You probably wouldn’t describe a child born with a congenital leg abnormality as having been born to run, but it certainly seems true of Durham’s Desmond Jackson.
Jackson, who’ll soon turn 17 and start his senior year of high school this month, had his left leg amputated above the knee when he was barely a year old and he’s had a prosthetic device fitted in its place. For Jackson, that was just the first of many obstacles he’s overcome in his quest to compete in the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, which open Sept. 7.
How It All Started
“I got started in track and field when I was about eight years old, at an event for athletes with disabilities,” Jackson says. “That’s when I first discovered that track and field was something I could do and it was something I really liked. So I stuck with it.”
Jackson couldn’t have known that sticking with it would require not only changing others’ attitudes, but changing some of North Carolina’s regulations governing high school track and field competitions. But even if he’d known the challenges facing him, it wouldn’t have mattered. Jackson is a determined young man, both on the track and off.
“It was pretty hard to get the North Carolina High School Athletics Association to allow me to compete against able-bodied kids,” he says. “I’m the first amputee high school student to run in this state, so all of this was new to the association and it was new to me. Just being able to break that barrier and be the first amputee to run in North Carolina was a big victory, yet a challenging one. But there are other things I want to do.”
Opportunities and Challenges Ahead
“I would love to medal,” Jackson says. “But I know I’ll be the youngest athlete in my class and my entire running career has only been eight years, whereas some of the other athletes have been training for these Games for much longer than that.”
Still, Jackson sees the upside in his comparatively young age.
“There aren’t a lot of athletes my age who get to travel around the world and go to these big events,” Jackson reflects. “I’m very blessed, but I’ve worked hard to get to this point and I think the time is right for me to do really well in Rio.”
Jackson certainly has a grown-up outlook on life, for which he credits his mother Deborah and his personal coach Jamaal Daniels. He understands how important the Paralympic Games are and he wants to seize the opportunity to be noticed on a big stage.
“Through the Paralympic Games, I’d really like to get my name out there a little bit more and start laying the groundwork for a career in track and field because this is what I want to do,” Jackson says. “I want to be a full-time track athlete and to do that, you really have to know people and make connections. Beyond that, I want to make a statement about inclusion and ability. I want to use the Paralympics as a platform to show that people with challenges and disabilities can do great things, whether in the disability arena or not.”
Competing among elite athletes – and becoming one of them – is as much a mental task as a physical one. And Jackson is prepared for the psychological test as well.
“Coach Daniels has helped prepare me both physically and mentally,” he says. “It’s not easy to get into the right mental zone to compete. I’ve trained hard and I know my body is ready for Rio. Having the mental focus to bring together everything I’ve learned and practiced, that’s the key.”
Jackson brings a Live Fearless attitude to his athletic and personal pursuits, focusing on maintaining good health and a positive outlook on life.
“I just take challenges head-on,” Jackson says. “A lot of people, when they see challenges, they think about how hard it’ll be. But for me, it’s best to just go for it, give your best effort and be happy with whatever the outcome is.”
To keep track of Desmond Jackson’s best efforts, visit the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games website. The opening ceremony is on Sept. 7, with coverage of the Games provided by NBC Sports Network.