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Can amputee sprinter compete against able-bodied runners?

CU Boulder helping amputee sprinter achieve dreams
Posted at 10:25 PM, Sep 24, 2018
and last updated 2018-09-26 10:50:10-04

BOULDER, Colo. — Blake Leeper has never had legs, but he was always meant to travel fast.

From the moment he first saw amputee athletes competing in front of cheering crowds, he knew he wanted to do the same.

"I have dedicated my life these past few years to being the best in the world," he said. "Every day that I wake up, I tell myself I want to be the fastest man in the world — legs or no legs."

He began training as a sprinter in his early 20s, and quickly gained speed, earning a silver medal in the 400 meter in the 2012 Summer Paralympics Games in London. He came in second to famed South African "blade runner" Oscar Pistorius. 

That year, Pistorius made history by becoming the first paralympian allowed to compete against able-bodied athletes in the regular Olympics.

University of Colorado at Boulder biomechanics professor Alena Grabowski studies how prosthetics affect performance. She was part of the team that helped Pistorius get to the 2012 Olympics. Now, she's doing the same for Leeper.

Because of a rule change, Leeper will have to prove to the International Olympic Committee that his prosthetic running blades don't give him an advantage over other runners. Grabowski invited Leeper to her lab in Boulder to study aspects of his running, and try to prove he can run a fair race.

"We’re trying to capture all the different aspects of a 400-meter sprint," she said and described the variables she plans to measure. But not all aspects can be quantified.

"It’s an event that requires both aerobic energy and anaerobic energy," Grabowski said. "We can quantify with gold standard measures aerobic energy, but we can’t do it yet for anaerobic energy."

Leeper uses a specialized treadmill for his test, one that can reach speeds up to 30 miles per hour. Watching him run for just eight seconds on his blades is a sight to behold. This summer, Leeper broke a world record for an amputee sprinter, by running a 400 meter in 44.42 seconds.

But that incredible speed has some now questioning if his blades are giving him an edge.

"I’m doing something that nobody has ever seen before, and maybe didn't know was possible, so I can’t get offended when people ask," Leeper said.

If he is allowed to compete in the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, he'll be the first American double amputee to do so.

"If our research results show conclusively that he doesn’t have an advantage, if we can really challenge that rule, I think it would be fantastic to see him compete at the Olympic level," Grabowski said.

"You know, a lot of people are questioning the legs, but they’re not questioning my work ethic," Leeper said. "They’re not questioning my coaches that help me, they’re not questioning my teammates that push me, they’re not questioning all the things that I’ve sacrificed to get to this moment."

While Leeper waits for Grabowski's research, he'll continue trying to run as fast as his blades and body can carry him.

"So, when I go and hopefully represent my country, I'm going to go and give the best that I got," he said.