By Jewel Connelly, Communications Specialist
“My adversity is my advantage.” This is the powerful motto that Paralympic sprinter Blake Leeper lives by, a mindset which has released him from the limitations that others have tried to impose on him his entire life. It is also an attitude which has fueled his success at the highest levels of track and field competition. Recently claiming the silver medal in the men’s T62 400m at the World Para Athletics Championships (Paris, France), the 33-year-old is edging his way closer to qualifying for the Paris 2024 Paralympic games. Already an 8x Paralympic medal recipient and 2x world record holder, his goal is to be the best in the world – the fastest man on two running blades.
Born with the congenital birth defect Fibular Hemimelia, Blake’s legs only developed to knee length. His parents were told their son would be wheelchair bound and never play sports, but in that moment they had a pivotal decision to make that would change the course of Blake’s story: believe the doctor or reinforce Blake’s potential. “From the beginning they decided to stick together as a family and keep a positive attitude about the whole situation,” Blake said. “The power of positivity saved my life.”
Although the reality was not what they expected, his parents’ decision to focus on what they could control – their positivity, mindset, and how they addressed the situation – proved to make all the difference in equipping their son for success. While they acknowledged his one disability, Blake recalls his parents consistently emphasizing that he had a thousand other abilities that made him a special person. This empowering truth has had a profound and direct effect in his life. “I’m a believer that the only true disability in life is a bad attitude,” he stated. “So each and every day I show up with a positive mindset and a great attitude to combat my challenges.”
Producing blistering speed in 400m to 100m competition, Blake continues to defy what was spoken over him with every stride. While he indeed played sports growing up, it was in 2008 while watching the Beijing Paralympic games that the spark was ignited within him to be a professional runner. Fully dedicating himself to the vision over the next four years, Blake qualified for London 2012 and even returned home with both silver and bronze medals. Because of his immediate success in sprinting events Blake decided to focus on shorter races to fast-track his career. “I knew if I could have this success this early, if I just really dedicate my life, time, and energy into this then I know I can be one of the best in the history of the sport,” he said. Although he has experienced resistance and unexpected obstacles attempting to compete against able-bodied opponents, Blake has met every roadblock with the same fortitude that has taken him this far.
“Mental resilience and the ability to overcome is a muscle that you must constantly keep working to get stronger and stronger each day. The only way you can work it is by dealing with adversity and challenges.” – Blake Leeper
In a matter of weeks Blake went from the high of running a spectacular 400m in 44.42 seconds to being told his blades gave him an ‘unfair advantage’. World Athletics argued that his blades made him too tall at 6’2 and subsequently banned him from competing against abled-bodied athletes in the Tokyo Olympics. “They say I have an advantage because of my legs, but I say my legs don’t give me my advantage,” Blake shared. “It’s my adversities and the challenges that I face and overcome. My mindset is my advantage, my mental strength and toughness is my advantage.”
Now standing at 5’8, Blake has once again chosen to get to work and move forward in relentless pursuit of his goal. To most, being born without legs would be viewed as a disadvantage, but to Blake it awakens his inner strength. “The fact that I was born ‘less than,’ the fact that I had to learn how to overcome these situations have taught me valuable tools and traits that I can apply to my track and field career and everyday life,” he said. “Overcoming is my strength.”
This year Blake is also celebrating the film festival release of his documentary, Abled: The Blake Leeper Story, a project five years in the making. The film chronicles Blake’s journey and his appeal to overturn the ban issued by the governing body. Labeled as disabled since birth, he is acutely aware of the importance of representation through sports and how it inspires the next generation like baseball player Bo Jackson did for him. In turn Blake wants to be that representation for other boys and girls and serve as a benchmark of what they are truly capable of with perseverance.
When speaking to Blake his positivity is palpable as indicated by the big smile on his face. Despite external circumstances, his infectious and joyful personality shines through. Regardless if you are an aspiring professional athlete or not, the value in Blake’s story is the reminder that others’ limitations don’t have to determine your own. “You are a strong individual,” Blake ended as a word of encouragement to the community. “You have amazing talents and strengths that we need to tap into.” Take it from someone whose life has been a masterclass in the art of overcoming since birth and the story is still being written.
Follow Blake on Instagram (@leepster) as he aims for Paris 2024 and beyond.