Being a new father and a paralympic athlete at the same time is challenging enough, but throw in an entire pandemic, a contentious legal battle, and a newfound acting career and you’ve got the past year of 31-year-old Blake Leeper’s life.
“I wake up at 5:30 and watch her sleep for 30 minutes just to make sure she’s not up and I can make coffee and tiptoe around,” Leeper laughed, talking about his 9-month-old daughter, Thea.
He begins his days by caring for her in the mornings, working out and making breakfast, spending some time with his family, and then heading out to the track. He then spends three or four hours with his coach and other olympians training and working out.
Off the track, he’s all smiles, firmly believing in the power of laughter. But on the track, he transforms into Blake Leeper, the Olympian.
“That’s the Blake that’s out here to break world records, the Blake that’s out here to be the fastest man in the world,” Leeper says. “I push my body, I push my mind to a point of exhaustion, to where when I’m done, I know that I gave it all I got.”
He says he’s only done when he barely has enough energy to crawl to the side and pop his blades off. Only then can he return to being “jokey-jokey, happy-happy.”
Leeper uses his “jokey-jokey” mentality in more than just running. Like many Los Angelinos, he’s been bitten by the acting bug. Leeper recently booked a role in an upcoming movie titled “Holiday Twist.” Production for the film begins in summer 2021, so he has to navigate it around training and the games themselves. The film is expected to be released in December for the holiday season.
Mr. Leeper may strive for box office gold, but medaling in Tokyo would be a testament to all his sacrifice, hard work and dedication in getting there. However, it’s not just for him.
“You’re doing it for your country. You’re bringing back a medal for everyone to feel, to touch, to see. . . for them to hold it and be close to it and feel like they were a part of the mission, that’s so important.”
He says he’ll be running in the Paralympic games for certain, but both of his applications to compete in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics have been rejected by World Athletics, and so have his appeals to both the Court of Arbitration for Sport and the Swiss Federal Tribunal, Switzerland’s version of a Supreme Court.
Due to a 2018 change in the Maximum Allowable Standing Height for athletes who use prostheses to run, Leeper’s blades were considered to give him an excessive height that World Athletics claimed gives him a competitive advantage.
Leeper laughed at the notion. “As an amputee, as a disabled athlete, I deal with so much. Infections inside my leg, bone bruises, the socket on the leg can come off at any time,” he continued to describe how the blades make him the last off the blocks when the gun goes off during a race and how they were designed to run straight, so he can’t go at his top speed during curves.
Leeper says he has been running at 6’2” and a half for almost 10 years, but that World Athletics wants him to go down significantly in height to 5’8” and a half. After 10 years of running at a particular height, he is perfectly calibrated to it. His muscle development, muscle memory, balance- it’s all contingent on the exact height he has learned to run at.
Some assume that Leeper’s fight to compete in the Olympic games means the Paralympics are not “good enough for him,” but he says that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
“No, that’s not it at all. I think the Paralympics is so good, that it needs more eyes on it. . . it’s unfortunate that it gets looked over, and there’s so many Paralympians that don’t get their roses while they’re still alive. . . I think that’s unfair. They’re just as good, they’re just as fast and their stories are 10 times better than your average Olympian.”
He says his efforts are in hopes of having the M.A.S.H rule re-examined and sparking a conversation on “all these amazing Paralympians,” many of whom he says have to work two jobs and train, and don’t get chosen for sponsorship deals as often.
And of course, training during quarantine was a whole other challenge. Leeper says he and other athletes would climb fences to get into tracks and then get kicked out. Then they started practicing in parking garages, but the concrete floor led to injuries. It was only just over a month ago that they were finally able to return to a proper track after a year.
Now, the future is increasingly uncertain with protests growing over the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
“I’m training like it’s going to happen. I’m going through that mental process as if I’m going to be in Tokyo, but honestly, I have no idea.”
Although he has trained so hard to compete in this year’s games, at the prospect of it all being canceled, Leeper’s indomitable positivity shines through.
“If it doesn’t happen this year, cool. We just keep training, keep grinding, get ready for next year,” he said in reference to the Paralympic World Championships in Kobe, Japan, and the world championships for World Athletics in Eugene, Oregon.
“I’m going to keep training, keep fighting, and make the best out of the situation.”
Blake Leeper will be competing at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Paralympic Games starting August 24, 2021.
Josh Eisenberg was a contributor to this story.