So, Sunday began the last 100 days to the opening ceremonies of the Paralympic games in Tokyo. You know me. I love numbers almost as much as I love gold medals.
Which leads me to my latest list, 100 ways I’ve experienced Paralympic sports, and ultimately, why I love them so much.
Now, I know that sounds like a lot, and it is. I originally broke it into chunks, 25 at a time. What follows is my full list of Paralympic Games great moments, gifts, and influences in my life. I hope they reflect my love of the games and the opportunities they’ve given me. Enjoy!
- The excitement that filled my body as I stepped inside of the Athens Paralympic stadium for my first games.
- My mom, grandma, Coach Whitmer, and his wife were all in the stadium to watch me win my first Paralympic silver medal.
- The feeling of hearing your name being called as a member of the Paralympic games team.
- Going from no coverage in 2004 to over 1200 hours of tv coverage for the Tokyo Paralympics this summer.
- The excitement that filled my body when I put on my very first Team USA competition gear.
- The satisfaction that fills my body when that medal is placed around my neck.
- Standing on the podium, having the flag raised in the air, and hearing the national anthem!
- Traveling to new countries and experiencing new cultures.
- Building friendships, not only with fellow American athletes, but athletes from around the globe.
- The excitement of hearing the news that Paralympians would be paid the same amount of medal bonus compensation as Olympians.
- The freeing feeling that I get from soaring through the air in the long jump.
- In 2011, I won a bronze in the 200m at the world championships in Christchurch, New Zealand. That was an unexpected surprise.
- The excitement of learning that Los Angeles would host the 2028 Olympics and Paralympics!
- I remember the smile that was on my face as we rode on a chartered flight to Beijing for the games! I felt like the man!
- You wouldn’t believe the amount of clothes that we receive before each games. There are roller bags, duffle bags, backpacks, drawstring bags, and they’re all filled with short and long sleeve shirts, shorts, pants, competition gear, leisure wear, medal ceremonies apparel, opening and closing ceremonies apparel, shoes, and so much more!
- I landed outside of the long jump pit during the 2015 world championships, but I got up, brushed it off, and turned in my best jump with the next attempt.
- The day that I broke the world record in the long jump was not ideal. I woke up late, had a short time to warmup and prepare. Turns out that wouldn’t interfere with me soaring to a record-breaking distance.
- Seeing such high awareness of Paralympic sport in places like the UK is so incredible. I believe the day is coming when America has a similar appreciation for Paralympic sport.
- I love the fact that competition gives us the chance to challenge ourselves, to push our bodies and minds to new levels.
- I’ll never forget how loud the Paralympic stadium was in Rio was when the Brazilian won gold in the long jump. The crowd was deafening.
- The feeling of winning my first gold medal at a major international competition. It was the world championships in 2013. I felt like I had gotten a monkey off of my back.
- An official failed to move out of the way during one of my practice attempts for the long jump and I ran into him and tumbled into the sand pit. Hey, I thought the officials were the sighted ones. 😊
- I could hear a faint “Yeah, Lex!” from the crowd as I took a victory lap after winning my first Paralympic medal.
- A not-so-good memory is when the International Paralympic Committee removed the triple jump from the games schedule. I believe I would’ve won a medal in that event also.
- Rihanna, Jay-Z, and Cold Play performed at our closing ceremonies in 2012. Did you hear me? I said RIHANNA!
- How about the first time I stepped foot on the Olympic Training Center grounds? I didn’t realize I’d be training there for more than 13 years. Aaaah, home.
- One of my favorite times is when everyone from the Olympic and Paralympic teams come together in Washington D.C. for our post-games White House visit.
- How about when the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) changed it’s name to the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC). That was huge!
- I love the fact that my journey has involved guides, dedicated people who help me achieve my goals. These are special people who I can share my athletic successes with.
- We now have an Olympic and Paralympic museum and I hear it’s fantastic! (It made some big lists for best new museums over this past year; USA Today, Smithsonian, etc.)
- I love the fact that we’re seeing more Paralympians in marketing campaigns and other brand activations.
- I’m grateful for amazing resources like the Paralympic Ambassador Program. That resource helped me and many other Paralympians become more comfortable when speaking in front of crowds.
