The Trailblazer


As the 2009 Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF) San Diego Triathlon
Challenge Kids 1K winner, it is easy for 11-year-old left transtibial amputee,
Desmond Jackson to stand out. The first place podium is always a little higher;
the gold medal is always a little shinier. Like his hero and fellow North
Carolina native, Michael Jordan, Desmond enjoys the challenge of winning. He
plans to race the able-bodied kids next year.

Sure, Desmond is active, sports-obsessed, and likes video games just
like any other kid his age, but do not be fooled into thinking he is like
everyone else. He also plans to educate his peers and community on adaptive
sports and challenged athletes. Desmond is a trailblazer and he wants you to
take notice. Luckily, people always pay attention to the one who comes in first

The void

Desmond was born without the tibia in his left leg due to a rare birth
disorder called tibial hemimelia – a longitudinal deficiency with variable
degrees of absence of the tibia, according to the Pediatric Orthopaedic Society
of North America.

  After contacting CAF, Desmond received a grant for a running leg and began educating his peers on adaptive sports.
  After contacting CAF, Desmond
received a grant for a running leg and began educating his peers on adaptive
  Images: Deborah Jackson

At 9 months old, doctors at Shriners Hospital in Philadelphia amputated
his left leg from the femur down. Jackson was fitted for his first prosthesis
shortly following the amputation and was walking by the time he reached 1 year
of age. By the age of 3 years, Jackson was fitted with a prosthesis that had a
working knee.

“That was when we had our first introduction to a track and field
event,” Deborah Jackson, Desmond’s mother explained. “Desmond
was in a mock race with paralympian John Register at a Disabled Sports USA
event and he loved it. I continued to keep him active and I always wanted him
to be around children who had experienced limb loss. I thought it was important
for him to see other children and adults who looked like him.”

But Deborah recalled that it was difficult to find activities and
support groups for children who are amputees during that time while they lived
in Washington, D.C.

“We went to adult support group meetings, but it still felt as
though there was a major void,” Deborah told O&P Business

Deborah relocated her family to her hometown of Durham, N.C. It was
after the move that Desmond began to take off.

The Jackson’s joined a local amputee support group. Their group
leader helped Deborah form her own children’s amputee support group called
Pediatric Amputees Links and Support group (PALS).

“We were able to assemble a few kids through word of mouth,”
Deborah explained. “We basically [work] with only two or three families.
Yet, we do not operate as a typical support group. We have kid-friendly
gatherings such as pool parties or holiday parties. It just gives the kids an
opportunity to be together and gives the parents an opportunity to talk.”


While flipping through a magazine, Deborah stopped on a particular
advertisement that caught her eyes. It featured a group of children who were
amputees playfully running together. The advertisement highlighted an upcoming
kids race at the San Diego Triathlon Challenge. Deborah immediately put the
magazine down, conducted some research and contacted

Soon after Deborah contacted CAF, Desmond received a grant through the
CAF for an Ossur running leg and attended several Catch a Rising Star running
and mobility clinics. According to the CAF website, the clinic is designed to
provide post-rehabilitation support and mentoring to individuals who have
suffered a traumatic injury or been born with a congenital defect, resulting in
a physical disability.

  Track and field continues to be a tremendous outlet for Desmond but he also enjoys swimming and horseback riding.
  Track and field continues to be a
tremendous outlet for Desmond but he also enjoys swimming and horseback

“The support consists of an introduction to sports activities and
mentoring relationships,” according to information on the website.

Additional program goals include:

  • to provide a fitness mentorship program for individuals with physical
    challenges wanting to become more active through physical activity;
  • to create a fun, interactive, non-threatening environment that
    allows aspiring challenged athletes a chance to set and reach sports goals and
    interact with role model athletes that have similar physical challenges; and
  • to create a community where challenged athletes can connect, share
    information and get emotional support from other more experienced challenged
    athletes and adaptive specialists.

As a result of his work with the Catch A Rising Star program,
Desmond’s running abilities began to shine through more and more with each

“I am able to run a lot better because of the clinics,”
Desmond explained. “I was very excited and happy to receive my running


In 2009, he decided to put his abilities to the test. Desmond competed
in the National Junior Disability Championships in St. Louis. He participated
in eight track and field events including the 60m, 100m, 200m, 400m, softball
throw, discus, longjump and shot-put. He set six new records on his way to
winning almost every event.

