishare established the joint “Healing Haiti’s Children” program, giving every child who lost a limb in the Haitian earthquake a two-year course of free prosthetics and physical therapy.
And together, Project Medishare, the Knights of Columbus, Ossur and the Challenged Athletes Foundation helped unveil a state-of-the-art Ossur International Prosthetics and Orthotics Laboratory in Port-au-Prince in March.

Leeper was there for the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
“There were a lot of amputees after the earthquake. We flew down there for a couple of days and helped them with their prosthetics. We started them off real slow at first, basically just walking, moving side to side. But by the end of the day, everybody was running up and down the field playing soccer. They were looking better than I was, and I’ve been wearing prosthetics all of my life,” he said.

Although Leeper says he went to Haiti, planning to offer inspiration to the earthquake victims, it was he who came away inspired.
“I had heard things, and I’ve seen all the stories and knew they really needed our help. It was crazy, but by the time I left, I felt so inspired, like they had helped me out. It led me to take a step back and look at my own life and see what’s really important and how good I’ve actually got it. They’ve experienced a lot down there, but their spirit has not been broken. This made me a stronger person,” Leeper said.
Looking ahead, Leeper is excited about his future.

“The sky’s the limit for me right now. I hope to get more active in the community of amputees. There are a lot of amputees in this world who are not being active, not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t have the knowledge to,” he said. “I really just want to go around the world and show people that, ‘Hey, even though you’re missing a limb, you can still accomplish a lot of things in life!’ I feel like I have a message to give to everybody and whether one person gets it or 100 people get it, I just want to get my message out there. I want to tell people to find the ability in your disability.”