- Each medal from Rio makes a sound when you shake it. This way, blind/visually impaired athletes can identify the color of the medal by its sound. Talk about an accommodation!
- I stood in the London Paralympic stadium clapping my hands in a specific rhythm in preparation for the next attempt in triple jump. Next thing I know, all 80000+ spectators began to clap their hands in the same rhythm. I’ll never forget that!
- Jessica Long, one of our greatest Paralympians, was featured during a Super Bowl commercial. Pretty incredible, not only for her, but for the movement.
- Have you not checked out Rising Phoenix, the Paralympic documentary on Netflix? Check it out please. You won’t regret it!
- In past games years, we would’ve had trials in a host city for track and field only. In 2016, the USOPC introduced the super trials, a time where track and field, swimming, and cycling comes together in one city to see who will make the Paralympic Games team. As you can imagine, it brings together some of the best athletes from three different sports in one place, fans are able to see some great competition, and last but not least, the last day is comprised of a celebration for athletes who will be making their way to the Paralympics!
- I think about this occasionally, but had it not been for my high school teacher who knew about the Paralympics, I may have never gotten into track and field or Paralympic sport. Thankfully that wasn’t the case.
- The medals in Tokyo will have a tactile indicator to help blind/visually impaired athletes distinguish between gold, silver, and bronze. Super cool!
- It’s phenomenal seeing coaches out there who not only coach Olympians and Olympic hopefuls, but they’re working with Paralympians and Paralympic hopefuls as well.
- To make it that much better, we’re seeing more training GROUPS that are integrated, Olympians and Paralympians. It’s just a group of athletes training to be their best, disability or no disability.
- Over the years, we’ve been seeing athletes participate at the high school level and now those talents are securing athletics scholarships at the college level. Super dope!
- I remember rooming with Hunter Woodhall in Rio. A high school kid, coming up and learning the Paralympic ropes, eventually gets a track and field scholarship to run for Arkansas. Oh, and he’s the first double-leg amputee to secure a division I scholarship. A few years goes by and next thing I know, the guy is a social media icon. Pretty fantastic!
- A great movement always has great people involved. Great ones like Melissa Stockwell, army vet, Paralympic Games medalist, author, rockstar mom, and all-around amazing human being. These are the folks that you appreciate because they help push awareness of the Paralympics to its max.
- Thankful for organizations like the United States Association for Blind Athletes. It was one of their sports education camps that got me on my way to the Paralympics!
- We’re seeing more adapted sports/recreation programs like AZ Disabled Sports, Bridge II Sports, and Angel City Sports. These are great organizations offering sport and recreational opportunities to persons with disabilities.
- San Diego State University now has an adapted sports and rec program, the first of its kind in California. It was started by one of our own, Ahkeel Whitehead, a 2016 Paralympian. Again, phenomenal people pushing the narrative and strengthening the movement.
- For all of my track peeps, you know that running sub 11 in the 100m is some achievement, but how about running that totally blind? I can say that I have been in the sport long enough to see someone do it. David Brown, first totally blind athlete to go sub 11, and the cool thing, not for the U.S., is that more athletes are running sub 11 now. Absolutely wild!
- One of my very first watches that I received for making the Paralympic Games team had a vibrating function where a certain number of pulses would let me know the hour and minute. Such a creative way to tell time. Absolutely loved that watch!
- An area where I’d like to see improvement? Seeing more sporting events that involve both Olympians and Paralympians. I want to see a day where it is known as the Olympic and Paralympic Track and Field Trials, or the Olympic and Paralympic Swimming Trials. That would be a huge step forward for so many reasons.
- How would you like to spend a birthday overseas? I did that in 2015 as we prepared for world championships. I had a great time riding jet skis in the Persian Gulf.
- It’s hard to top hearing your name called as a participant in the Paralympic Games, especially when it’s your fifth games team. Tokyo makes five Paralympic Games for me. So excited!
- Hard to believe that I had to train in my Olympic Training Center suite for a couple months in the beginning of the pandemic. But you know what, it made me stronger, and that work has paid off.
- Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger invited every single California Olympian and Paralympian to Universal Studios in L.A. to celebrate the success of the 2008 Olympics and Paralympics. That’s a day I’ll never forget! So fun!