“Sports are a huge outlet for Desmond,” Deborah said. “We
believe in his abilities, not disabilities, so we live by the saying, ‘If
I believe it I can achieve it.’”

Setting six new records in St. Louis was a tremendous individual feat,
but Desmond was more focused on his team’s success.

“It felt great after the race because I did my best and I helped my
team,” he said.

Along with running and participating in the track and field events,
Desmond enjoys swimming with his friends and horseback riding.

“He loves riding horses,” Deborah said. “Riding requires
very little adaptations for him. The only difference between Desmond and the
other riders is that he does not put his left foot in the stirrup.”

Desmond can still get a little nervous before each race but he knows
that his prayers, practice and abilities will help him succeed. His favorite
race so far is the race he won in 2009 at the CAF San Diego Triathlon

“My favorite race is the CAF Kids Race in California because it is
cool running against lots of other kids like me,” Desmond explained.
“The ocean is nearby and it is a lot of fun.”


As a result of their participation in numerous CAF sponsored activities,
the Jackson’s got to know some of the other families who were also
involved with organization. Recently, CAF asked Deborah if she would be willing
to help bring a CAF running workshop to Durham, N.C. More than 40 people
including veterans, local amputees and children participated in the leg amputee
running and mobility workshop.

  Jackson will try out for a spot on the middle school track and field team next year.
  Jackson will try out for a spot
on the middle school track and field team next year.

Robert S. Gailey Jr., PhD, PT, assistsant professor from the department
of physical therapy at the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of
Medicine, instructed participants in how to run for speed and proper running
gait techniques such as leg over leg. Attendees were also given tips to improve
balance and how to maximize their mobility and core strength. Four-time
paralympian champion, Brian Frasure also attended the workshop as a guest

“The running clinic was an amazing event,” she said. “The
amputees were taught various drills, skills and various running techniques that
they could use when participating in athletic activity. It was a huge success
and hopefully we will host another one year.”

An education

Desmond also participated in the workshop and had a great time playing
and running around. His success on the track against his competitors has given
him the confidence to try out for the middle school track and field team next

“He is currently working with a local track and field coach,”
Deborah said. “If you can compete with able-bodied individuals, then it is
an added bonus when he does go back to the adaptive arena. All the elite
athletes from CAF tell us that they competed with able-bodied persons when they
were growing up. It makes them a better athlete across the board.”

Running the race will be the easy part. He can run with any able-bodied
runner. But how will Desmond contend with the inevitable stares? Can he handle
being the first adaptive sports athlete on the track and field team? It takes
talent to win, but it takes courage to compete.

“We are going to blaze the trail when it comes to adaptive sports
in public schools in our area and hopefully with lots of support,” Deborah

His mother predicted that his peers and community would learn from
Desmond. But this would not be your typical classroom education. This would be
education through action.

“We do not provide a PowerPoint presentation on adaptive
sports,” Deborah explained. “We simply appear on the track with a
running leg that’s new and different, which sparks interest and lots of

Deborah is confident that once they see Desmond’s ability on the
track, the conversation will turn from his prosthesis to his performance.

“Once people get to see how great of a runner he is and his
determination, then normally his abilities become the conversation,”
Deborah said. “Many times Desmond just weaves his education component into
the conversations and it becomes a part of the general interaction. The person
may not even realize just that they experienced ‘Adaptive Sports 101’
through the eyes of a kid. It is quite enlightening.”

“Strength of a lion”

The moments are few and far between but sometimes Desmond just wants to
blend. Sometimes he wishes he did not have to carry the burden of educating
those around him regarding limb loss; that people would just understand that it
is not polite to stare or that life does not end after amputation. He just
wants to be Desmond. But his mother reminds him that he is here for a reason
and there are no mistakes. And that he in fact is a true trailblazer.

“It is still an adjustment — the looks, stares and
questions,” she said. “It takes a great deal of courage to do what he
does and he is always aware of the onlookers. But he has the strength of a lion
and he does it far better than I ever could. There are times when he may not
feel like educating, but those are rare moments. This is his life. This is our
life and we live it to the best of our abilities.”

Deborah’s use of the word “we” is no accident.

“I don’t walk in his shoes even though every step he takes, in
my heart, I take it with him,” She explained. “What I can say is that
his confidence is through the roof, his self-esteem is just something I have
never seen before and his determination always flourishes.” — by
Anthony Calabro

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