When Blake Leeper was a little boy playing T-ball, all he wanted to do was hit a home run for his mom and dad.
Then one of his prosthetic legs fell off during a game.
“I can remember as my leg fell off and the inning was over and I got tagged out, I was upset with myself,” recalls Leeper, 29, who was born without legs due to a congenital condition. “I was upset with the world. I was upset with the situation. I would ask, ‘Why me? Why do I have to go through this? Why am I the only with missing legs?’”
That angry boy with no legs can now run faster than most people in the world.
Using carbon fiber blades to compete in races, Leeper has broken American and world records. And in June, he became the world’s fastest blade runner, beating a 400-meter sprint record once held by Oscar Pistorius.
Now he wants to run for his country in the 2020 Olympics.
“All the things I’ve been through in my life, I’m a true believer that everything, everything, whether it's something big, something small, everything that we go through in our lives is for a reason, and is preparing us for that next mission,” Leeper said.
For the Tennessee-born runner, the road to the Tokyo Olympics goes through Boulder. In August, Leeper, who now resides outside San Diego, visited the University of Colorado to undergo strenuous sprint endurance testing inside the school’s Applied Biomechanics Laboratory.
Leeper and other athletes who use prosthetics to perform need to undergo these tests to prove something to the International Association of Athletics Federations, before they can qualify for the Olympics.
“They have to prove that their prostheses don’t give them an advantage compared to non-amputees,” said CU’s Applied Biomechanics Laboratory director Alena Grabowski, who is one of just a handful of researchers who study the physics of lower limb prostheses.
“(Leeper) uses carbon fiber prostheses, and they’re like springs, so they store and return energy,” Grabowski said. “It’s speculated that because they are storing and returning energy, but not using muscular force, that they might have the ability to allow him to not fatigue in the same way as non-amputees.”
Grabowski’s previous research shows that’s not the case, and that runners like Leeper may actually be at a disadvantage because prosthetics don’t allow them to exert as much force off the ground.
Grabowski has studied several other amputee athletes, including Pistorius. The original “Blade Runner” was a paralympic champion, but was initially banned from 2012 Olympic competition after a German study determined his blades gave him an unfair advantage over non-amputee runners. Grabowski said that study was flawed. Her analysis helped Pistorius win his appeal that paved his way to become the first runner without biological legs to compete in the Olympics.
Pistorius’ life took an unexpected turn after he was sent to prison for murdering his wife. But before that, he inspired other amputee sprinters like Leeper.
“People may think blades give us an unfair advantage because people are foreign to prosthetic blades,” Leeper said. “I was born without legs. Just the things I have to go through just to get to the track. We’re talking about sores, were talking about infections, sometimes my stumps swell up to where I can't even put on my legs.”
During his recent visit to CU, Leeper sprints as fast as he can, clocking speeds of nearly 30 miles per hour on a specialized treadmill as his blades slap on the deck with each stride. After each grueling test, he practically collapses to the ground, heaving and reaching for the nearest wastebasket.
This is just one of many life challenges Leeper has had to overcome. He struggled with alcoholism and was once suspended from paralympic competitions after testing positive for cocaine. Now he’s on the recovery path, trying to make history.
Those helping Grabowski study Leeper say his inspirational story is similar to other amputee athletes they’ve worked with.
“Some of them have had limb loss their whole life; they were born with it,” said Kara Ashcraft, a PHD student in Grabowski’s lab. “Others have had really terrible things happen to them. And they’re the most enthusiastic, kind people I have ever met.”
Even when he was rolling on the floor, gasping for air, Leeper was often smiling, wondering aloud whether to listen to Lil Wayne or Drake for his next endurance test.
“Oh he's great,” said graduate student Vanni Sundaram. “He's such a fun guy. Like, he comes in and he’s just like, ‘Let’s go. Who’s playing music? Who’s got a dongle so I can play music?”
Smiling helps Leeper endure the pain.
“You know, it does hurt,” he said. “And I am throwing up almost after every run. But it's what has to be done. And it’s a level of acceptance, saying this is who I am and this is what I have to do to get where I need to go. So let’s put a smile on our faces and get it done.”