- The 2003 IBSA World Championships held in Quebec City, Quebec, was my first international competition, and it was the competition that ignited the internal flame that has been burning within over the past 18 years.
- A lot of my family had never seen me compete in person, until the 2016 Paralympic Trials that were held in Charlotte, NC. It warmed my heart to hear my loved ones cheering in the stands.
- For years I envied my training partners because they had the opportunity to participate in track and field circuits in Europe and other areas around the world. In 2014, I finally received my turn. Wesley and I stayed in Europe for a couple weeks, competing in Barcelona, Spain, Grosetto, Italy, and Paris, France. It was a long trip but definitely worth it!
- The American Council for the Blind (ACB) provided audio description for the 2020 Olympic Games opening ceremonies. In case you’re wondering, audio description helps the blind and visually impaired fill in the gaps during movies and events when there is no dialogue, or moments when specific scenes need to be described. This helps to understand what’s going on fully. My hope is that ACB provides audio description for the 2020 Paralympic Games too!
- At the time Oscar Pistorius hadn’t lost a 100m race in quite a while, but my teammate and friend, Jerome Singleton, dove across the line for the win in the 2011 world championships to take the crown. Talk about a monumental moment in Paralympic sport!
- I’m honored and thrilled to be on the athlete commission for LA28. Playing a part in shaping the legacy of the 2028 Olympics and Paralympics is going to be so incredible!
- A couple days before the Paralympic Trials, I received a call from former Carolina Panthers head coach and current Washington Football head coach, Ron Rivera. He wished me good luck on the upcoming trials. That was just the motivation I needed to secure my spot for Tokyo!
- Toyota is making huge commitments specifically to Paralympian and that is something to be acknowledged and commended. They are really moving the needle for us and I’m just glad to be witnessing careers and lives they are changing for the good!
- Prior to the 2016 Paralympic Trials, I was invited to throw the first pitch at a Charlotte knights baseball game. I threw a strike! I’m so serious!
- I know you’ve heard athletes talk about being in the zone. I was locked in, in the zone, at the 2015 Parapan American Games in Toronto, Canada. All my jumps were over six meters, I tied my long jump world record, but what really made me proud is the fact that I competed in a combined event. This basically means that athletes with varying degrees of sight competed in the long jump together. I won that competition and even beat athletes who weren’t wearing a blindfold!
- Running at the historic Penn Relays will always be a fond memory of mine. It’s an atmosphere like no other!
- Spending time with Jackie Joyner-Kersee at the White House for an Olympic and Paralympic event on Capitol Hill will make anyone’s top memories, right? She’s fantastic to be around!
- How about my guy Regas Woods hopping on one leg to finish the race after his prosthetic broke during the 200m at one of our Grand Prix events. I don’t ever want to hear your excuses.
- We received one of my favorite articles of clothing during the White House visit in 2012. It’s a Team USA version of a lettermen’s jacket. Listen, it’s literally the best jacket I’ve ever gotten!
- While we’re talking about clothes, have you ever gotten a pair of Nike jeans? Nope, but I have a pair! Never worn them either. They’re a Team USA special.
- The USOPC offers several programs to assist athletes in professional development. For a while I was taking a course to help me create and beef up my resume, and I even got assistance sharpening my job interviewing skills. That’s only the beginning. There’s so much more to take advantage of and I’m glad because they recognize that we have life after athletics. Thank you to the athlete career education program for helping us get off on the right foot post athletics.
- One aspect of our international travels that I appreciate is the fact that our team leader usually sets up tourist opportunities for the team. We’ve visited the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro, the Great Wall in Beijing, and the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Yes, we travel to these countries to compete, but we also get to have a little time to tour and learn about each location.
- I’m thankful to the four ladies from SDSU who took a chance on me and helped me build my brand from the ground up. Yes, competing and winning is important to me, but I always wanted to establish something more, something that would help me truly get the most out of Paralympic sport.
- If you had gotten one of the best hugs from a notable person, wouldn’t you talk about it? Okay, good. Michelle Obama is so welcoming and so cool, and she embraced me as if I were one of her family members she hadn’t seen in years. I’ll never ever forget that moment!
