Blake Leeper remembers meeting Oscar Pistorius for the first time at the IPC Athletics World Championships in New Zealand in January 2011.
"I saw him on the track, and he was like a superstar to me," the American runner recalled. "I saw him so many times, and I almost wanted to ask him for an autograph and pose for a picture. But I had to remind myself it was a race and he was the competition."
Like Pistorius, Leeper was born without fibulas and had his lower legs amputated as a child. Growing up in a small Tennessee town, though, Leeper felt like he was the only one with his condition. Then he heard about Pistorius in 2007 and realized, "There is somebody out there just like me." After the two met in New Zealand, Leeper said, Pistorius became a mentor to him. In time, the two grew close enough that Leeper said Pistorius would even occasionally prank call him, very effectively impersonating an old woman's voice.
Last summer, the runners stood alongside each other on the podium at the Paralympic Games in London. Pistorius won the gold in the 400 meter and Leeper the silver. "He had such a huge smile on his face after the race," Leeper said. "He gave me a hug. It was like, 'We did it, we did it together.' Standing on the podium beside him was so amazing. It gave me more motivation."
So Leeper could scarcely believe the news last week when he heard Pistorius had been arrested and charged with murdering his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. "I'm just in complete shock," he said, adding it is difficult to associate the charge with the man he knew. "My prayers go out to Oscar and the victim and the victim's family. My heart hurts over this. Seeing Oscar in that situation and knowing all the good things he has done in his life and all the people he inspired, I hope people don't forget the good things."
Ah, yes, the good things. Those are difficult to keep in mind after such a horrifying charge. Leeper worries about the negative effect Pistorius' arrest might have on the Paralympic movement that benefitted so much from the South African sprinter's success on the track.
"I'm afraid in a sense," Leeper said. "First, not many people are educated about the Paralympics in the first place. That was one of the good things about Oscar -- he brought light to us. Thanks to him, when I told my story, they knew who I was. He brought so many good things to the Paralympics. He was our ambassador. Now that this has happened, I worry people might turn their back on us. I just hope the world understands we're still working hard and still trying to inspire people and change lives."
Leeper, 23, is determined to keep the light on disabled athletes. He not only wants to be the face of the Paralympics, but he would like to be one of the faces of the able-bodied Olympics. His goal is to run the 400 for the United States at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
"Oscar has given me inspiration," he said. "If one man can do it, another man can do it."
That won't be easy. One reason Pistorius was able to compete in the 2012 Olympics was that he didn't face the same level of competition for a spot on his country's team as Leeper will. The 400 qualifying provisional standard for the Olympics is 46 seconds flat, the A standard is 45.3 and all three Americans who qualified for London ran it in less than 45 at the U.S. Olympic trials. Leeper's best time, meanwhile, is 50.14.
On the other hand, Leeper has been running competitively with carbon fiber blades only since 2009 (he was a point guard on his high school basketball team and a catcher/outfielder in baseball). His coach, 1984 gold medalist Joaquim Cruz, told him it takes at least six years to reach an elite level. He also is training full time at the U.S. Olympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif.
Leeper's story will be part of a documentary, "The Invincibles," that his representative, filmmaker Steven C. Barber, is working on. The movie is about the 2012 Paralympic Games and "Oscar and Blake and all the Paralympians you've never heard of," Barber said. "We spent 10 days at the Paralympics in London and it was amazing, and yet no one in America saw them."
Attention to Paralympians has increased in recent years. I hope the Pistorius murder case doesn't hamper that trend. These stories deserve to be told, and for us to listen when athletes such as Leeper tell them.
"It's my duty now to not only finish Oscar's legacy but to show people there are other Paralympians out there," Leeper said. "There are so many people like us.
"I don't want people to forget."