As the 2012 Olympic Games came to a close and the athletes and spectators began to depart, another wave of excited and hopeful athletes began to arrive in London and fill the now-empty Olympic Village, the Paralympians. On Aug. 29, athletes from more than 140 countries paraded into Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies of the 2012 Paralympic Games, which would last 10 days and include almost 30 sporting events.
Among the team athletes representing the United States, several were also representing Team Ossur, including sprinters April Holmes and Blake Leeper and swimmer and sprinter Rudy Garcia-Tolson. Holmes and Garcia-Tolson are Paralympic veterans, both competing in the Paralympic Games in 2004 in Athens and 2008 in Beijing, but Leeper made his Paralympic debut, having only been competitively racing for a few years.
Holmes, 39 years old, started running when she was 5 years old, racing competitively thoughout high school and then competing at the collegiate level at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, Va. as an All-American. After graduating from college, Holmes put her track career on hold to pursue a professional career at a communications company in Philadelphia.
In January 2001, Holmes was boarding a train en route to New York City when the train started moving. Holmes fell off the platform and was trapped underneath the moving train. After Holmes was freed, she was rushed to a nearby hospital and underwent a transtibial amputation of her left leg. Although she was devastated by the accident, Holmes resolved that she would race in the Paralympics while she was still recovering in the hospital.
“I knew that I wanted to get back into sports when I was still in the hospital bed,” Holmes said. “My doctor had given me magazines about the Paralympics, and once I started turning pages and seeing the girls from the 2000 Sydney games, I started dreaming about wearing the USA uniform and winning gold medals and breaking world records.”
Within a year of her amputation, Holmes started running again and raced in her first Paralympic competition in 2002. In 2004, Holmes competed in the games in Athens, recording a bronze medal in the long jump F44/46 division. Holmes secured her second medal, this time gold, in Beijing in 2008 in the 100m T44 division. Entering the games as the world record holder in the 100m, 200m and 400m, Holmes entered the 100m and 200m T44 races in London, looking to defend her gold medal title.
Holmes secured a bronze medal in a photo finish 100m final with a seasonal best time of 13.33 seconds. Despite qualifying for the 200m final, Holmes did not compete, apologizing to fans on Facebook and Twitter and citing a leg injury as the reason.
“I always say to myself and God, ‘Let your will be done, and I will accept it,’” Holmes said. “I just really try to appreciate the opportunity [to be in the Paralympics], because not everyone gets to put on that uniform and represent their country.”
Fellow Paralympic veteran Garcia-Tolson is also a lifelong athlete. Born with several congenital birth defects, Garcia-Tolson’s legs were webbed at the knee. After undergoing more than 15 operations by the time he was 5 years old, he was growing weary of the pain and limitations and made the choice to amputate both of his legs above the knee.
“I really wanted to be like my siblings, so I told the doctors and my parents to just cut my legs off because I did not want to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life,” he said. “I had a pretty fast recovery and vividly remember getting my first pair of legs. It was the first time I was ever able to stand up tall, almost the same height as my brother, which was a really cool feeling.”
One of the first sports Garcia-Tolson started after his amputation was swimming, taking lessons when he was 6 years old and joining a swim team shortly afterwards.
“Sports, for me, were the gateway for getting my freedom back,” he said. “I thought that if I could compete and race people regardless of my disability, I’d be able to find myself in life.”
Garcia-Tolson’s first goal was to beat an able-bodied competitor, and after a year of racing, he was able to do that. From there, he set his next goal: compete in the Paralympics.
“My parents told me about the Paralympics, and it was no joke — these athletes were the real thing,” Garcia-Tolson said. “They went out there and trained and lived their sport, and I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
Garcia-Tolson made his Paralympic debut at age 16 in the 2004 games in Athens and won a gold medal in the 200m individual medley (IM) SB7 division. He won his second gold medal at the 2008 games in Beijing, successfully defending his 2004 title in the 200m IM.
This year, Garcia-Tolson took on a greater challenge, competing in both swimming and athletics. He swam in the 100-m backstroke S8, 100-m butterfly S8, 200-m IM SM7 and 400-m freestyle 28 races, in addition to running in the T42 100m and 200m competitions.