- I recently learned that my high school principal was so inspired and motivated by my book and as a result, it’s now being used as a piece of the curriculum to motivate students who attend Athens Drive high School. That means so much because Athens Drive is where it all started for me.
- My mom was the one individual who never gave up on me, so I was elated when PNG decided to focus on her for the “Thank You Mom” commercial that played on TV in the lead up to the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games. It would be impossible to pay my mom back for everything she has done and sacrificed, but filming that commercial was just a small way to simply say, "Thank you, Mom."
- Word on the street is that we have fully autonomous vehicles in the Tokyo athlete’s village that will transport athletes to different locations within the village. I’m ready to test them out! (Maybe they'll let me sit in the driver's seat!)
- I was nominated as a potential candidate for this year’s Team USA flag barer. There’s still a voting process that will happen, but just being thought of as a potential flag barer for Team USA is pretty awesome. We’ll see how it turns out.
- One of my first international competitions took me to Europe, the United Kingdom to be exact. I began pulling out money from the ATM not realizing the British Pound was nearly double the US Dollar. Uhhh, yeah. I checked my bank statement and quickly discovered that it was time to chill out!
- We usually get to have really cool pre-competition training camps. Prior to New Zealand’s world championships, we had a training camp in Sydney, Australia. It wasn’t the training that was fun, it was the fact that I got to visit the zoo and pet a koala bear.
- Long before the Paralympics, I would shoot on the small basketball hoop in my room. I mentioned this hoop in my TEDx talk. Although I wasn’t training to be a basketball player, I was conditioning my mind to see the possibilities, and that would eventually lead to a career in track and field.
- Being a part of four Paralympic Games teams has afforded me the opportunity to go to the White House four times. it’ll be my fifth time if we go this year!
- My BMX buddy Arielle Martin-Verhaaren and I went out one evening to take a ride on the Beijing BMX course at the Olympic training Center. Such a great time learning a new sport and getting a chance at riding the bike on the course myself. The director of the Olympic Training Center was not pleased with my risk-taking, but luckily he found out after the video footage had already been posted to YouTube. Ha Ha!
- An anonymous donor gifted me with an upgraded global first class seat for Tokyo! Absolutely amazing! I get to fly in style, and I’m hoping that’ll help me fly to gold!
- Capitol Records hosted a USOPC event a while back and during that night, the organizers let me play on the same piano that Jamie Foxx played on in the movie Ray.
- Shout out to the Paralympic Committee for adding two new sports in Tokyo – badminton and taekwondo. I’d love to see more expansion in years to come.
- The athlete’s village at the games usually has some really cool things to check out. For example, there was a recording studio in the London 2012 athlete’s village. I unfortunately didn’t get a chance to lay down any tracks.
- McDonald’s has traditionally been a staple of the athletes’ village, but this year we will not have that luxury. What a bummer! 🚫🍔 🍟🚫
- Speaking of McDonald’s, I’ll never forget the cheeseburger eating contest that we had in Athens 2004. I crammed a few down but nowhere near as many as the throwers consumed.
- If you were wondering, we’re well-protected while in the athlete’s village as well as when participating in games activities. I’ve attended a number of games where we’ve had secret service agents lurking and watching. It’s kinda cool. Makes you feel really important.
- There was this night after the Beijing Paralympics when my hometown of Raleigh, NC recognized me for my Paralympic achievements. Coach K was there and received an award as well. We met after the event. I didn’t tell him I was a Carolina fan. Oh, and after we met, UNC won the NCAA March Madness title two months later. Take that!
- 14 of my 16 medals won at major international competitions have literally and figuratively come at the hands of Wesley Williams, my guide. Without him I would not have experienced the success I have over the years.
- This isn’t the most pleasant of memories, but during our world championships in New Zealand in 2011, we felt a number of tremors. One week after we had returned back home from the championships, a major earthquake rocked Christchurch and literally wiped out a lot of the area that we frequented during that world championships. It was devastating.
- It was so much fun running in the Olympic Track and Field Trials in 2004. Yes that’s right, the Olympic Trials! We had a 100m exhibition race smack dab in the middle of the trials. It was pretty cool.
- A really great thing that I’d like to see would be having more Paralympic races and events during the actual Olympic Track and Field Trials. That would be huge, and something I’d love to add to my “list of memories.” (But what would I take off the list? Nah, I'll just make it 101 memories instead.)
