MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Blake Leeper wanted to run. One problem.
"I’m the man with no feet," he said.
No feet, yet already plenty of gold and silver. Leeper will make your headache seem trivial and your torn ACL like a hangnail.
"The American Blade Runner" had both of his knees amputated shortly after birth and at the age of 22, found his calling: track and field.
At 25, the USA Paralympic Team member has gold in the 100 meter, 200 meter and 400 meter from the 2012 U.S. Paralympic National Championships. He has a silver from the 2012 London Paralympics in the 400 meter and a bronze in the 200 meter. He finished fifth in the 100 meter.
Next stop: "I’m on the road to be the first disabled American to qualify for the Olympic Games and the Paralympic Games," Leeper said. "It’s just crazy this has all happened in the past five, six years. It’s so much bigger than me."
The latest stop on his meteoric rise was Memphis. A Grizzlies fan from Kingsport, Tenn. — some eight hours east — Leeper was in town visiting LeBonheur Children’s Hospital. He was the Grizzlies’ honorary guest at Saturday’s game against Portland. Leeper played in February’s NBA All-Star Celebrity Game alongside Grizzlies owner Robert Pera.
In a world full of excuses, Leeper refuses to have any.
"My situation does sound bad, does sound terrible, but it could always be worse," Leeper said. "It’s one of those analogies, ‘I used to feel sorry for myself because I had bad shoes, until I met the man that had no feet.’"
It wasn’t immediate. Leeper, who has set three American records for a double below-the-knee amputee, admittedly had his mental struggles. In school almost he said he was afraid of ridicule and would wear pants so no one would notice his prosthetics, prosthetics he began being fitted for at nine months.
It wasn’t until he became the blade runner that Leeper truly accepted the hand he was dealt. A high school athlete, in his pre-blade Facebook photos, he is wearing pants. With the blades, he had no more choice. No hiding those. It gave him a choice, show the world or let the dream go.
"When you have a disability, you try to live an average life," Leeper said. "You can’t. You have two choices, above average or below average. There’s no in between, because nobody else is going through the steps and walking the path I’m walking.
"The second I accepted me for me, I could look in the mirror, looking at my faults, look at my legs, no legs, and laugh, and I decided this is who I am, that’s when I started living. That’s when I started gaining control over my life. That’s when things like this started happening."
His running dream came quickly and has ascended even faster. Sitting in his University of Tennessee dorm room, Leeper was content with his goal of being an orthopedic surgeon, "I was happy," he says. "Honestly, God let me know, ‘I’ve got a bigger plan for you.’"
Then on his television, Leeper saw Oscar Pistorius, who would become the first double-amputee to compete in the able-bodied Games, and Jerome Singleton running in Beijing’s National Stadium in the 2008 Paralympics. That moment changed his life changed.
"I never ran a day in my life," Leeper said. "I never even had a pair of blades, but I knew in my heart, this is my destiny."
After nearly a year-and-a-half of seeking potential sponsors sympathetic to his desire, but skeptical to invest some $30,000 in his dream blades, San Diego’s Challenged Athletes Foundation fitted him with a pair of top-of-the-line Ossur Cheetahs, the same prosthetics Pistorius used to send Paralympic racing to the mainstream.
Months later at the 2009 Endeavour Games, his first-ever track meet, the 19-year-old earned a spot on the 2010 US Paralympics Team after winning the 100, 200 and 400. By his second track meet, his first international meet, he won bronze and silver in Brazil. In the 2011 World Championships in New Zealand, he ran in the 200 prelims beside like minded-Olympic hopeful Pistorius, then again in London, finishing a spot behind him for bronze in the 200 and a spot behind him for silver in the 400.
Leeper was fitted for his first pair of prosthetics at nine months. He was walking and running at barely over a year old.
"Growing up with this, my struggles have been my strength. Every day I wake up, it’s a blessing. Every day I have a humbling experience. I wake up. I’ve got to put my prosthetics on one leg at a time and that’s a humbling experience for me, just to walk out of the room, walk to the bathroom, walk out and put a smile on my face, because I know it could be way worse. I could be in a wheelchair."
He wanted to help kids in a similar situation to his. A different path, but he is doing that on a much bigger stage. He says his motivation comes from the things he is able to do and the people he meets. For him, it’s all about bringing hope to others and focus to other Paralympic athletes.
The Olympic goal should be his biggest challenge yet. But Leeper, technically, has no legs. So he dares any of life’s challenges.
"Legs, no legs, what I’m going through, it’s all about the mindset," he said. "Regardless of your physical disability, if you have the right mental, you can overcome any challenge in life."
Talking Saturday, he grabbed a runaway ball during Grizzlies shootaround and went behind his back with a perfect pass to Grizzlies assistant coach Elston Turner — because an average chest pass would have been average.