Paul Derr Track at N.C. State was nearly empty as a group of young athletes got ready to train under a boiling sun. Among them was Desmond Jackson of Hillside High School who was preparing for his first Paralympic team trials. If he makes the U.S. squad he will be one of the youngest competitors at the games.
“I feel good. I am running really well at a young age and those are the events that I think I was meant for so I am very comfortable running them,” Jackson said recently.
Jackson, 16, runs with a blade on his left leg. Originally from Baltimore and now a student in Durham, Jackson has competed since he was a child and started preparing for his first Paralympics about a year and a half ago.
Jackson’s leg was amputated above the knee because of the birth defect when he was less that a year old. His mother Deborah got him involved in sports as a young child – Desmond tried soccer, football, horseback riding.
Paralympic Team Trials for cycling, swimming and track and field will take place in Charlotte from June 30-July 2. In his T42 category (athletes with single above-knee amputations), Jackson will compete in the 100m, 200m and long jump.
“I am just thankful that I am able to compete,” Jackson said.
Jackson’s everyday routine starts at 6 a.m. when he gets up for school, and ends about 8 p.m. Jackson trains with able-bodied athletes five times a week, sometimes twice a day, for up to 2 1/2 hours a session.
“It’s pretty hard but I know I am doing it for my future,” Jackson said.
Jackson has won gold medals in International Wheelchair and Ambulatory Sports in the 100m, 200m and 400m and a bronze medal in discus. Last year he captured a bronze medal in the 100m at the Parapan American Games in Toronto and participated in the International Paralympic Committee’s world championship.
In high school regular-season events, Jackson competes with able-bodied athletes. He says it is difficult for him to start races as quickly as able-bodied runners and he has to be faster during the run.
Jackson’s coach, Jamaal Daniels of Cardinal Gibbons High School, has no doubts that Jackson will pass the trials and compete in the Paralympic Games in Rio in September.
Daniels says he expects Jackson “will do something amazing.”
“He just needs somebody to help him get in mind frame of how a grown man trains and thinks and stays consistent through his day. Desmond will definitely shock everyone that he runs against,” Daniels said.
He said Jackson’s youth and determination will be keys to success.
However, Daniels says age can also be a disadvantage.
“Desmond’s body was not an issue when we first started. It was him having a mind of a 16-year-old. The guys he is running against are my age and older,’’ said Daniels, who is 28.
Last Summer’s Paralympic Games medalists in the 100m T42 group were 28, 22 and 31 years old.
Track and field is about body control, Daniels said. And the main thing is to make the mind take over the body.
Jackson is the first Paralympic athlete Daniels has trained and he says he learned a lot from the experience.
“I had to break myself down and say ‘OK, everything I thought I knew isn’t good enough, I am not a good coach anymore,’ ” Daniels explained.
He researched athletes with amputations below the knee and above the knee run and how they differ.
“But then I had to tell myself ‘OK what if they really don’t have to run differently, what if I can teach him how to run like if he does have a knee?,’ ” the coach said.
They started working on Jackson’s stepping rhythm, which was irregular. Now it is more natural and that helped cut Jackson’s time for the 100m from 13.3 to 12.7.
Jackson says wants to someday be a professional athlete.
“It might actually get to happen this year if I perform well at Rio,” Jackson said.
He has another goal – to be as fast as able-bodied Olympic athletes.
“Maybe in the future it might be something that I could do to make the Olympics.”