Jarryd Wallace remembers running the first mile. He was cruising along. Then came the second mile, and his leg started hurting a little bit. But soon, as he ran through the campus of the University of Georgia, he got lost in that runner’s mindset, enjoying a runner’s high.
It was at that point he almost forgot he was running with a prosthetic leg.
“At that point, it became less about the pain and more about the joy,” Wallace said. “It was less about me and more about the opportunity.”
Wallace, who said his mother often jokes that he was running before he could walk, began his running career as an able-bodied racer. Running competitively since he was 14, Wallace needed to run like most of us need to eat. He came by running honestly, as his mother is also a runner and would often scoot him around town in a jogging stroller. A native of Athens, Ga., where his dad is the women’s tennis coach at the University of Georgia, there was nothing more Wallace wanted than to be a runner at his hometown university.
But he developed compartment syndrome, when muscles, nerves and blood vessels are compressed in a small space in the arm or leg. Sometimes, surgery can remedy this, but in Wallace’s case, he had to have his right leg amputated. After about a three-year hiatus from the sport, he started running again, using a prosthesis. The University of Georgia honored his scholarship. Now 22, he is running with a new goal: to be the world’s fastest amputee. He has qualified to compete in the upcoming Paralympic Games in London, which begin Aug. 29.
Today in London, a lot of the world’s attention will be on another amputee runner, Oscar Pistorius of South Africa. He is the first amputee (a double amputee, no less) to qualify to compete in track and field at the Olympic Games, and there has been a lot of focus on whether his carbon fiber blades give him an edge on the track.
But for some understanding of what it is like to race as an amputee, Wallace is part of a small crop of runners who has competed at high levels both as an able-bodied competitor and as an amputee. And he can attest that running with a carbon fiber prosthesis is no easy task or something he just slips on and sprints off to the races.
If anything, Wallace has had to relearn the sport he grew up with.
“Running with a prosthetic leg made me more aware of my body,” Wallace said. “There were certain exercises I had to do differently.”
Wallace has had to completely rethink how he runs, how far he runs and how he prepares for a run. In high school, he was a distance runner with a focus on the 800 meters. He was a state champion at that distance, and he also ran high school cross-country. When he started his career running as an amputee, he and his coach thought his experience as a distance runner would fit best with the 400m-- and that race has worked well --- but he has emerged as quite the sprinter, putting up fast times in the 100 and 200m as well. In fact, he won the gold medal in the 2011 Parapan American Games in the 100m, beating the likes of U.S. teammate Blake Leeper. Wallace qualified to compete in the 400m and the relay in London.
“Right now, I love the 100,” Wallace said, “which is kind of funny because I sort of planned for the 400 to be my focus."
He turned to one of his former Georgia teammates, Ross Ridgewell, a native Australian, to be his coach. Fortunately for Wallace, Ridgewell had spent plenty of his time in college studying up on physiology and exercise science and just naturally has a curiosity about how the body works. So when Wallace approached Ridgewell about coaching him, Ridgewell jumped at the opportunity.
Ridgewell started hitting the books and websites, learning as much as possible about things such as lactic acid build-up and blood flow changes and how those things are different for an amputee.
“It’s been cool to see how we can adapt and change his body,” Ridgewell said.
There has been a lot of trial and error along the way. First, Ridgewell tried a few variants of cross training: a bike, the elliptical and swimming. He thought the bike would be best, but as it turns out the pool was.
“Being on the bike was really difficult for him,” Ridgewell said. “There was no ankle flexion. But the pool was great. It’s not so much swimming laps, but it’s more running in deep water with no flotation devices.”
In addition, Wallace has traveled to Atlanta once a week lately to work with Terrence Trammell, a two-time Olympic silver medalist hurdler, for sprint workouts.
The biggest challenge, perhaps, is learning how to balance his energy from both legs. For double amputees, the one advantage is that a runner can be symmetrical. Single amputees have to learn about balance and how to manage fatigue in both legs.
So far, Wallace and Ridgewell have made a fast rise up the learning curve in a very short time. He began to train for the Paralympic Games in January 2011 and six months later, he was third at the national championships.
“That’s pretty abnormal,” Ridgewell said.
Then again, this is Wallace we’re talking about.
Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.