The first time ABILITY spoke with Blake Leeper the multi-medaled Paralympian blade runner and world record holder who was striving to become the world’s fastest man, was early 2016. Since then Leeper has experienced setbacks and challenges yet remains determined to compete. ABILITY’s George Kaplan reconnected with Leeper to catch up on his new aspirations and the newly completed documentary “Abled: The Blake Leeper Story”. From pushing through the pain of training to the discrimination he faced while fighting to compete in the Olympics Leeper shared details of his personal life his goals and excitement for sport.
George Kaplan: You were born without the use of both of your legs. With were some of the challenges you faced growing up as a double amputee?
Blake Leeper: I was born with a congenital birth defect, fibular hemimelia. The doctors told me I would never be able to play sports, never be able to really run. And those challenges as a kid, being bullied, laughed at, picked on. There were times I would play baseball as a kid, I’m running around the bases and my leg will fall off. Really questioning, “Why am I going through this? Why me? Why am I the one born without both of his legs?”
But the more trials and tribulations that I faced and I went through, I realized that I was meant to go through this. I have a story to not only tell, but I have to live my life to the fullest, even with my disability. Now I look at my life and I’ve won medals, won Paralympic medals, broken records, and all those moments when I questioned—especially as a child I questioned because I was the only one who looked like this. I was the only one who had to deal with this. And now, I realize I was meant for this. I was meant to go through this. And not only to go through this, but to go through it to get to the other side of this and then to tell my story to other people. And hopefully it gives them maybe just a little ounce of hope and inspiration to keep moving forward.
Kaplan: What drew you to sports and track and field?
Leeper: What I loved about sports was, because of my disability, people always wanted to label me, put me inside a certain box. “You’re missing your legs! You need to go over there.” They would make certain assumptions about me. And when I got into sports and playing basketball, baseball and, later on, track and field, I realized that when it comes to sport, sport is sometimes in its purest form, it doesn’t matter if you have a disability. It doesn’t matter if you’re missing your legs or you have your legs. It doesn’t matter your race, creed, or color. The only thing you want to do in that moment is to win for your team. And that’s it. And I can remember, I was playing a basketball game, it was fourth quarter, 15 seconds left, and I was dribbling the basketball and the kid on the other side was playing the hardest defense that I’ve ever seen anybody play at that point in my life. I found it interesting. He didn’t feel sorry for me in that moment. He didn’t take it easy on me because I had a disability. He gave me his best. I got to truly see his best! Not only truly see my opponent’s best, but I got to be my best and use all my talents and my skills to score this basket, to score the win on my team. And he did everything that he possibly could to stop me from scoring.
I love that feeling! I love that aspect of not being judged or not being taken easy upon. That’s when I realized that, man, I could use sports to gain respect amongst my community. I could use sports to show people that I’m no different than they are. I might look different. and I might have a disability, but it doesn’t define who I am as an individual. If I can go out there and drop 20 points or if I go out there and break world records on the track, that’s how I’m going to get ‘em.
Kaplan: Awesome! Like you said, you’ve shattered multiple records. To what do you credit your tenacity on the track?
Leeper: My tenacity comes from the mindset that my mother, my father, my immediate family, my brother instilled in me at a very early age. I can remember a time when my dad pulled me to the side–I was only 9 or 10 years old and I had a new basketball coach. And before we went to the practice, he said, “Blake, there’s going to be a time where you guys will be running, doing sprints back and forth or doing something in practice, and the coach is going to let you take it off because you’re missing both of your legs. And when the coach does that and they give you a way out, don’t take it. Do not take it. You finish every rep and every round.”
And lo and behold, at the end of the practice, we were running sprints, we got to the last two or three sprints, and the coach says, “Blake, you don’t have to run these two or three sprints.” That’s when it was a realization for me that, “Wow, people do view me as different! They do see me as a different individual.” I remembered that conversation that my father had with me, saying, “You finish every rep and every round just like everybody else.” Having that mindset. My mother would always tell me, “You have one disability, but you have a thousand other abilities that make you a special person. So, having that mindset of always focusing on my abilities and what I do have, I would have to definitely credit that to my family.
Kaplan: That’s great! What was the pathway to becoming one of the fastest men in the world?
