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Sports Jeff Birchfield

Leeper hasn't let up after gaining world class status

March 16th, 2014 10:59 pm by Jeff Birchfield

Leeper hasn't let up after gaining world class status

Blake Leeper has defied the odds his whole life.

The 24-year-old from Church Hill was at Bristol Motor Speedway Sunday where he talked about preparing for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janerio, meeting his boyhood hero Bo Jackson and how playing sports in Kingsport helped mold him into a champion athlete.

Born with both legs missing below the knees because of a birth defect, Leeper has worn prosthetics since he was 16 months old.

While some might see running in the Olympic Games as overly ambitious, Leeper was told early on that he would never walk.

Instead, he has become a world class athlete.

He won an individual silver medal at the 2012 London Paralympic Games in the 400 meters where he finished runner-up to South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius with a U.S. record time of 50.14 seconds. He also captured a bronze medal in the 200 meters with a time of 22.46 seconds.

“People ask me how I got into paralympic sports,” Leeper said. “It started in Kingsport and the Tri-Cities.  For me, I just wanted to keep up with the guys. I used to play sports with Coty (Sensbaugh), Daniel Kilgore, those guys who made it to the National Football League. If I could keep up with them, I could do anything. They never treated me any different. The fact I was missing my legs didn’t phase those guys. They pushed me and made sure I gave it all I got.”

His track accomplishments are amazing once you consider that Leeper didn’t even run in high school and only began racing six years old.

He made his interational debut in 2009 in Brazil. Two years later, he won a silver medal in the 2011 World Championships of Athletics as part of the 4x100 meter relay team. For a two-week period this year, his 4x100 team had the best time in the world of anyone, as he said “those with legs or no legs.”

With a vibrant smile and a positive attitude, Leeper has become a star off the track as well.

He became a youtube sensation with his appearance last November on the Arsenio Hall Show. The show’s host surprised him by bringing his childhood hero on the set. It produced a reaction of pure joy.

“You have to understand Bo Jackson was my hero and being able to meet him years ago at four years old was huge for me,” Leeper said. “He had a prosthetic hip and even though I had a prosthetic leg, that was a way for me to relate. With me having a disability, there was nobody I could relate to. Once I found Bo, I found that story and it was like, ‘Boom, that’s all I needed.’ 

“Twenty years later, I’m a two-time medalist in the London Games and Bo remembered me and agreed to meet me. Having him tell me he was proud of me, that is all the motivation I need to make it to the Olympic team. People might say it’s crazy, it’s not possible. Bo telling me I can do it, anything is possible.”

In another surreal moment, Leeper was honored at a Tennessee Titans game last season alongside Sensabaugh, both a Titans defensive back and his cousin.

When the Titans’ marketing manager set up Leeper to make an appearance, he had no idea of their relationship. 

“He didn’t know it was Coty, my cousin and my best friend,” Leeper said. “They set up this whole big thing where I ran out to Coty in the middle of the field. That moment, that solidified everything. You have to understand Coty and I have been best friends since we’ve been little kids. We’ve been through so much, to hug him in front of the whole world, that lets you know our bond runs so thick.”

Their bond included playing sports together in high school.

Leeeper played right field and second base for the Dobyns-Bennett baseball team, and as a senior, he played for the Indians’ basketball program, the winningest high school basketball program in the nation.

Leeper, who counted guys like Todd Halvorsen, Justin Sylvester, Josef Throp and Brad Blackwell as other teammates, was part of an Indians team which won the program’s 2,000th game and later the District 1-AAA championship.

Some of the most memorable games came against Science Hill. Leeper recalled a special win in Johnson City at the old Topper Palace. After his cousin shared some big news, Sensabaugh scored 24 points and Blackwell added 22 in an 80-67 victory over the Omar Wattad-led Hilltoppers.

“I can remember Coty talking to me before the Science Hill game telling me that he had good news,” Leeper said. “Right before the game, he told me he signed with Clemson. He was like, ‘Let’s go get this win now.’ You’ve got to understand Omar went to Georgetown and he was one of the top scorers in the state. Coty held him down that night and we beat Science Hill.”

Most of all, Leeper appreciated the tough love shown by Dobyns-Bennett coach Charlie Morgan and his teammates. They cut Leeper no slack, letting him know when he would mess up. To the outside, it might have looked mean, but they showed him that he was truly a part of the team.

“Outside looking in, you might think why are they being so mean to this kid with a disability,” Leeper said. “They weren’t being mean. They were treating me like a normal human being. To the outside, it looks terrible, but on the inside, I’m so thankful they treated me like that. 

“They pushed me and made me push myself. If they treated me no different, I shouldn’t treat myself any different. Now as an adult, my legs should never stand in the way of anything I want to do in life.”

He is headed back to California today where he will resume training for the Olympic Games. He finds some of the criticism from other athletes ridiculous. They have complained the running blades used by himself and other paralympic athletes give them some kind of advantage. 

However, Leeper estimates a paralympic athlete loses a second at the start where he doesn’t have an ankle or foot to push off the blocks. In addition, he has to slow down through the corners or he would go straight instead of making the curve.

“I hear it a lot at the track meets how the man with no legs has the unfair advantage in the foot race,” he said. “You have the blades and they look so high-tech. But like I tell people, walk a mile on my blades. If they understood the trials and tribulations I go through just to even get to the track, just to jog, just to run, they would understand I don’t have an unfair advantage.

“That’s my job to break that barrier, to show the world I’m trying to live a fulfilled life and don’t treat me any different. Regardless of the situation, I’m going to be the best I can be.”

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