Raleigh’s Lex Gillette lost his sight but found his vision

Lex Gillette has not let his visual impairment deter him from a successful athletic career. He is a blind Paralympian who has won numerous championships in long jump. He is seen here at Athens Drive in 2003.
Lex Gillette has not let his visual impairment deter him from a successful athletic career. He is a blind Paralympian who has won numerous championships in long jump. He is seen here at Athens Drive in 2003. The News and Observer File Photo

Lex Gillette can picture apple red or Carolina blue. He knows the shape of a square and remembers how his old neighborhood in Raleigh looked.

These colors, shapes and sites were part of the world he could see before he lost his vision when he was 8.

Gillette, now 31, said the blindness was gradual.

“I was at home in the bathroom one night, and I started to notice I was losing my sight,” he said. “That was the first day that started a long journey of being in and out of the hospital. The entire time, I had 10 operations. At one point, the doctor just said they couldn’t do anything to help my sight.

“I woke up one day and couldn’t make out anything in my room or in the neighborhood, no family or anything.”

Gillette lost his sight to retina detachments in both eyes. He said he had to relearn the world he once knew, including tasks such as cooking and cleaning. His family, especially his mother, was influential in the adjustment.

By the time Gillette got to high school at Athens Drive in Raleigh, he had learned independence and found sports. When he joined the track team, he used his life motto – “There’s no need for sight when you have a vision” – to elevate him into a professional athletic career, where he became a world champion long jumper.

He holds the world record in the men’s F11 – the class for visually impaired Paralympians – long jump and is a 16-time national champion.

He said one of his high school teachers introduced him to track and field.

“Initially, it was something that I didn’t want to do,” said Gillette, who graduated from Athens Drive High in 2003 before attending East Carolina University. “It was scary; I really didn’t know my surroundings.”

Gillette said his teacher helped him get started, clapping to give him the signal to run. Once Gillette started, he had to time his strides before the jump.

“My responsibility was to remember how many strides I would need to take, run as straight as possible and just give my best effort,” he said. “Once he told me about the Paralympics, that became my goal and that became my dream. That’s what I wanted to do.”

Becoming independent

Gillette earned silver at the Parlympic Games in 2004, 2008 and 2012. He won back-to-back gold medals at the U.S. Paralympic Track & Field National Championships in 2014 and 2015.

He said he will begin training for Rio’s 2016 Summer Paralympic Games on Dec. 1 in San Diego; he currently resides in California.

Ron Wheeler was the track coach at Athens Drive from 1999 to 2012. He remembers when Gillette was first getting started with his promising athletic career.

He said Gillette’s dedication to the sport even influenced some of the other athletes on the team.

“This is a visually impaired kid jumping 18 or 19 feet back in the day,” Wheeler said. “He really started to blossom right after he graduated. High school was a stepping stone for him. It’s no big surprise what he’s been doing. That’s his determination and his willingness to succeed in life.”

Gillette said his mother played a big role in his success. He said she was a source of encouragement after he lost his sight.

“Ironically, my mom would always say, ‘I know you can’t see anything, but you need to make sure when you step outside you look nice,’ ” said Gillette, who recently teamed with Tide Pods to make washing laundry a simpler task. “She’s been really influential in my life, and she taught me so many different things. When I lost my sight, it wasn’t about sports at the time. I was trying to become a young adult and be able to go out and be independent. She was more concerned with making sure I could cook and clean and do chores around the house.

“I had to take care of these things before I could compete in sports.”

Setting records

Gillette competed in the 2015 Parapan Am Games in August in Toronto, where his 6.73-meter mark — or 22.08 feet — set a new Parapan record, according to Gillette is the only totally blind athlete to reach the 22-foot barrier in the long jump.

Everywhere he goes, to the various cities and countries his athletic career has taken him, he carries his mantra.

“It wasn’t the sight that was a determining factor in whether I would have success. It was having a vision, having those dreams, goals and aspirations,” Gillette said. “I was confused (when I lost my sight). I had questions. Why me? I felt lost because I couldn’t see anything. One thing that brought me back … that showed me that I could be successful was knowing that everything that has ever been created or will be created, it started from a vision or dream.

“You see it in your mind first.”

For the countless jumps Gillette has taken, he sees it in his mind first. He pictures the large crowd, the 16 strides he needs to cover 110 feet.

He pictures the pit of sand, a coach near the line giving him the audible commands.

“When I leave the ground and fly through the air, it’s just a certain feeling,” Gillette said. “It’s a sort of fulfilling thing to know that I can’t see anything, but I just did this. Just being out there competing and representing the United States is everything.”

Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan