Meet America's Most Inspiring Athlete: Paralympian Blake Leeper Talks Perseverance, High Fashion, & Olympic Dreams

Photography by John Francis Peters
Styling by Gaelle Paul

There are role models and then there are phenomena, and Blake Leeper has just crossed over the line. This year the 25-year-old athlete known as the American Blade Runner, who is approaching his second Paralympic Games, is breaking ground as a celebrity, from walking in runway shows to playing in the NBA Celebrity All-Star Game. “I have a unique opportunity,” he tells Yahoo Style, “to let the world know that regardless of your physical appearance, if you have the right mindset, you can overcome any challenge in your way.”

Leeper was born without legs below the knee, and he wore prosthetics from nine months of age. But as a child his parents saw to it that he played basketball and baseball. His father, who also acted as his coach, always made sure that he did the same workouts as the rest of the team. “My father gave me the best advice I’ve ever been given,” he says. “When I was 19, he told me, ‘Everybody else won’t push you as hard as I will, and they will take it easy on you. They see your disability and they might feel sorry for you. But you finish every workout, and you finish everything like everybody else is doing and do it better.’"

Once at the University of Tennessee, Leeper ran the qualifying race for the Paralympic race at age 20 and immediately went on to represent the US in the 2012 Games in London where he took home a silver in the 400 and a bronze in the 200. At 2013’s World Paralympic Championships, his four-by-one relay team took the gold and set a world record. “One thing I realized, the fact that I’m missing my legs is not my disability,” he says. “My disability is what people around me think I should be doing with no legs. The bar is set really low for you. I set the bar for myself. Only I truly know how far I can take it.”

At the London Games, Leeper was running alongside (and on the winning podium) with Oscar Pistorius, the South African blade runner whose inspiring tale took a dark after he was convicted of the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp. You can tell the situation weighs heavily on Leeper. Images of the two proud men and competitors palling around on the winners’ blocks now seems like a distant memory or faint dream. People tend to ask Leeper about him a lot, not that he’s so willing to discuss. “With the situation I’m in, and with the Olympics, it’s hard for me to even discuss things about that nature,” he says. “He did help inspire me and go out there and qualifying. He did break that role for me. Other than that, I can’t really mention much about the situation. Yeah, it’s kind of tough.”

Since the London Games, Leeper has put his newfound fame to good use, raising awareness and funds for people with disabilities. He’s also become a bit of a star himself. This past February, he was the first double-amputee to play in the NBA Celebrity All-Star game, where he got a chance to show off his impressive basketball skills to Kevin Hart, Common, Sarah Silverman, and Anthony Anderson. It was around this time that a chance meeting in an elevator with Naomi Campbell’s agents also led to him walking in the Fashion for Relief runway show. “It was the first time I wore Dsquared2, which was pretty awesome,” he says. “I love the outfits they put together. Honestly they’ve become one of my favorite designers.”

When it comes to outfitting himself on downtime, “I love to dress up,” he says. “It’s a first for a lot of people, seeing a disabled blade runner. I’ve got to make sure I put on a show for them. I want to look snazzy from head to toe. It’s all about, you look good, you feel good. You have a good spirit.” His personal tastes run to bright colors (“they just make me feel good about myself”) from Nike (his sponsor) to sweater vests and bow ties, what he calls “the Mr. Rogers look,” a holdover from church Sundays when he was a kid. “One of the fun things about going to church, even though you have to get up so early, was dressing up.”

He agrees with Paralympic athlete Aimee Mullins, who gave a TED talk about how she considers her prosthetics to have made her “super-abled.” “I love that,” he says. “One of the biggest issues in today’s society is that people try to fit into the crowd their whole life, until they get old and they realize that the best thing is to be unique.”

The promotional rounds done for the moment, Leeper’s next focus is on the 2016 Games. “It’s going to be amazing,” he says. “The first one, there was just so much going on that, regardless of how prepared I was, it was just like a vacation. This go-round, it’s going to be a business trip. My main mission will be world records and gold medals. I feel like I’m capable of that.”

Now he’s training in San Diego five days a week, seven hours a day, to a boom box that shuffles among Lil’ Wayne, Kirk Franklin, and Toby Keith. College is on hold; his original studies in medicine at the University of Tennessee have shifted to business and communications at UC-San Diego. Something else that’s off the immediate agenda is dating. “Maybe it’s just not my time right now,” he says. “That’s one thing I have to understand: It’s bigger than me. If it’s not meant for me to have a girlfriend because I’m so busy, that’s life. I’m okay with that.”

His agent, a filmmaker, is preserving his path to the Games in a documentary called “American Blade Runner: the Road to Rio.” With what we’re learning is characteristic confidence, he has his post-career sights set on Hollywood: “You have all kinds of major amputees out there in the world. There is so much you can do,” says Leeper. “So I want to be next on deck. I want to be the first disabled Hollywood celebrity. I want to be the first amputee movie star.”

Leeper describes his current journey as “going from a man with no legs to trying to be the fastest man in the world.”

“You have to understand: The day I was born, the doctor said I would never walk,” he says. “Now here I am doing all these amazing things. This is a visual testament to the world that it truly doesn’t matter where you come from. Reality is only what you make it. Do you believe that you’re a superstar? Then you are a superstar, and you manifest that into the world.”

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