Back in 2004, a blind teenager from North Carolina sprinted down the 130-foot runway inside the Athens Olympic stadium in Greece, the birthplace of the ancient Olympic games and where the first modern games was hosted in 1896.
The magnitude of the moment didn’t overcome the 19-year-old who was competing in his very first Paralympics.
On his 16th step, after sprinting down the red track, Lex Gillette launched himself into the Athens air in front of 70,000 people before landing in the light brown sand, and into American Paralympic history.
His silver medal, the first by an American man and second by a U.S. athlete in the completely blind long jump category since the sport was introduced in the 1976 Toronto Paralympics, was a crowning moment for a young man who has never let his disability define him.
Gillette was raised in Raleigh by his mother, who herself has been legally blind since she was 18, according to a New York Times interview from 2012. Her son, however, was born without any problems with his sight. But when he was three years old doctors found a cataract and attempted to treat him. While in recovery, he sustained a retinal detachment and lost the vision in his left eye. By the time he was 8, doctors performed 10 operations to save the vision in his right eye.
His mother, Verdina Gillette-Simms, remembers hearing her son scream as he was wheeled into an operating room. “I think that’s the moment I realized he wasn’t going to see again,” she said in the interview.
He still remembers what a track looks like but said it was fuzzy. “It’s kind of like a dream that never fades away,” he said.
In those early years of being blind, Gillette learned to ride a bike and played other sports, but always refused the use of a cane. He eventually joined his high school track and field team. He trained with a partially sighted trainer three times a week and slowly improved before becoming the co-captain of the team. He would later attend East Carolina University and compete in Paralympic competitions around the country and world.
Online videos show how dangerous the sport can be. Blind long jumpers aren’t allowed to use running guides like in other Paralympic track events. A guide will position them on the runway then the athlete will rely on a vocal guide, usually someone standing right at the line where the athlete jumps. Gillette’s guide will shout “fly fly fly fly” repeatedly and faster as he nears his 16th step, before moving out of the way at the last moment.
But on occasion, athletes will veer too much to the right or left, meaning they sometimes miss the sand completely.
Outside of the long jump, Gillette is a motivational speaker. His motto, which has carried him through the grief and adversity of becoming blind, is a cornerstone of his speeches.
“No need for sight when you have a vision.”
That vision took Gillette to the next three Paralympics after Athens. Each time, he took home a silver medal. In the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, he held the lead going into the final jump, but was pipped to the gold by a home favorite. Despite finishing second four times, Gillette is a three-time world champion and holds the record for the blind long jump.
In a little over a month, Gillette, who is now 36 and close to the retirement age for most track athletes, will sprint down the 130-foot track in Tokyo’s Olympic stadium in the hope that he will finally stand tallest on the podium and hear the U.S. national anthem played in his honor.