- I’ve always enjoyed the days of playing the piano down in the cafeteria of the Olympic Training Center. What makes it even better is when other athletes huddle around the piano and we sing songs together.
- People always ask, what has been your favorite place you’ve visited? I’d have to say Barcelona, Spain. For starters, I was there to compete in a Grand Prix event and I won that. Winning is fun. Besides that, Barcelona has great weather in late May, food is amazing, people are so nice, transportation is easy to use, and there are so many touristy things to enjoy. I highly recommend it.
- I previously mentioned my BMX buddy, Arielle Martin-Verhaaren. She recorded my BMX experience and posted it to Youtube. There’s a song that plays during that video and I actually created that track and recorded the vocals in my room at the Olympic Training Center. (Watch again and listen for the song.)
- I first broke the world record in 2011. I tied my world record in 2015 but here’s the story around that. We’re required to wear bibs on our competition attire and that bib is deemed a part of our body. The bib is made of paper and we attach it using safety pins. In that 2015 competition, my bib ripped from the back of my jersey in mid jump and when I landed the bib scraped the sand behind me. Since the bib is apart of my body, the officials had to measure the mark that was made by the bib instead of where I actually landed, so that probably would’ve been a new world record had the bib stayed attached to my jersey.
- Spreading awareness of the Paralympic movement is very important to me, which is why we began a guide running program many years ago. Through this event, participants get to experience what it’s like to run blindfolded while having assistance from a guide. It’s a very powerful session.
- I get asked a lot, "If you could have your sight back would you take it?"
My answer is an emphatic NO. If I had eyesight, I very well may not have found the Paralympics. At this point, I believe my involvement in the sport has shown me so much more than any eyes could have.
With all that has been going on in our country, and world, I figured I’d take the opportunity to speak out.
When I say speak out, I literally mean that.
I’ve been a part of Toastmasters for the past couple years. If you don’t know Toastmasters, it’s a global group of individuals who work to improve their public speaking skills. I figured joining the group would help me increase my speaking abilities. Similar to training, in order to get better you need to PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE.
In September of 2020, I decided to embark on a new journey, the journey to become the Toastmasters’ world champion of public speaking. There are multiple levels that you must win beginning with the club level. Your local Toastmasters club has a contest. You have to write a 5-7 minute speech, present it in front of the group, and the judges select a winner. I won my club competition.
I then moved on to the next round, the area competition which was held last October. I won that round also.
Some of you may have registered and logged on for the division level which was held last month in March. If you were there, then you were able to celebrate with me as I won that round too. Now, I’m on a roll!
Next up? The district level. I’m facing off against winners from other districts across the state of California. Then comes the regional contest or quarterfinals. That round will then have me battling other speakers from different regions across the globe. Then will come the semifinals, and the finals.
The Toastmasters International Speech Contest is a time for speakers to share something impactful, a message that will resonate across the land. Without giving up all of the goods, I believe that I have a strong message:
I Wish the World was Blind.
That might be a little bit off from a grammatical standpoint, but that’s my title and I’m sticking to it.
Today, we’re seeing it all unravel right in front of our faces. There has been blatant mistreatment and murders committed by law enforcement. We had a very interesting presidential race and I think I heard the outcome was rigged? Tons of things going on in our country and world. As I talk about in my speech, I wish the world was blind.
We just might live in a better place if people could see beyond what is in front of their eyes. If you could see more of my character than my color, things would be better. If we didn’t operate with so much pride, we just might be even more productive. If we weren’t so focused on imposing our beliefs on others, we just might be able to work through imperfections.
It’s truly a shame to know that our world is evolving in so many ways, but when it comes to matter of race, growth seems to stall.
May 15th is the next round of the International Speech Contest. I’ll be there, dressed to the teeth, and ready to go. I’d love for you to mark your calendars, register for the event, and root me on as I go for the title.
It’s going to be a great day for sure, but most of all, you’ll get to learn why I wish the world was blind.
Photo credits: Blindfolded youth photo by Asiama Junior from Pexels
End frame photo by Alex Ingram – Art is Being.
