Blind long jumper from Raleigh aims for Paralympic gold in Tokyo

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Athletes across the country are preparing for the Olympic and Paralympic trials in a few months in hopes of earning their tickets to Tokyo this summer.

One of those athletes, 36-year-old Lex Gillette, grew up in Raleigh and starred at Athens Drive High School. Now, he's showing the world the difference between sight and vision.

At the age of 8, Gillette lost his vision.

"Just imagine yourself coming home from school one day, second grade," Gillette said. "Going through your normal routine and that night as I was getting ready for bed I just noticed things were looking blurred and looking faint."

The next day, Gillette went to the doctor and discovered he was having retinal detachments. After 10 surgeries that year the doctors said there was nothing else they could do. At 8 years of age, Gillette was told he would spend the rest of his life blind.

"Once it actually happens, that's when reality hits, and you're literally thrown into this world where you're not able to see your neighborhood, mom or friends," he said. "That's when it's trying to figure out how to transition successfully."

Lex said there were a few people who helped with that transition including his mom and his former teacher Brian Whitmer, who is visually impaired and introduced him to long jump.

"We started out on the football field where it was wide open space, nothing he could run into," Whitmer said. "As he got comfortable running toward me, we moved onto the six-lane track. As he felt more comfortable running toward me, we moved toward the runway which is only a meter wide."

"The first thought was, 'This dude has lost his mind,'" Gillette said. "It was a different experience. You can imagine yourself running down a track, you can't see anything and you're running toward the sound of someone's voice and them clapping. They're giving you that audible reference, and from there, they're asking you to jump. When they ask you to do this for the first time, it's challenging, frightening; there are a lot of things that go on in your (mind)."

Whitmer said the hardest part was getting Lex to run straight - but after working together all summer long, Gillette was ready to compete with the Athens Drive High School track and field team. He finished the season with his longest jump of 19-feet-4-inches. Since graduating, he's won four Paralympic medals and three world champion titles. He holds the record for completely blind long jumpers with a distance of 22-feet-1 inch.

"I think number one, he's just showing other people that, 'Hey listen! Just because you have a disability doesn't mean you can't do things,'" Whitmer said. "The other thing he's showing people is you have to be willing to ask for help. I helped one person reach their goal but now I look at how many tens of thousands Lex has inspired through what he's done, and I think that's the coolest part."

When he's not on the track, Gillette continues to inspire those around him as a motivational speaker. He wrote a book called Fly!

"It's not the sight that determines our success, it's our ability to see things before they exist and be able to see beyond the horizon," said Gillette. "Even beyond that it's not only seeing the vision but doing everything in your power to bring it into fruition."

Gillette is in California training for the Paralympic trials in June. He hopes to win gold this summer in Tokyo.
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