Desmond Jackson is in a class by himself, and he doesn’t find that to be a good thing.
A sophomore member of Hillside High School’s track and field team, Jackson last year became the first athlete to compete in and win amputee events in the N.C. High School Athletics Association championship meet.
At the 2014 NCHSAA indoor 4A championships in Winston-Salem, Jackson won both of his events, the 55-meter dash and the long jump. In last year’s outdoor 4A championships, he won the 100-, 200- and 400-meters and the long jump.
He did so running with a blade on his left leg.
“I started running against able-bodied people when I was in middle school,” Jackson said. “I knew it would be a challenge. I like to challenge myself.
“I’d like to compete more with able-bodied people, and I’d like to bring out other amputees from North Carolina onto the track.”
Jackson usually runs alongside other high school athletes in regular-season meets. In the NCHSAA regionals and state finals, he usually runs by himself, competing against the clock and his own previous marks.
“Desmond is a great competitor,” Hillside coach Thurman Jordan said. “He would really like to compete with able-bodied athletes or with other amputee-athletes on the track, but that doesn’t happen in the regionals or states.”
Born in Baltimore, Jackson moved with his family to Durham when he was 4. He played as much baseball, basketball, football and soccer as he could when he was younger. His mother Deborah even got him to try horseback riding. But track is what grabbed his attention.
“I do like to compete,” Jackson admitted. “I ran in my first meet when I was 8 years old, and I set six national records for my age-group. That was an eye-opening experience, and it made me want to keep going.
“I’ve been running ever since.”
Larry McDonald, athletics director for Durham Public Schools, made it a point, after being contacted more than three years ago by Jackson’s mother, to ensure Jackson had access to competitive sports.
“It’s important that every student get an equal opportunity to participate, regardless of who they are,” McDonald said. When he contacted the NCHSAA about track events for Jackson, he found they “were every bit as interested as we were to make sure he was treated fairly and equitably.”
McDonald and Jordan are aware that some coaches don’t want adaptive-event points counted in team championship meets.
“He is a student at Hillside High School, and his points should be counted the same as any member of the Hillside team,” McDonald said. “I am totally against the idea of a ‘separate but equal’ championship.”
Jackson doesn’t limit himself to high school varsity sports. His left leg amputated above the knee because of a birth defect, he competes in any meet he can find that offers events for his class – T42, for track athletes with amputations above the knee. (It’s just one of many such classifications, such as T44 for track athletes with amputations below the knee, or F57 for field athletes with one leg.)
In the last year, Jackson competed in meets in Arizona, New Jersey and Minnesota. U.S. Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee, designated him in 2014 as a high school all-American in the 100- and 200-meters.
This year, for the first time, he beat adults at a meet in California, and he wants to compete in an international meet later this year in Qatar.
Jackson now has his eye on a meet that seems even farther away – if not in miles then in the level of competition. His top goal is to qualify for the U.S. team that will compete in the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Jackson’s marks place him among the nation’s leaders in his classification, so he thinks it’s not an impossible dream.
“If I make it, I’d be one of the youngest ever to compete in the Paralympics,” Jackson said. “My coach and I have a plan and we know what to work on. I think I have a good chance to make it.”