I recently facilitated an online program for a group of professionals who work with students who are blind and low vision. The purpose of the event was to share my experiences as a blind student and to offer suggestions that might be useful for these professionals as they work with their students. This particular session was different. Why? I had a special guest who joined as well.
That special guest was my mom!
I think that I have some pretty good advice to offer when it comes to helping the blind and visually impaired, but if you really want to know the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth; it was my mom who set the course for me. I followed her lead and the rest, they say, is history!
I thought it would be amazing for my mom to join me for the virtual program, and as I suspected, her input was incredible. It never gets old listening to stories of how she moved mountains to ensure I had everything I would need to be successful in life.
When I listened this time, I couldn’t help but notice a recurring theme. She would say things like, “I didn’t want to shelter Elexis. I wanted him to be a kid and have fun. In order for that to happen, I had to get out of his way.” Or one of her favorites, “I’m not going to be around all of the time, so I taught Elexis how to do household chores like wash dishes, vacuum the floor, and take out the trash. My goal was to teach him these things, and then, move out of the way.”
I’m not a parent, but I can imagine that letting go is hard at times. It’s a natural feeling to want to protect your little ones at all cost. But, when I think back on things, my mom made sure I was safe, all while having the courage to loosen the leash, and let me go. I’d say it worked out pretty well, don’t you think?
I’ve gotten this question before. Lex, what would you suggest we do to help others realize their own potential? Well, in preparation for Thanksgiving, let me pass along this recipe to you. It’ll help in cooking up a huge pot of success…
My Recipe for Success
Step 1: Give them the power. Our goal should be to enable others, to give them an opportunity, to assist them in seeing what’s possible. Empower your family, your friends, your team mates, and your colleagues. Provide a safe space for someone to stand on their own two feet, to try new things, and to think on their own. I can’t stand it when people take full control and they don’t allow me to do anything whatsoever. Give up some of that control, empower others, and help them harness and unleash that potential that lies within.
Step 2: Be a guide for them. One of the chapters in my book is entitled “Where’s Your Wesley?” Wesley is my guide and friend who helps me compete. He provides support, and with his support I’m able to fly. I leaned on the strength that my mom provided. I lean on Wesley in competition. Allow others to lean on you. Provide guidance and advice that will help them understand which direction to go. Be that solid foundation on which they can stand.
Step 3: Get out of the way. That might sound a little harsh, but it’s true. At some point you must, in my Mom’s words, “move out of the way.” Just watch me compete in the long jump. Wesley yells and claps his hands, so I know which direction to run. I’m running full speed down the track and directly toward Wesley’s voice. At the precise and perfect moment, Wesley gets out of the way and I fly. If he doesn’t move, I’ll run into him. It’s likely I’d hurt myself, and him. Please don’t be the person who refuses to get out of the way. That’s a collision waiting to happen.
There you have it! Three simple steps that have helped me be successful in life. Three simple steps that will help you, and others, realize the potential that lies within.
Sadly, there are people out there who could care less about the steps above. They’d rather give someone a fish, instead of teaching them how to fish. They’d rather practice dependence instead of giving independence. Essentially, they’d rather employ you in tasks that get you out of their hair or even just in order to give you something to do, instead of deploying you out into the world with your own strengths and with your own vision of what you’re capable of.
Most would consider my story to be about achieving successes as an athlete, but look a little deeper than that. It’s really the story of a child who was empowered, a kid who had support, and it’s the story of a group of dedicated folks who knew when to get out of the way, and let that young boy fly.
And look what happened.
I’m still flying to this day!
Special thanks to the authors of my wonderful photos: Lex & Mom by P&G, Chef Lex photo by Alex Ingram – Art is Being and designed by EtterOps LLC.
A lot of people out there enjoy the month of October because of Halloween. I personally love the month because it means it’s time for a celebration…a birthday party!
Yes, my birthday is October 19, and even though COVID killed any real get-together this year, I was still showered with virtual love and kindness from family, friends, and loved ones (see a couple below). Oh, and I received some awesome gifts as well. Can’t forget that!
There’s one gift that I really want though, and it won’t be ready until next year. Let me set the scene for you.