“This year was a real challenge, because I decided to get back on the track and sprint,” he said. “Swimming is my passion, and it’s what I love to do, but I figured that London was going to be a special year for everyone, and I really wanted to challenge myself and see if I could pull off possibly medaling in 2 sports in the same games.”
Although he did not medal in both sports, Garcia-Tolson had an impressive performance in London, securing a silver medal in the 200-m IM. Garcia-Tolson entered the race as the defending world record holder and shaved 0.44 seconds off of his own record in the preliminary race, securing a spot in the final with a 2:35.48 finish time. In the final, Garcia-Tolson finished with a time of 2:33.84, just .81 seconds behind Yevheniy Bohodayko of Ukraine, who earned the gold medal and the new world record time. Garcia-Tolson did set the new American record with his time.
On the track, Garcia-Tolson advanced to the finals in the 200-m, finishing eighth with a personal best time of 26.97 seconds. And although his 13.77s in the 100-m was not enough to qualify him for the final, it was another personal best for Garcia-Tolson.
“On the day of any big race, either on the track or in the pool, whatever happens, happens. It’s all about who is having a great race day,” Garcia-Tolson said. “I am satisfied knowing that I did everything possible. I am just happy [for the opportunity] to represent my country and run in the Olympic Stadium.”
Unlike Holmes and Garcia-Tolson, fellow Team Ossur member Blake Leeper is a Paralympic rookie. Leeper, 23 years old, a native of Churchill, Tenn., was born missing the lower half of his legs due to a congenital defect. He received his first pair of legs when he was 9 months old, and he grew up following the lead of his older brother.
“I grew up in a small town. I felt like I was the only amputee in the area, but it never really stopped me,” Leeper said. “My brother is 2 years older than me, so anything he did, I had to do. It was really helpful, although, at the time, I didn’t realize how significant it was. In my mind, I just wanted to keep up with him.”
Leeper played basketball and baseball in middle and high school, but after he graduated high school in 2007, Leeper figured his athletic career was over, and he started college at the University of Tennessee that fall. However, with the 2008 Paralympic games approaching, Leeper started learning more about the opportunities for challenged athletes.
“The Paralympics in Beijing were getting big, and I started seeing Oscar [Pistorius] and some of my now teammates like Jerome Singleton on TV, and I thought, ‘Wow, that is super cool, and I think I can do that,’” Leeper said.
As he started researching the Paralympics in more depth, Leeper found the Challenged Athletes Foundation and applied for a grant for running prostheses, which he received in 2009. Leeper started running on them the same day that he that he received them and immediately knew that he wanted to pursue a running career.
“I ran in them for the first time in 2009 and did my first track meet that same year and qualified for the [Paralympic] team,” Leeper said. “It’s been a crazy trip. I only joined the team in 2009, and now here I am at the Paralympic games.”
Entering London, Leeper was already receiving attention as a serious competitor and favorite, winning the July 2012 International Paralympic Committee Athlete of the Month title after he tied Pistorius’ world record time of 10.91 seconds in the T43 100m race at the Boiling Point Track Classic in Windsor, Canada.
“I was able to compete against [Pistorius and Singleton and some of the other great runners] at the 2011 World Championships, and it really motivated me because I lost to them,” Leeper said. “I took fifth in all of my events, and it was a wakeup call, because I knew I could beat them. The next time I had the opportunity, I would be able to compete.”
In London, Leeper narrowly secured a bronze-medal finish in his first event, the 200-m T44 race, edging out world record-holder Arnu Fourie of South Africa by .03 seconds. After a fifth place finish in the T44 100-m, despite running a quick race and a disqualification in the T42/46 4×100-m relay, Leeper solidified his place among the running elite with a silver medal and a finish time of 50.14 in the 400-m, concluding his first Paralympic games with two medals.
“My main goal was to bring home some medals, but the experience was really the main thing,” Leeper said. “I’m only 23, so hopefully I will have a long career ahead of me and a couple more Paralympic Games in me.”