Blake Leeper envisions becoming the fastest bilateral amputee in the world.
As he approached the starting blocks for his 100-meter race at the 2009 Endeavour Games in Oklahoma, bilateral transtibial amputee, Blake Leeper kept his head down in the hopes of hiding the confusion on his face. Having never raced before in a professional track event, Leeper had no idea how to set himself up at the starting blocks. The 19 year old had other problems too. For his first career race, Leeper was running against serious competition. Three U.S. Paralympians were entered. “Just do what they do,” he thought to himself at the starting line. Leeper copied their every move; only he was faster. He managed to properly set himself and won the race. He earned a spot on the U.S. Paralympic team by posting a time of 11.952 seconds in the 100 event. He went on to win the 200 and 400 events as well. Not bad for a first timer.
Leeper, a congenital amputee, has been wearing prostheses since he was 16 months old. Always the athlete, he played baseball and basketball since the age of 5. In middle school, Leeper ran cross country but his best sports were baseball and basketball. In high school, the Kingsport Times-News in Kingsport, Tenn. named Leeper to their elite boys basketball team. Leeper’s hometown newspaper also named him the team captain of the seven-member club.
The transition from baseball and basketball to track and field was made easier by his familiarity with his prostheses during sports and competition. Leeper knew how to thrive with his prostheses. However, in track and field, a runner needs his or her legs to be in peak condition. For a bilateral amputee, the type of prostheses is integral for success. In order for Leeper to compete adequately against the best, he needed the best equipment. The Ossur Flex Foot prostheses he wore were perfect for baseball and basketball, but in a sprint, Leeper felt slow and sluggish.
“It’s just so hard to compete in track without Ossur Cheetahs,” Leeper explained.
In August 2008, unable to afford new prostheses, Leeper filled out a grant application from Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF). Within a couple of weeks, thanks to CAF’s partnership with Ossur, Leeper’s grant was approved and he was given brand new custom-fit Ossur Cheetahs.
“CAF has been such a big help,” Leeper said. “When they decided to sponsor me, it made all the difference. It put me on the next level.”
A new world
Leeper and his family were invited by CAF to California for the San Diego Triathlon Challenge (SDTC) in October 2008. There, Leeper walked into a world he had never known existed. Leeper had rarely seen other amputees. San Diego was his first experience hanging out with amputees of all ages and athletic abilities.
“When I went out there, I felt normal,” he explained. “Seeing other amputees living life to the fullest, I didn’t feel alone. It was amazing to see the age range and how we all face similar challenges.”
At the SDTC, Leeper met two-time Paralympic gold medal swimmer, Rudy Garcia-Tolson and CAF triathlete, Scout Bassett. The three athletes quickly formed a friendship as Garcia-Tolson and Bassett guided Leeper through the event and explained how CAF operates. They have since become mentors for Leeper.
“They were there to help me because it was all new to me,” Leeper said. “I was just trying to take it all in.”
Following his trip to California, Leeper entered the track and field competition at the Endeavour Games. His amazing performances at the Games earned him three gold medals and public notoriety.
“It wasn’t until I received my Ossur Cheetahs that I thought I could really make something out of this,” he said. “So the dream didn’t really start until I received my grant from CAF. Once I had them, I thought this was getting serious. I can really do this.”
The fast life
Leeper’s life moved progressively faster after receiving his running prostheses. Following his successful Endeavor Games, Leeper was called by the athletic director of the U.S. Paralympics to join their track and field team. He would race his second meet with them.
“Actually, it hit me when I was at the airport,” he explained. “I was like ‘I’m really doing this. I’m leaving for Brazil to run a track meet I’ve never ran before in my life.’”
To his credit, Leeper was a quick learner. He took home the bronze in the 100 and the silver in the 200 race at the Brazil meet against veteran competition.
“Here I was, the second track meet in my life and I’m in Brazil,” Leeper laughed. “So it was an experience. It was a fun trip but more of a learning opportunity for me because I was racing against guys that have been running for years and I just started.”
“My goal is to become the fastest bilateral amputee in the world within the next 2 years,” Leeper said.
Leeper, currently a junior at the University of Tennessee, has been training with the school’s track coach. He focuses his training on his hip flexors, glutes and hamstrings. He is also training to better understand how to properly use his Ossur Cheetahs and perfect his running style.
“The training methods are similar to the rest of the team’s, but we focus on different points,” Leeper said. “They work on their calf muscles and ankles, I don’t have to worry about that, so I work extra hard on my hip flexors in order to build them up more so than the average runner.”
Leeper’s goal of becoming the fastest man on Cheetahs is within reach. According to his 100 times, he is a half second slower than Oscar Pistorius, the man experts consider the fastest bilateral amputee in the world. In track, that is a significant time gap to overcome, but everyone around Leeper believes he has the capability to do something special.
“Some people say it is possible, it is very possible,” Leeper said.
Leeper knows, as an amputee, that people may set lesser goals for him to achieve. Making the track and field team and racing in London 2012 would be a tremendous accomplishment. Yet, he set his sights even higher. He purposely strives to surpass everyone’s expectations.
“With training, I’m hoping to win gold in the 100 meters,” Leeper said.
One of Leeper’s favorite slogans is “Always find the ability in your disability.” He constantly goes back to that slogan when he feels as though he is at a low point on the track or in his everyday life.
He is not simply a sprinter. Leeper is a physics and pre-med major at the University of Tennessee. He plans on going to medical school and becoming an orthopedic surgeon.
“I was inspired,” he said. “Being in and out of the hospital, I saw the good and the bad. I’d like to go back and experience it and be on the other side of the situation and help people.”
Anthony Calabro is a staff reporter for O&P Business News.