I went to my first Paralympic Games in 2004. 19 years old. Fresh out of high school. First time in Athens, Greece. Heck, first flight across the Atlantic Ocean. I remember walking into the stadium and hearing the fans, the cheers, the excitement. I remember running down that runway and soaring to my first Paralympic medal. It was silver. Not bad for a first shot. Right? I don’t think so, especially when I had been working with my guide for about two weeks prior to the competition. Of course, I wanted gold, but it was my first Paralympic competition of any kind.
2008 was my second Paralympic Games, and my first-year training at the Olympic Training Center in California. This was the year when Wesley and I began to work together full time. Fast forward to the competition in Beijing, China. I remember being in the silver position. The Chinese athlete was sitting in the gold medal position. I had one last shot to take him down. I took off down the runway. I’m moving like the wind, as fast as lightning, and something weird happened. I usually take 16 strides in the long jump. Once I take that last step, I should be smack dab in the middle of the takeoff board. Well, on this day, I messed up. I made a huge mistake and leapt from step 14 and not 16. This basically means I’m much further away from the long jump pit, but it also means that I lose that distance because the officials measure from where the takeoff board is. I was so sure I would nail that jump and take down the Chinese competitor in his home, but I jumped the gun. No pun intended. I ended my second games with another silver medal.
In 2012, I got injured two weeks before our Paralympic trials. I’m off the track for about four or five weeks. When I finally return, I have about five weeks to get ready for London, my third Paralympic Games. Let’s talk about that injury though. I strained my quad during a race in Canada. I remember feeling the pop. I fell to the ground. I immediately knew that something was wrong. Team USA had me on the next flight out of Canada to begin the healing and recovery process. I returned, took an MRI, and received the dreadful news. A torn quad. Fortunately, I work with some of the best pros in the business, and they whipped up a plan that would have me ready to compete in London. At that point, I’d never really been injured. Although my medical team had gotten me back on my feet, I began to second guess myself, and wondered if I could hit it as hard as I did before. Will the leg give out? Will it affect my jumping abilities? Just for the record, my left leg is my jumping leg. I had injured my right quad, but I wondered if that would have some sort of negative impact on how far I could fly. Long story short, I make it to London. I compete, and once more I land in the silver medal position on the podium. Third time, but this one felt different. I didn’t know how I’d be able to compete having had to sit out for a month. Then I only had about five weeks to prepare for the biggest stage. I’ll take it.
2016. Rio de Janeiro. If you don’t know the story by now, open my book and read chapter 8. By far, one of the most heart-breaking things I’ve been a part of. I believed that was my gold medal, and for reasons outside of my control, I didn’t get it. Another silver medal goes in the war chest.
The greatest gifts are the ones we give ourselves…
I’ve been competing for 16 years now. I began training for the Paralympic Games in high school. I’ve been doing this for half of my life. I won plenty of gold medals, at every level: national championships, Para-Pan American Games, World championships. But the one that is missing from my collection is a gold from the games. That’s the birthday present that I really want. I’ll have to wait until August to have an opportunity to get it though.
People ask, “Are you annoyed with always getting silver at the Paralympics? Does it sting sometimes?” Yes! I don’t go into competitions saying, “I gotta get that silver today!” I train to win gold.
Think about it. You study to ace the test. You cram knowledge in your head to pass the bar exam, to get your nursing certificate, or earn your insurance license. It takes work. And I’ve put in A LOT of work. Yes, I haven’t aced my test yet. But do you know what? I believe everything happens for a reason. I believe if it’s something you really want, you go after it relentlessly until you get it. Winning a gold in Tokyo would make for a great story, wouldn’t it?
I received some remarkable gifts this year. But I’m working hard to get myself the gift that I’ve been wanting for almost 20 years…the gold medal and Paralympic Champion crown. When that happens, October 19, 2021 will be a birthday bash to remember!
We all have favorite colors, our favorite foods, favorite shoes, and even favorite people. Guess what? I have favorite sounds. And some of those sounds are associated with baseball.
Hitting a home run ball has an unmistakable sound. A batter stands at the plate, swings, and a loud thud echoes through the air when full contact is made. The crowd noise starts off as anticipation. Then, as the ball travels farther and farther, cheers grow louder. As soon as the ball clears the fence, the entire stadium erupts and music blasts as runners head to home plate.
