Paralympics — A Leg Up on the Competition

Circa 2011

It also became clear several of the US sprinters had been doing some hard work. This was most evident in the cases of Tatyana McFadden and Jerome Singleton. McFadden dominated the running events, winning four gold medals and a bronze, while Singleton came back to the United States as the fastest amputee in his class after upending “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius for the 100-meter (100m) title. Now the focus shifts to London, site of the 2012 Paralympic Games. The fact that the games are more than a year away has done nothing to slow the training of these world-class athletes.


Jerome Singleton doesn’t have to wear long tights any more, or pants to cover up his legs. Why should he? It would only slow his time.

Singleton became the fastest amputee sprinter in the world when he beat Oscar Pistorius in the 100m (T44) at the IPC Athletics World Championships, back in January. Singleton and Pistorius have been rivals since 2008, when they began competing against each other on the track. Pistorius had always gotten the better of Singleton, and with that success came Pistorius’s fame. It was Pistorius who was dubbed “Blade Runner,” due to his cheetah-running style, which is commonplace among sprinters.

Pistorius also gained fame when he fought for the right to compete in the 2008 Olympic Games, but failed to qualify for South Africa’s Olympic team. As Pistorius faced these struggles, Singleton kept getting better, losing to Pistorius by just .03 seconds in the 100m at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics.

Finally, in January, Singleton edged out his archrival to win the 100m and claim the gold. Singleton got out to the better start, but Pistorius secured a comeback, drawing even with Singleton as the two speedsters came to the line at identical times of 11.34. Singleton’s lean forward was enough for victory as he went tumbling onto the track’s surface, sending Pistorius home defeated for the first time since the 2004 Athens Paralympic Games.

“It finally solidified the rivalry,” Singleton said. “Oscar and I have been calling it a rivalry since 2008, but I’ve never won. So you can’t call it a rivalry until you beat the other person.”

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Though claiming the title of “fastest man” is quite an accomplishment, Singleton—who has only been competing internationally at this level since 2006—maintains a drive to keep winning.

Singleton, who has competed in sports all of his life, was born without a fibula in his right leg and became an amputee at 18 months old. Nevertheless, he followed his older sister’s footsteps on the track, running high hurdles in middle school and high school. He also played basketball and football, and was one of South Carolina’s top 100 senior football prospects during his senior season. Most of his competition didn’t know he was missing a leg.

“I was a little self-conscious before I met everyone else with physical disabilities,” Singleton said. “When I tried out for the basketball team, I wore sweatpants. Whenever I went to a track meet, I wore long tights. People didn’t know I had an artificial limb, the majority of the time.”

Singleton’s physical differences didn’t seem to matter. As a young man, he found success not only on the track, but also on the football field. After making a switch from runningback to strong safety, he went on to play college football at Morehouse, thanks in part to a full-academic scholarship. While there, he double majored in mathematics and applied physics.

Singleton’s interest in the physics lab, as well as his personal accomplishments, led him to researching prosthetic running legs. Up until that point, all of his athletic accomplishments had been on a walking-prosthetic leg. It wasn’t until 2006 that Singleton discovered adaptive sports. Almost instantly, he knew he wanted to be a part of that experience.

Singleton began competing on the track, though his priorities remained academic. He graduated from Morehouse and attended graduate school at the University of Michigan, where he studied industrial engineering while training with the track and field team. There he discovered that balancing athletic competition with schoolwork was difficult but manageable.

“With athletics, anything can happen,” Singleton said. “I might wake up one day and not be able to compete anymore, but my mind is still there. I’m not going to defeat myself. I’m going to work. I’ve been given these opportunities because of athletics, but the first time I left the country was because of academics, with an internship in Geneva, Switzerland.”

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True to his interest in scholarship, Singleton completed his graduate degree before training his focus solely on the track. After graduation, Singleton competed in January’s IPC Athletics World Championships, where he stunned the sprinting world with his victory.

“It’s a great feeling to know I’m the fastest amputee in the world,” Singleton said. “But I also recognize that for an amputee or any person with a disability to come out and compete and push himself to go further is monumental, in itself. I’m thankful.”

