Blind alumnus beats athletic record
Imagine back to being eight years old, riding bikes with the other neighborhood kids, swimming at the pool, playing tag at the nearby elementary school playground and maybe even having a snowball fight. Then imagine, without any easy explanation, someone saying you will never be able to see again. Life is never the same after that, as hopes and dreams of the future begin to crumble fast.
Due to constant detachment of his retinas, Elexis Gillette, known simply as Lex, a 2007 graduate, became officially blind in 1992 at the age of eight. But for Gillette, losing his sight has not stopped or hindered his goals for life, as Gillette has two silver medals from the Athens and Beijing Paralympics. In addition, he is the fastest totally blind athlete and world record holder in the long jump.
During his junior year at Athens Drive High School, one of Gillette’s teachers in a program for visually impaired athletes noticed his athletic and explosive jumping ability. The teacher took Gillette to a camp in Kalamazoo, Mich. for people with visual disabilities, where he learned and competed in the long jump. When he got back to Raleigh, he joined the school’s track and field team.
Because Gillette was getting paid to compete by the U.S. Olympic Committee, he was ineligible to be on the ECU track team due to NCAA regulations after his high school graduation. While working out at the Student Recreational Center, Gillette worked alongside a friend in the Sports Science Department in designing a training regiment to keep himself in shape, concentrating on the 100 meters, 200 meters, long jump and triple jump events.
After graduation, Gillette moved to train and live at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, Calif., training Monday through Friday. “He is a great student, a quick learner, has a lot of natural ability and is also a very hard working young man,” said USA Track and Field Head Coach Craig Poole. “He has been very receptive to what I suggest and what I say.”
Even though Gillette is completely blind, the training approach Poole and the runners in Gillette’s group take is nothing different. “The only things we don’t do with him of course are things that take eye-hand coordination when objects are in our way,” said Poole. “What we have done is modify those kind of drills so that they are more in-tune with how he can physiologically, perceptually, learn how to accomplish and perfect it.”
The training facility Gillette trains and lives at is like a mini-campus, as it has residency buildings, cafeterias, weight rooms and sports medical buildings, all in a centralized location for the use of the athletes and coaches. The group that Gillette trains in consists of eight to nine Olympic hopefuls, as Gillette is the only Paralympian in the training group.
For the two jumping events, Gillette’s training partner, Wesley Williams, gives verbal and audio clues to Gillette as he storms down the runway approaching the pit. “His job is like an air traffic controller, to get me on the runway as straight as possible, jump and make it into the pit,” said Gillette about Williams. “He’ll yell to me, ‘Straight!’ He’ll clap as well.”
For an event like the 200-meter dash, where the runner must run around a curve before entering the straightaway, the key to Gillette’s success has been simple. Williams, who needs to be as fast, if not faster than Gillette, runs next to Gillette, guiding him around the curve as they use audio and physical cues to manage the run.
“This year has been by far my best track and field year in terms of jumping farther and having faster times, so I think it is definitely a good way to catapult into next year,” said Gillette as he talked about the potential to podium in all four events at the London Paralympics next summer. “But I think that, overall, it is really cool to represent visually impaired people all over, let everyone else know that we aren’t just sitting around doing nothing.”
As seen across Gillette’s website, the message of “No Need For Sight When You Have Vision,” is evident in the everyday actions Gillette and his team take to show the world that athletes like himself shouldn’t be discouraged or lose faith just because the world they once knew changes. “There are other things you can accomplish depending on what it is and depending on how much heart you have in accomplishing it,” said enthusiastically by Gillette.
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