That’s not the only sound baseball gives me. What about the sound when the pitcher throws a dart past the batter, and it hits smack dab in the middle of the catcher’s glove? STRIKE! “Get him outta here!”
It was a no-brainer for me when I was asked to throw out the first pitch during a AAA game between the Charlotte Knights and [the Durham Bulls]. This was my opportunity to create one of the very sounds that I love so much. It was also another opportunity to conquer something new and exciting.
I learned that one of our strength and conditioning coaches, Kelly Ahner, had played ball back in her hometown. She offered to help me work on my pitch. (Come on now, did you really think I’d go out there without any sort of practice? Never!) Ashley Renteria, a strength and conditioning intern at the Olympic Training Center, agreed to come out and help also.
This is how we did it. There’s a ton of land at our training facility, so we found an open space, measured 60 feet 6 inches, I stood at one end, and Kelly set up at the other end with her glove. She would yell “Right here Lex, right here!” I would dial in to where she was perched and throw the ball in her direction.
I’ll be honest, the first few times were a little off, but my excuse remains true! Hey, I’m blind!
Seriously though, once I got a feel of how far she was and where I needed to throw the baseball, I began to hear that sound that I’ve come to love so much. Wind up, rotate, release, and strike! Smack dab in Kelly’s glove! Wind up, rotate, release, and strike! Smack dab in her glove!
When the day came for my first pitch, I was a little nervous. I got a few practice sessions in, but it’s a little different when it’s time for the real thing. I was escorted out onto the field and took my position on the mound as the announcer introduced me.
Then it was time.
The place went quiet. The catcher began to hit his glove repeatedly so I would know which direction to toss the ball. I locked in, cocked my arm back, and let it fly. Smack dab in his glove! Strike!
I love that sound.
He Swings and Misses
Let’s think for a moment though. Have you ever had a great opportunity come your way and failed to capitalize on it? Yeah, me too. What about a second shot at something great and it still didn’t turn out in your favor? I can relate.
Guess how many years it took for me to win my first gold medal at a major international championship? One? Nope. Two? Shaking my head. Try nine. It took me nine years, and although I made the podium in the preceding years, I never stood on that top step.
How did I keep going? I refused to believe that I would not win gold. I had faith and trusted that it would happen. I continued to fight, to push, and I refused to quit.
If your vision is extremely vivid and clear, then don’t settle for anything less.
Where do you see yourself and your opportunities right now? If your current view doesn’t align with what you see in your vision at this very moment, then you’re not supposed to remain where you are. Believe that.
When things don’t go your way, say to yourself, “This is not where I’m scheduled to be. My vision shows me in a better position.”
Keep working. If the next opportunity comes your way and you fail to capitalize on it, say to failure, “You will not keep me from realizing my vision and purpose. I see something greater.”
Imagine you’re standing at the plate, bat in hand, waiting on that pitch. Failure cocks its arm back and rifles the ball toward you. Strike! The ball smacks the catcher’s glove. Sheesh, another opportunity lost.
You know what coaches say to batters who are in a slump? Keep swinging. It’s the same in life. I’ve swung and missed many times. You probably have too. Opportunities have flown right by us all, right? Guess what? Keep swinging.
We all miss a pitch or two (or nine). It’ll be frustrating. It’ll disappoint you at times but keep swinging. You may strike out here and there, but never allow life to deal you a “no-hitter.” Stay focused on your vision and purpose.
I promise, if you fight through the slump, if you keep swinging, you’ll eventually make contact. Hear those cheers? That’s your success, and it’s flying right out of the yard.
Best wishes for good health, and please, everyone stay safe.
Lex Gillette is a professional keynote speaker, 4x Paralympic Medalist, and 4x Long Jump World Champion who is currently training to win gold at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic Games. He has been wowing audiences of all sizes with his athletic gift since 2004, and he has been inspiring audiences on the corporate stage since 2013. His ultimate goal is to teach others to look past their current reality and challenge them to see further than they ever thought possible.
Photo credits: Baseball by Ernesto Rodriguez (@Lernestorod on Pixels.com), video stills by Lex Gillette; book cover photo by Joe Kusumoto.
Special thanks to the authors of my wonderful photos: Joe Kusumoto Photography, Joris Debeij, and Alex ingram – Art is Being.