Leeper: The pathway to become one of the fastest men in the world was a lot of hard work, a lot of dedication, a lot of sacrifice. There was a moment, a point in my life when I was struggling off the track, hanging around the wrong people. I had to sacrifice years on the track and turn my life around. I was out partying, out drinking every night. I had to stop all of that in my life to create a healthy environment and a lifestyle so I could be one of the fastest men in the world. It was a lot of sleepless nights and early mornings where my stumps were bleeding or they were swollen or sore because I’d trained so hard the night before. It was hard for me to even walk to the bathroom, but I fought through just to get to the track so I could get one more rep or one more round or one more training session in.
The biggest one for me to become the fastest man in the world was my belief system. Once I truly believed deep down with conviction that I can be one of the fastest men in the world, I could really do this, I could break world records, I kept that optimism throughout my life, saying that I could figure this out, speak that out into the universe. That’s when I started seeing the biggest change in my life.
Kaplan: You’ve found so much success as a Paralympian. What led you to want to compete in the Olympics?
Leeper: I wanted to run in the Olympics, but I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t started in the Paralympics. It kind of gave me the platform to run in the Olympic Games, just even to run in general. I remember in the 2012 Paralympic Games, I was running the 200. If you remember Oscar Pistorius was running in that 200-meter race, and I remember the status that he had because he ran in both the Olympics and Paralympics. And what I did not like was so many untold stories in the Paralympic Games that should be told. People would focus on the Olympics but not so much on the Paralympics. I felt like I could do my job if I could go out there and run against the fastest runners in the world in both Olympics and Paralympics. I could show that light back to the Paralympics, show that, yes, we are Paralympians, but we’re some of the fastest runners in the world, some of the best athletes in the world.
If you ask me, we’re the better athletes in the world because we not only compete at a high level, but we deal with our disability on top of that as well. So, the mindset that it takes to become a high-level Paralympian will put you in the range of being the fastest or the best athlete in the world. I wanted to be one form of that, to prove to the world that though I do have a disability, that I can be the best in the world.
Kaplan: What do you say to those who discount your training and your ability and say that it’s the blades that give you an advantage? I know you come across this question all the time and it’s very contentious. What do you say to those people?
Leeper: It’s so funny, because I do hear that a lot. “If I had the blades, if I had that type of technology, I could do what he did, what he does.” Honestly, I’m like, I’d love to say, “Walk a mile in my shoes.” I say that, but I say, “Walk a mile in my blades.” You don’t see people amputating their legs off and running to the prosthetics shop to get set for the blades. It’s not easy. This is not an easy journey. Try to understand what I go through on a daily basis. I have to worry about infections, my posture, I have back problems, I have open wounds. All these things I have to deal with because I’m an amputee. I have to get to the track to train at the highest levels as I possibly can. So yes, it might look easy, it might look simple, but there are not only me but a lot of amputees go through so much just to live a normal healthy life, on top of training.
Kaplan: How were you approached to do the “Abled” documentary?
Leeper: It was interesting. I knew that I wanted to tell my story, and I knew how important it was, and I wanted to find the right individuals and the right people to tell my story. I didn’t know what route or what journey this was going to do, how deep it was going to go, especially with my fight with the Olympics and the Court of Arbitration of Sport. But when I first walked in with my manager and my weight room coach and he knew a guy who was an editor and wanted to get into the documentary filmmaking union editorial, he set up a meeting. “You tell him the story, we’ll see if there’s any connection or any interest.”
And I walk into their offices and I tell them what I knew at the time, like, “I’m in hopes of running in the Olympics. It might be a little battle but not too much. There’s a guy before me who did, so there’s be a precedent set. It should be good to go.” And they were like, “We like this.” And the connection that that had with Einar [Thorsteinsson] was just truly amazing. That’s what’s truly important, especially when it comes to shooting a documentary. You’ve got to be able to trust the people on the other side of the camera to tell your story in the proper way. I had an immediate connection with the union team. I was very vulnerable for five years, opening up my life, traveling all around the world, to different places throughout the States. I’m so thankful that I was able to meet them and trusted them to tell the right story for me and for the world as well.
