NOTE: This story is running in Sunday’s print edition of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. There is some bonus material at the end of the story.
ATHENS – Jarryd Wallace is not what you’d call a time waster. This is particularly useful considering he is in the business of accomplishing certain tasks quickly.
Wallace, you see, is a world-class runner. But his most impressive accomplishment to date has been more in the area of goal-setting.
The 22-year-old from Athens currently is in London preparing to run in the 2012 Paralympic Games. Wallace is one of 55 U.S. track athletes to qualify for the 11-day games, which begin Wednesday. He’ll compete in the 400-meter dash and as an alternate for the 4×100-meter relay team. If all goes well, Wallace will run Sept. 5, 7 and 8.
What makes that accomplishment even more amazing is the fact that his appearance alongside “the Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius and the greatest Paralympic athletes in the world comes just 26 months after having his lower right leg amputated. Then again, quick turnarounds are what Wallace is all about.
In fact, the same day that he left the Wisconsin office of Dr. William Turnipseed having learned he would lose his leg, Wallace went back to his hotel room and typed five words into a Google search window on his laptop — “track and field world records.”
“Right after that, I called my parents and said my name is going to be on this list,” Wallace said.
Shortly after his amputation, Wallace penned a letter to Cathy Sellers, the director of U.S. Paralympic Track and Field, and told her he intended to be one of the athletes she took to the 2012 London Games.
Wallace received a reply that, while encouraging, had a bit of a “good-luck-with-that-kid” tone. That, of course, fueled Wallace only more.
“It’s actually been really remarkable,” said Jeff Wallace, Jarryd’s father and head coach of Georgia’s women’s tennis team. “That letter was more to let her know, ‘hey, I’m out here, I’m a future potential athlete.’ But saying some of those things was more about his goal and writing down what he was hoping for. To fast-forward two years down the road to see him actually make the team this year has been unbelievable.”
It took just 17 months for that seemingly whimsical declaration to start resembling reality. Wallace accepted a surprise invitation to the 2011 ParaPan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, and won the gold medal in the 100-meter dash. He did it in 11.31 seconds, which at the time was the fastest in the world for 2011.
Wallace received the invitation to Mexico shortly after running his first major American race. He won a bronze medal in the 100 meters (11.94) and took fourth place in the 200 meters (24.01) in the U.S. Paralympic Nationals. That was 13 months after amputation.
“Running is so second nature to me,” Wallace said. “I think the fast process for me had to do with my decisions I made right from the start. And now I don’t remember what having a leg was like. … I might as well have been born this way.”
Wallace was born with two good legs. His mother, the former Sabina Horne, was an All-American in cross country at UGA. That’s where she met Jarryd’s father, Jeff, who played on Georgia’s men’s tennis team. So with that kind of pedigree, no one was surprised when Jarryd won state championships in the 800 and 1,600 meters as a junior at Oconee County High School.
But between the cross country and track seasons of his senior year, Wallace began experiencing intense pain in his right leg. He owed it at first to his arduous training regimen. But traditional remedies — including not running — didn’t provide relief. Soon Wallace found himself enlisting the help of doctors.
Eventually he was diagnosed with compartment syndrome, a serious nerve and muscle disease. Surgery is the only remedy, and Wallace underwent 10 of them over the next two-and-a-half years.
Wallace was unable to defend his state titles, but Georgia honored the track scholarship it had extended to him as a junior. However, the health of Wallace’s leg deteriorated while he was attending UGA, and so did his disposition.
It was at that point he entered into “a dark period.” Unable to run on the track, Wallace said he began to “run from God.”
“I got to a point where I was just tired of it,” Wallace said. “I’d get high and the pain would go away. I’d get drunk, and the pain would go away. But then I would sober up, and it was back. … I learned a lot about worldly desires and how they don’t last. Finally I got tired of running.”
At that point, Wallace said he decided to “take my hands off the wheel” and let God lead the way. Four months later, he found himself in consultation with Dr. Turnipseed, deciding whether to cut off his leg.
“It’s the most peace I’ve had in my life about a decision,” Wallace said.
There have been on-track obstacles for Wallace as well. Seven weeks before the U.S. Paralympic trials in Indianapolis he had to quit training for four weeks because of bursitis in his amputated leg. Not coincidentally, he did not perform well and finished fifth in both the 100- and 200-meter runs at the trials. Only the top three make the U.S. team.
But, again on a whim, Wallace decided to enter the 400-meter race. He finished fourth, but his time of 55.38 met the London Paralympics “‘A’ standard.” To make a long, complicated story short, his was the last name read by Sellers as she announced the team in Indianapolis. Wallace made the team in the 400 and as a relay alternate.
“It’s going to be fun, I’ll tell you what,” Wallace said shortly before leaving for London. “My goal is still going to be on that relay team.”
Of Pistorius, the most renown Paralympic athlete in the world against whom Wallace must compete in the 400, he said, “I may be naive in saying this, but my goal in that race is that he knows who Jarryd Wallace is. And then in 2016, if he’s still running, I’m coming after him.”
Who among us could doubt that will happen?
On running against “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius in the 400-meters:
“I’m excited. It’s like somebody getting to race Ussain Bolt in the 100. If you get a start next to him you know you’re doing something right. It’s an honor more than anything. I may be naïve in saying this, but I’m going to go after him. I’m going to let him know that I’m in the race. Do I think I’m going to beat him? I don’t know. He’s pretty much unbeatable. He’s never been beaten in the 400 in his life. I’ve barely been training a lot for the 400, so that’s a little out there. But in the race my goal is that he know’s who Jarryd Wallace is. And then in 2016, if he’s still running I’m coming after him.”
On his Ossur Cheetah “running foot,” his prosthetic racing leg:
“Oscar and I pretty much run on the same feet. I use the Ossur Cheetah. Oscar’s are made more specifically for him and they really do help him. I’m not sponsored by them. It’s amazing what they’re doing with these legs and the technology they have. There are so many shapes and categories and energy that they have available. They can get very specific on what you’re looking for. They’re very expensive. Elite advanced high-tech-made prosthetic running leg will run you about $15-18,000. “Running foot.” The Cheetah. That’s the name of the foot.”
On first time he ran on his “blades:”
“They told me you can decide to trust it or not to trust it. You’re a runner. You knw what to do, just run. I just up and went. They were amazed. It was shocking for them. The [prosthetics] rep was calling me ‘Boy Wonder.’”
On barely making the U.S. team:
“My goal was going to London in 2012. I was going after that. But my prayer was, ‘Lord, your will, your way. If you want me to be in London, I’ll go to London.’ I didn’t go in my fashion. If it’d had been my fashion, I’d have won the Paralympic trials, I would have won the 100, I would have qualified in the 200 and earned a spot in the 400. Instead, there was a chance I wasn’t even going to make the team. It was cool because the Lord did some cool things in my life during that 24-hour period when I just didn’t know.”
On emotions heading into Games:
“I am just so excited, not about London, not about competing, but about finding out what’s next. I’m going to be on the edge of my seat waiting for the next moment you show up.”