Born to run: Durham’s Desmond Jackson competes to inspire

U.S. Paralympian Desmond Jackson poses for a portrait in Durham, NC on June 7, 2019.
U.S. Paralympian Desmond Jackson poses for a portrait in Durham, NC on June 7, 2019.

When Desmond Jackson charged through the finish line at the 2014 North Carolina indoor track and field state championships, he made history.

He’d just run 55 meters at a pace he doesn’t care to remember now. But the stage was unforgettable.

The crowd, for one, was huge. And loud. Winston-Salem’s JDL Fast Track buzzed and bustled with high school athletes throughout the state, participants shuffling in and out of each event by the tens. Jackson’s mother had made matching shirts for her son’s extended family to wear, and they sat in a cluster on the home-side bleachers. Camera crews were on site, too — waiting for Jackson to finish his events before they could interview him as North Carolina’s first above-the-knee amputee participant in this competition.

And yet — in this crowded arena, with his family cheering him on — Jackson couldn’t help but notice that he was alone.

Jackson was the lone participant that year in Event 24, the “Boys 55 Meter Dash Adaptive.” He was born with a congenital birth defect, one that led to an above-the-knee amputation on his left leg when he was 9 months old.

Even today, the blade he runs with on his left leg separates him from a crowd. The prosthetic is a bent, black piece of foot-long carbon fiber, attached to a metal pole that connects to a sturdy hinge in place of Jackson’s knee. The hinge is then linked to another another metal bar that runs up his leg. It’s strong, but it gives just enough so the athlete can run smoothly.

Jackson is a U.S. Paralympian now. Later this month, he’ll travel to Los Angeles to compete in the Angel City Games, an elite adaptive sports competition.

But as a ninth grader representing Hillside High School in 2014, instead of flashing his charming smile in triumph, Jackson trudged over to his mother, Deborah, and broke down.

“It was hard for me to accept the fact that I had to run by myself,” he said. “I was still dealing with issues in terms of me being different, I would say.”

Jackson had been running with a prosthetic on his left leg as far back as he could remember. And he’d endured the worst-case scenario already: One time, in front of another large crowd in middle school, Jackson took maybe 10 strides before crashing into the track’s rubber. His blade had split in half, and his coach at the time had to hop the fence and carry him to the finish line.

But that’s not what was on his mind at these high school indoor championships. Instead, an all-too familiar feeling hit him hard. Jackson said that as a teenager, with a fragile self-esteem and a developing identity, there was this pressure affecting him that day that was always with him — one that was latent one moment and overwhelming the next; one that would remind him just how different he was.

One that would remind him that achieving normalcy, as an adaptive athlete, was harder than it should be.

With tears in his eyes, Jackson explained to his mother how he was feeling. He was one race away from punctuating his day of history, but he was ready to go home.

Jackson’s father, Andre, joined the conversation with his son and Deborah, and the three of them mulled over the question Desmond confronted every time he screwed on his prosthetic running blade.

Is this all worth it?

U.S. Paralympian Desmond Jackson warms up before his race in Durham, NC on June 8, 2019. Bryan Cereijo

‘It’s just not easy’

Jamaal Daniels carefully places 15 mini hurdles about a yard apart on the left hashmarks of the Cardinal Gibbons High School football field in West Raleigh.

Jackson is in the endzone, taking a few deep breaths and shaking out his arms behind the starting line.

It’s hot. Daniels hangs a dry-fit T-shirt around his neck to wick away the beads of sweat on his forehead when the balmy breeze doesn’t cut it. Daniels is out here pretty much every day over the summer with his prodigy: calling out times, analyzing his runner’s stride, looking to see how open his arms are and how high his legs come up. Daniels simply tries to remind Jackson to have full control of his body, keeping his muscles loose while wringing out the strength within them.

Daniels backs away from Jackson toward the makeshift finish line. His voice livens up the otherwise empty, tranquil field.

“Runners to your marks! ... Ride the wave until you can get on top of it, now, Dez. Ride the wave ... That’s 15 drive steps. If you stay smooth, everything you build up is being pushed out, and it’s going to carry you … Get set! .... PUSH!”

And Jackson moves. He gains speed with every lunge, his body seeming to relax more and more with each bounce. Once Jackson crosses the finish line 50 meters out, his movement gracefully winds down. The two then converse for a few seconds, and Jackson walks back to do another rep.

U.S. Paralympian Desmond Jackson poses for a portrait in Durham, NC on June 7, 2019. Bryan Cereijo

It’s easy to see the power of Daniels and Jackson’s partnership now. Under Daniels’s tutelage, Jackson realized his dream of making the U.S. Paralympic Team for the Rio Olympics in 2016. He was the team’s youngest member, and he finished seventh in the long jump. Jackson has also participated in two World Championships, finishing fifth in the 100m in 2017. He’s currently on a full scholarship at Campbell University, class of 2021.

But Jackson doesn’t only run for himself. Coming to this conclusion has been part of a maturation process that Daniels has witnessed with pride over the five-plus years of being his coach: Jackson competes for those who he’s relied on throughout his life, for those who could stand to learn from his story — and for the next generation of adaptive athletes who’re trying to shed the same internalized feelings of difference and inadequacy he once had.

