Blake Leeper wakes up each day acknowledging the two demons he has no choice but to battle.
He has no legs.
And he’s an alcoholic.
“I’m dealing with these issues,” Leeper, the double-amputee turned United States Paralympic sprinter, told the Knoxville News Sentinel by phone last month. “That’s just part of the story. And I tell myself what I’m going to do about it.”
What Leeper, a Kingsport native born without his lower legs, does about it is strap on his prosthetics and goes to train under the supervision of Willie Gault, the former University of Tennessee wide receiver (1979-82) and 11-time All-American in track and field for the Volunteers.
Off the track, he goes to meetings to fight his alcoholism, calls his sponsor and clings to his support group.
“I do the work,” Leeper said, “that helps me live a full life.”
Now there’s more obstacles in his way. Somehow, these seem bigger than the two he fights daily.
Last year an international court dismissed Leeper’s appeal to run in the Rio Paralympic Games.
In 2015, Leeper tested positive for a metabolite of cocaine during the U.S. Paralympic championships. He was given a two-year suspension. It was eventually dropped to one year by the United States Anti-Doping Agency.
The International Paralympic Committee, however, ruled that Leeper had to serve the full two years and the case went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, where his appeal was denied.
“The International Paralympic Committee,” the court said, “has no obligation to recognize the settlement agreement.”
He was scheduled to leave for Rio last Year, on his 27th birthday.
“I am disappointed at the IPC’s response by ignoring a decision paving the way for me to compete in Rio,” Leeper said in a statement to the News Sentinel. “The Court of Sport gave the IPC every opportunity to accept the settlement agreement I signed with the United States Olympic Committee and which the USA continues to honor.
“It is clear to anyone who learns about my story that politics played a role however I cannot allow anyone the satisfaction of controlling my life in the manner that the IPC seeks to control Team USA and their right to settle with their athletes.
“It is obvious,” Leeper continued, “that the IPC seem more concerned with flexing their political muscle over recognizing the accomplishments of athletes or the decision of an athlete’s home governing body. The IPC seems to have little interest in seeing the best and fastest compete in Rio.”
Leeper, made headlines after his second-place run in the 400 meters in London in 2012, finishing behind only infamous Oscar Pistorius of South Africa, who is now serving six years for murder. He holds the world record in the 4×100-meter relay and owns three American sprint records (100, 200, 400).
Even Tennessee took notice and had Leeper sprint across Neyland Stadium carrying the University of Tennessee flag before a game against Alabama in 2014.
“I was on my way to becoming better and better,” Leeper said of his meteoric rise in the sport. “But a lot of people don’t realize I was drinking through all this.
“When you have issues and problems, you resort to alcohol to kind of numb that pain.”
It was alcohol that led Leeper here, to the sideline of the sport he lives for. He battled his addiction from his teenage years in Kingsport through his college years at the University of Tennessee.
For the longest time, it got the best of him.
“It was a situation that wasn’t dealt with,” Leeper said. “Through that drinking heavily, it led to me making bad decisions outside the track, and ingesting a nonperformance enhancing drug, which made me test positive.”
It was the same vicious cycle he was stuck in.
“It got to the point where if something good happened in my life, I would drink,” Leeper said. “If something bad happened, I would drink. If I was bored, guess what? I would drink. I kind of lost my identity through all of this.
“I would go practice, I would go train. Then right after practice, regardless of how hard I worked, I would go drink and wake up the next day, go practice and throw up. It was a never-ending cycle where I was really hurting myself.”
The suspension opened his eyes. He had finally hurt himself too much.
“I hit a rough patch,” he said. “I went through depression. I went through this phase where it’s hard to grasp that the one thing I love to do, that gave me meaning, was taken away from me.
“I hit a point to where I call it my rock bottom. I had to make a decision where this was going to make me or it was going to break me.”
It made a new him, branded as Patrick Blake Leeper.
Through those around him, Patrick Blake Leeper was able to turn the old Blake Leeper around, making the suspension “one of the greatest things that ever happened in my life.”
“I focused and used the year to kind of really dial in my training,” Leeper said. “To stop everything that was going on in my life, take a step back and rebuild that foundation.
“That’s really my story, my message.”
If he needed any added motivation, he found it by watching the IPC Athletics World Championships last year.
“The time I ran in 2015, I would’ve been a world champion,” Leeper said. “I have to swallow that pill. The time that I ran that year was the fastest time of the year. And I wasn’t able to go to world championships to claim that title because of my off-the-track issues and alcoholism.
“That was hard watching those videos, seeing those guys stand on the medal stand and knowing that I’m a whole half second, one second, two seconds faster than them. That hurt.”
Now sober, he says, and working daily with Gault, Leeper has dedicated himself to become the fastest man on the planet.
“Legs or no legs,” he said.
The work for Gault started with correcting Leeper’s bad habits on the track. Correcting a runner’s form, Gault explained, is a bit like trying to fix a flawed golf swing.
“You start playing golf the wrong way, then you try to correct it, it’s difficult to correct because you go back to your old ways,” said Gault, who won NCAA indoor titles in the 60-yard run and the 60-yard hurdles in 1983 before joining the NFL with the Chicago Bears (1983-87) and the Los Angeles Raiders (1988-93).
“That was some of the things I found a little difficult. Trying to correct some of the things he was doing wrong from a running standpoint.”
Gault too condemned the International Paralympic Committee for keeping Leeper out of Rio.
“The IPC denying Patrick a place on the Paralympic Team USA sends a bad message,” Gault said in a written statement. “This kid has done everything right to hold up his side of the settlement agreement with USADA and still doesn’t get the chance to compete.”
The work under Gault has already shown results.
Before the appeal was dismissed, Leeper qualified in June for the American team in the 100 meters at the U.S. Paralympic trials in Charlotte, finishing second even while losing one of his prosthetics near the finish line.
His suspension was up on June 21 of this year. Until now, it’s been another demon he had to battle.
“A lot of people go through trials and tribulations and just stop,” Leeper said. “That’s my message: You can’t stop.
“You have to keep moving, you have to keep fighting.”
By Grant Ramey
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