Kaplan: How did you feel when you were found ineligible to compete in the Tokyo Olympics?
Leeper: I was heartbroken. I’m not going to lie. All the blood, sweat, and tears and everything I fought for, and I thought I was barred from running in the Tokyo Olympics unjustly. For them to say that I was too tall, my running legs, for the population of people they studied to determine my height didn’t represent me. There were no Black men in the study at all. I thought that was unfair. I had to drop my height by six inches. They said I had an unfair advantage because I was too tall. As I was watching the Tokyo Olympics, I’m watching guys who were running in the Olympics who I was beating leading up to the Olympics. Physically I had raced them and beat them. I had to watch them go on to the Olympic stage. I just knew deep down that if I quit now, and I probably have every right to quit, then they win. So, I cannot quit. I’ve got to keep fighting. I’ve got to keep pushing through.
So, in a weird way, it was motivation for me to figure out whatever it is. You say I’m too tall? OK, let’s drop the legs six inches. You don’t want my story to get out there into the world, I’ll tell my story in a different way. I’ll shed my light on a different platform. That’s what I’ve been doing, focusing on, to continue that fight, that battle to prove to the world that I’m not done yet.
Kaplan: Do you believe that the IAAF (World Athletics federation) has a bias against disabled athletes?
Leeper: Honestly, I do. Yes. I think that’s the view on disabled individuals. If you look back at my court case—It’s talked about it a little bit in the documentary. In fact, the burden of proof was on the disabled athlete at the beginning of my court case. In any other situation where you’re going up against a court of sport with the IAAF the burden of proof is on the federation. Only with disabled athletes, the burden of proof is on me. I think that’s something that really needs to be looked at and changed. We need to be seen as human, not “disabled athletes,” but athletes that just so happen to have a disability. I think once they understand that, that we’re athletes first, I think we’ll see the biggest change in that.
Kaplan: In the documentary, like you said, your burden of proof is placed on your camp to prove that you don’t have an advantage with your blades. Can you talk more about the process behind the scientific testing?
Leeper: Yeah! It’s very interesting, because it’s called the Max Allowable Standing Height, the MASH rule. That means that’s the tallest I possibly could be to run in the Olympics and Paralympic Games. They take different points of my body, even though my wingspan is about 6’1″, that’s what dictated how tall I should be, roughly about 6’2″ if I were to run on my toes. But they took different points of my body from my sitting height, my fibula, all these things, but then they implemented it into a formula that they created, and in that formula, the test population only included, if I’m not mistaken, 50 white Australian men and then tested against 15 Japanese Asian men. I wasn’t a demographic. They’re using science against me that does not represent me. I think that’s dangerous when you’re doing something like that. We see this in the healthcare industry all the time. When you base it in science that doesn’t have representation, when you implement me as a Black man to this test population of white Australian men and Japanese Asian men, the numbers will be off a little bit. It’s not going to dictate how I might have a short torso and maybe longer limbs. That’s why when I started at 6’2″, I had to drop down to 5’8″, and I fought it for so long because that was something that I truly don’t believe in. I don’t feel like I would be 5’8″ in my tippy-toes in my sprinting height. I feel like I would be taller given the limbs that I do have.
But these are the rules that are set in place for me right now. And I’m trying to figure out how to become the fastest I possibly can be at this height.
Kaplan: Is it true that the team you’re working with found that you had more disadvantages than benefits?
Leeper: That was the interesting part. Working with Dr. Grabowski in the Boulder, Colorado, test, once they dove into the research and realized all different parts of the 400 meter race that I run, from block starts to curve running to running back into the curve. They were like, “Blake actually has a disadvantage against able-bodied runners. He starts off slower because he has to. He’s starting off in the curve.” So, if you really look at it, he’s at a disadvantage more than an advantage, but people only see the blades. They only see when I’m winning. They see my strategy and they say it’s the blades because he becomes faster at the end. That’s not true. I’m not faster at the end, I’m just strategically running a different race than everybody else because I have to.
Kaplan: What advice do you give to other disabled athletes who are coming up?