“He made it, and everybody else can make it,” said Deborah, Desmond’s mother. “It’s just not easy.”

‘Courage just to be’

Deborah Jackson remembers signing her son up for every sport, calling herself “that kind of mom.” Soccer, basketball, horseback riding, anything. But at a track and field meet in Fisherville, Va., she knew that her son had found what made him happy.

Deborah said there are a lot of costs and barriers that prevent those living with disabilities from being active, many of which she had to go through with Desmond. In the U.S., basic prosthetic legs cost about $10,000, but the more advanced ones, like the ones for running with cleated bottoms, cost more — and that’s not including the physical therapy and other medical expenses that come with raising an adaptive athlete.

She’d stay late at work scrolling through grant applications as her son needed better equipment. She’d learn what the registration process was like for each meet, asking questions whenever she could. Some days, she’d have to leave work early, or rely on her own parents to pick him up and feed him Chick-fil-A on the way to a practice, or phone a friend from the neighborhood to take her son home.

Today, just like her son, Deborah feels obligated to give back.

“After all of that, I feel like now I’m a culmination of so many pieces, that came about on this journey, that I can help another parent,” Deborah said. “Don’t beat yourself over the head. Let me tell you there’s an easy way.”

Deborah said there are groups that will provide blades and give money. She encourages parents to talk to their child’s athletic director. It’s all part of the process of smoothing the road for the adaptive athlete.

But she also said that the largest hurdles are ones that adaptive athletes have to clear for themselves, especially in middle school, when children are starting to develop self-esteem.

“Sometimes, we were so bogged down with the red tape and getting us through, and I knew it was starting to stress him out,” Deborah said. “We tried the best that we could to laugh, and that’s what I want parents and families to know about too … You may be scared. It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal even if you just step on a playground with a blade. It takes a lot of courage just to be.”

By high school, Jackson learned, at least in principle, that what others saw as a disability was merely a different physical attribute. And he also learned early that, by virtue of his talent and visibility, by standing up for himself, he was speaking up for others like him. In 2015, as a sophomore at Hillside High School, he told the News and Observer that he wanted to compete against able-bodied athletes.

“The athletes with all their limbs and regular functions, they call them ‘able-bodied,’” Daniels said. “But look at (Jackson): He’s alive. He’s well. He’s moving. He’s coherent. He’s articulate. He’s able-bodied. There’s nothing wrong with that kid.

“There’s no such thing as, ‘Oh, you’re not supposed to run because you’re missing a limb.’ There isn’t. They can say that, but every meet, when the time drops, what do they say then? ‘Oh, that’s amazing.’ Well, I’m not amazed, you know what I’m saying? I’m just proud of the fact that he’s able to keep himself focused in the way of negativity not coming in.”

U.S. Paralympian Desmond Jackson warms up before his practice on June 6, 2019 in Raleigh, NC. Bryan Cereijo

‘Inspire a whole new generation’

Ezra Frech has looked up to Jackson for as long as he can remember.

Frech, 13, and Jackson are both are above the knee amputees. They compete in the same events. Frech is constantly competing against Jackson’s old records and milestones — and he occasionally breaks them. They’ve each fallen due to broken blades and have experienced the ups and downs of any competitive athlete.

“I’m just thankful to have someone like him to look up to,” Frech said. “I know that I can call him whenever. I know that we have that relationship where I know that if I’m in need of anything, I can text him and we can figure it out.”

They both have dedicated, supportive parents, to which, as they understand, has contributed to their success. Frech’s father, Clayton, co-founded Angel City Sports, the foundation putting on the Angel City Games in two weeks. Ezra will compete in the games, too, with Jackson.

“It’s really amazing for us, as the Angel City Sports team, to get support from Paralympians like Desmond, who are willing to travel across the country, to help us grow our movement out here and inspire a whole new generation of athletes,” Clayton said.

And they both know that beating their own odds is only part of their purpose.

“For me, I feel like I was built to run through any circumstances,” Jackson said. “I feel like those events made me stronger, and I wouldn’t be the person I am today without them.

“So I look back, and there were some hard times. But it was worth it.”

Five years feels so long ago for Jackson now, when he shed tears over being alone on the track at the 2014 North Carolina Indoor State Championships. So much has happened since then: fears have waned, national recognition has arrived.

And the troubling thought — Is this all worth it? — is no longer a question at all.

But that 2014 meet is still a part of his story: With his father and mother around him, one race away from rounding out his history-making day, Jackson was ready to go home.

“So you don’t want to run?” Andre chimed in. The ninth grader gazed down and shook his head.

Andre waited a moment, then looked at Deborah: “He’s making history, right?”

Deborah said yes. Andre then lowered his voice and turned to his son: “You ran the first race and you cried,” he said resolutely. “You’re going to run the second race. And you’ll cry. And we’ll be done.”

That night, Jackson’s story aired on the evening news. By running, he’d upheld his obligations that day — to himself; to those that had invested in his success; to history; to those, able-bodied or otherwise, that he could inspire by sharing his own story.

A story about a kid who was born to run.

Alex is an intern at The News and Observer, covering sports and however it intersects with life in the Triangle. Before that, Alex graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill in May and was a three-year staffer on UNC’s student newspaper, The Daily Tar Heel.