Blake Leeper emerged as the showstopper in the absence of main attraction LaShawn Merritt at the Bermuda Invitational Area Permit Meet at the National Stadium last night.
Merritt had rightly been given top billing as an Olympic Games gold medal-winner, but withdrew from the 400 metres because of a heel injury, leaving the meet without its star athlete.
Leeper, however, ensured the hundreds in attendance still had plenty to cheer with an inspiring win in the 400, as the only parathlete in the event, finishing in a meet record time of 45.21.
The American said the “amazing” support he received from the crowd helped propel him to a thrilling victory, edging compatriot Brycen Spratling by one hundredths of a second. Mike Berry made it a podium clean sweep for the United States, crossing the line in 46.11.
“It was a really good race and [Mike Berry] in lane eight, he pushed me, he set the tone, and I had to battle back,” Leeper, 28, said.
“I had to dip at the line and the crowd got into it and that’s what it’s all about. Having them cheering me on, pushing me down the line, was amazing and that’s what I love about running track. It rained a bit today but, of course, it stopped when we raced — that’s the way the universe works!”
Leeper, who earned fame for his track tussles with Oscar Pistorius, won silver and bronze at the 2012 London Paralympic Games, before taking four medals at the Paralympic World Championships in Lyon, France, in 2013. He missed the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro as he was serving a one-year suspension for testing positive for a recreational drugs, but earned redemption by breaking Pistorius’s T43 400 world record with a time of 45.25 at the US Track and Field Championships last summer.
Leeper now hopes to become only the second double-amputee runner, behind South African Pistorius, to compete at the Olympic Games.
“I’ve got my eye on doing both — the Paralympics and Olympics in Toyko in 2020 — and showing the world that regardless of the challenges you may face in your life, you can overcome those with the right mindset and determination,” the California-based athlete said.
“I’m the second Paralympic athlete to cross over but hopefully I’m not the last.
“There are a lot of guys coming up who are faster than me, they’re just a little younger. When they get to my age they will be doing some amazing things.”
Born in Tennessee with both legs missing below the knee, Leeper has worn prosthetics since he was nine months old.
“I had a congenital birth defect, I was born missing both of legs — fibular hemimelia — so this is something I’ve [always] dealt with,” he said.
“People ask me how it feels to be missing both of my legs — well, I never had legs to lose and this is life. These are the cards I was dealt and I’m just playing my best hand. That’s what it’s all about — changing perceptions and perspectives.”
Leeper said he was disappointed not to race against one of his idols in Merritt.
“We actually spoke to the kids [at the National Stadium] yesterday and I was like, ‘Oh man, LaShawn is here,’” Leeper said. “It’s unfortunate he didn’t get to run and had to pull out.
“The message and the speech he gave to the kids actually inspired me and I’m an adult. Just for him to come here and give them knowledge as an Olympic champion. He spoke to the kids for almost 40 minutes.”
Merritt, who presented medals for the school relay events, informed organisers of his decision to withdraw yesterday morning. He told the crowd last night that he hoped to return to Bermuda and compete next year.
“I have a heel injury and I didn’t want to make it worse,” the 31-year-old said. “I had an opportunity to talk to the youth yesterday and share my knowledge and let them know that anything is possible if you follow your dreams. It doesn’t matter where you are from. I’ll definitely be back next year to put on a show. I hope to see you all.”