Leeper: The advice I love to give to other disabled athletes who are coming up is one, the only true disability in life is a bad attitude. Yes, we’re labeled as disabled individuals, but people who have a bad attitude have it way worse than we do. Set your goals so high, there’s nothing impossible. If you want to run in the Olympics, run in the Olympics. If you want to play in the NBA, play in the NBA. If you want to play in the MLB, if you want to be—whatever you set your goals and set out what you want to do, do it to be the best in the world. Not just the best disabled athlete in the world, but the best in the world because you can be the best in the world.
Kaplan: What do you think needs to change in the world of sports for disabled athletes?
Leeper: It’s to understand that we’re athletes and we deserve a fair chance just like everybody else, not to box us in, to put us all on the other side. If you ask me, the Olympics and the Paralympics should run together. We could run simultaneously in the same event. Why are they separate events. I know we’re working better for inclusivity and inclusion, but we need more inclusivity, more inclusion. We have some of the best stories in the Paralympics and within the disabled athletes that need to be highlighted, not only just my story. I’m one of many, many stories. I’m thankful that I found the right team to tell my story, but there are so many amazing stories out there in the world that other individuals need to hear.
If we just took the time to highlight these stories, put these disabled athletes on the proper platform, man, we would all win. We would all win.
Kaplan: You are also pursuing motivational speaking and acting. Can you tell me more about that? What actors do you model yourself after?
Leeper: Man, oh, that’s a tough one! Motivational speaking has been something that’s been a passion of mine for years. I’ve really been diving deep because I feel like I have a very impactful story to tell to motivate not only the next generation, but companies, business opportunities, I can go in there to share my story of my personal experience trying to be the best in the world, whether it’s on or off the track. Just having that mindset of being the best in the world and that process that it takes to be the best in the world, I really enjoy that.
And I’ve been really finding my peace in acting. I like to model myself, that’s a tough one, a little of Michael B [Jordan], I guess, or Omar Epps. I know people say I kind of look like Omar Epps a little bit. I love obviously Denzel Washington’s mindset of honing in your talents and your skills and being the best at what you do. These are some of the Mount Rushmore of individuals I’ve seen. Idris Elba, the Mount Rushmores of actors that I consider to be the best in the game that I hope one day, with more time and more practice and more experiences and more opportunities, I could be there and be just as good.
Kaplan: At the close of the documentary, you quote Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “If you can’t fly, then run. If you can’t run, then walk. And if you can’t walk, then crawl. But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.” How are you moving forward?
Leeper: Man, that’s one of my favorite quotes that I love to say. There are some days I wake up and I can barely even walk to the bathroom. Some days I wake up and it’s hard for me to get to my car to get to practice. I say this to myself daily because that’s what I remind myself. Some days I can’t run. Some days I can’t even walk. If I’ve got to crawl to practice, to my next meeting, to my next opportunity, I’m going to crawl. Whatever I’m going to do, I’m not going to stop. That’s what I want to pass along to the next generation.
How I do it? I wake up and I plan out my day and I go and attack that day. Whether it’s on the track to get ready for the next Paralympic Games, it’s how I’m going to make a statement. It’s going on stage sharing my story to motivate the next generation. That’s how I’m going to make my statement. Shooting an audition hopefully to book a movie role or a commercial role. That’s how I’m going make my statement. But whatever I do, I going to keep moving forward and look for the next opportunity that’s presented in front of my life.
Kaplan: What do you want people to take away from your story?
Leeper: From my story and even from the documentary, I want people to walk away and say, “Wow! He’s a fighter!” In this day and age we always try to tell these nice, beautiful pieces that make you feel good, and the reality of it is, sometimes life hits you hard. It doesn’t matter how hard you try or if it’s fair or not, sometimes you get dealt a bad hand. But the most important part is how you respond to that and how you wake up each and every day and continue to keep fighting and pushing. As people are watching my journey and my process, even though I maybe was dealt a bad or unfair hand going through this process, they see me and figure out how I picked the pieces up and how I continue to keep fighting for my life.
I would encourage everybody to go watch the documentary when it comes out. Not only me but the whole team union team put their blood, sweat, and tears, their heart into this documentary. It’s meant to be shared. Whatever you gain from it, I hope you use it in your life. I think people will really enjoy this.
photos by Saman Assefi “@SamanAssefi”