Paralympic athlete Blake Leeper is shown Saturday at the V.O. Dobbins Sr. complex. Mayor Dennis Phillips proclaimed Saturday Blake Leeper Day in Kingsport. Photo by Rick Wagner.
KINGSPORT — When Blake Leeper was born without legs from the knees down because of a congenital birth defect, doctors told his parents he would never walk, much less run.
Leeper has proved those predictions wrong over and over again, walking with the help of prosthetic legs, playing baseball and basketball at Dobyns-Bennett High School. After graduating from D-B in 2007, Leeper attended the University of Tennessee.
After three and a half years into a five-year program there, he left for California, transferring to San Diego State University to continue his quest for a degree in applied physics.
But the transfer was to work toward his dream of competing in the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
Although he never competed in track and field at D-B, in London earlier this year he earned the silver medal in the 400-meter dash, setting a U.S. record of 50.14 seconds. He took home a bronze medal in the 200-meter competition with a time of 22.46 seconds. He has plans for a gold medal in 2016.
“I’m not supposed to be able to walk. I’m not supposed to be able to run for my country,” Leeper said.
“They told my father I would never play sports,” Leeper said. “They said I would be bound to a wheelchair my whole life.”
Before a crowd of supporters, friends and family in the athletic field of the V.O. Dobbins Sr. complex Saturday — which Mayor Dennis Phillips and the Board of Mayor and Aldermen proclaimed Blake Leeper Day in Kingsport — Leeper said his next dream is to compete in the regular 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
“I can do anything through Christ Jesus,” Leeper said. “Life is 10 percent what you deal with and 90 percent how you deal with it.”
Dr. Scott Fowler, president and chief executive officer of Holston Medical Group, was one of a group of people presenting Leeper awards and accolades Saturday.
“You’ve seen his smile. In fact, you’ve seen his winning smile,” Fowler said. “You know Blake Leeper is a winner.”
But Fowler said the runner also is a hero, as are his parents, Edith and Bill Leeper of Church Hill, for helping instill an extraordinary can-do attitude in Leeper, one of two sons. His mother works as a nurse at HMG, while his father works at Eastman Chemical Co.
“Blake is a prime example of what family life is all about,” Phillips said.
“He has got to be one of the most impressive young men I’ve met in my life,” Phillips said, adding with a grin, “You know, if I ever campaign again, I want you to go with me.”
After more presentations from representatives of state Rep. Tony Shipley, D-B and Help Our Potential Evolve (HOPE), Leeper spoke and then shook hands and had photographs made with a seemingly endless group of children, adults, relatives and other well-wishers.
“This is my baby. He will always be Blakey,” said his grandmother, Lillian Leeper, as the two mugged for a photograph between television cameras.
During his talk and later media interviews, he said community support from the greater Kingsport area is why he is proud to say he is from Kingsport, even though training six days a week in California means he has had to miss weddings, birthdays and hospital visits for friends and family.
“You guys are the reason I stand here proud to say I’m from Kingsport,” Leeper told the crowd.
His father said he, a Surgoinsville High School graduate, and his wife, who grew up in Greeneville, visit their son about twice a year in California plus meet him at track competitions when they can.
He also told reporters that during competitions he sometimes thinks back to the time he was laughed at, pointed at and made fun of because he chose to be an athlete despite his disability.
“Find an ability in your disability,” Leeper said. He also said after his athletic career is over, he would like to use his degree in helping design prosthetics.
His father said Blake will be outfitted with new and improved legs for his 2016 Olympic aspirations.
Asked for advice to youth and people in general, he urged people to be active and go for their dreams since if you shoot for the stars and don’t make it “you land in the clouds.”
“Get active. Seize the day,” Leeper said. “Show the world anything is possible.”