Singleton is still pushing. He won silver at the IPC event, in the 200m, and has his eyes on the world record time in that event. He and three other US members won bronze in the 4x100m relay. The January event was outside of the prime time for achieving the fastest time during outdoor season—so Singleton’s goal now is simply to get faster. He has his eye on US sprinter Marlon Shirley’s world record in the 100m for Paralympic sprinting: 10.97.

“When I come into London, I want to do so well that there’s a void between me and the next person and you can’t compare us,” Singleton said. “That’s what I want in track and field.”

That’s just like Singleton, striving for more.


Tatyana McFadden describes the IPC Athletics World Championships as “like another practice.” If that’s the case, her competition mode must be surreal.

McFadden came away from the World Championships with four gold medals in the 200m, 400m, 800m and 1500m, and won a bronze in the 100m to go five for five in her trip to Christchurch, New Zealand. Not bad for a “practice.”

“World was a great, great championship for me,” McFadden said. “It’s a huge event, but it helped me relax more. It helped me figure out what I needed to do for London.”

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Reaching the goal of competing in London has demanded some unique training from McFadden. When she entered college at the University of Illinois and began competing on the university’s adapted varsity athletics track team, marathon competition was mandatory for all track athletes. A marathon? For a sprinter?

“I thought, you’ve got to be kidding me,” McFadden said. “I’m a sprinter and I can’t do this. I don’t know how I’m going to prepare for this.”

She figured it out.

First up was the 2009 Chicago Marathon’s wheelchair division. Here McFadden focused on building endurance for her middle-distance events. She ended up winning the marathon.

During the training season prior to this year’s World Championships, McFadden again competed in the Chicago Marathon again and finished third. Then, a month later, she won the New York City Marathon’s wheelchair division. Now the notion of a sprinter running marathons seems a little less crazy.

“I thank my coach for steering me in that direction,” McFadden said. “It’s a different type of mental strategy. It helps me keep up my endurance, as well.”

McFadden is known in the racing world for her upperbody strength, something which has taken both diligence and time to develop. Born in Russia with spina bifida, McFadden needed a crucial surgery that was held up for 21 days. It was a surgery she wasn’t expected to survive.

McFadden then was placed in an orphanage that could not afford the wheelchair needed to improve her mobility. Until the age of six, she transported herself by “scooting,” or using her hands as her legs.

At age six, McFadden was brought to the United States and had to learn not only English, but also new ways to manage the sudden accessibility of resources like physical therapy and a wheelchair. McFadden’s “ya sama” catchphrase—which means “I myself” in Russian— became a mantra that drove her to independence and success.

“Something about sports just gave me that competitive drive,” McFadden said. “I just want to be the best. Looking into my past, things were very difficult. I know that things I face now are probably not as difficult as things I faced before. So I think competition only makes me stronger.”

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McFadden’s strength continues to grow, as evidenced by her progression in the lead up to London. At the 2004 Paralympic Games, when she was just 15 years old, McFadden won the silver medal in the 100m (T54) and bronze in the 200m. Four years later, in Beijing, she won three silver medals (200m, 400m, 800m) and a bronze (4x100m relay). Then came her marathon victories, followed by her five medals at the World Championships. With this string of successes, McFadden simultaneously scored a victory for the rights of people with disabilities, and has successfully lobbied for Maryland public schools to allow students with disabilities to participate in sports.

The medals McFadden wins—and the message she sends—has her marching toward London 2012, carrying the US flag. But she knows it won’t be a smooth road. When McFadden took to the blocks in the 100m at the World Championships as a heavy underdog, she saw some familiar faces mixed in with the new ones. This, she understood, was a sign that practice won’t stop between now and next summer.

“I know I have to work even harder every day because each day I train I’m going to get better, but each day they train they’re going to get better,” McFadden said. “Now I’m working toward London. Everything I do— World Championships, marathons and sprinting—it all helps me prepare for London.”

by Josh Pate

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