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Meet USA’s Fastest Blind Athlete

Lex Gillette talks about losing his sight and breaking world records


lex gillette running

Photo by Jay Reilly

Lex Gillette on the right

Originally from North Carolina, Lex Gillette, 26, moved to San Diego to train in January 2008. Gillette was a silver medalist in the 2004 and 2008 games (men’s long jump). This year, he’ll compete in the Paralympic Games in London, beginning on August 29. He is known as the fastest, completely blind American athlete.

You lost your sight when you were eight years old. How fast did your vision fade, and what was that like?

[Going blind] probably took about a year. The lights seemed misty, like a fog or something. It kinda looked like water when it gets grayish—it had a dirty look. I told my mom. I had been outside, so she thought I had gotten dirt in my eyes. We didn’t know it yet but my retinas had detached from both of my eyes.

When they figured out what was going on with my eyes, they tried to operate. I could see pretty well for a few weeks or so, then the same problem. That pattern happened all of 1992. I had ten operations.

It was painful. I was used to playing in my neighborhood, playing with video games. I didn’t think I’d be able to do anything any more. I had to answer a lot of questions from my friends. We’d played together every day. It was hard. To have the experience to see, and then to have it evaporate. It’s the most painful thing.

How has being blind affected your routine?

I stay up really late. The nutritionist tells me to go to bed early. But I’m not triggered by the sun going down. I just go to bed when I’m tired. When we go to other countries, like Beijing, which is 12 hours ahead, I would fall asleep and wake up at 2, 3:00 and be up for the longest period of time. It’s hard for me to get adjusted.

You run alongside a guide or coach. How does that work when you’re in training?

I know I’m running straight when he doesn’t yell “off.” In practice, my coach is so good at explaining, I can imagine in my mind what’s going on. What he says is science-driven, really technical. The other athletes training in my event are Olympic hopefuls [vs. paralympic] and there’s always someone who can offer an explanation if I’m not understanding.

What’s it like entering the stadium and being at the Opening Ceremony?

It just gives you chills up your body. We went through the tunnel, and everything opens up, and you can hear so many voices, muffled conversations, people cheering, so many different sounds. You have those thoughts going through your mind, How am I going to start the competition? But you’re representing your country to the fullest—it’s an adrenaline rush. The place is rocking.

Tell us mortals what it feels like to be a world-record holder.

I was shocked because it was 8 a.m. and I am by far the worst morning person ever. I just didn’t feel in that mood. I went through the motions. It didn’t feel like a world record jump. I’ll enjoy it for a little while, and then, what’s next? There’s always something I can improve upon. I’m trying to break it again.

Do you find San Diego to be a friendly city for the blind?

It’s a big city. San Diego reminds me of Raleigh—kinda chill, laid-back. Even though it’s a little bit faster, it still has a chill feel. I feel pretty comfortable, like I’m at home. And being able to figure out the [alphabetical] streets… we go downtown pretty frequently when we’re not training.

I’ve been on the trolley a couple times. I had a hard time hearing the announcements for the stops. I knew I had a pretty decent amount of time [until I had to get off], 20 minutes, but it was so difficult to hear, I wasn’t sure if the voice was automatic or if it was a conductor saying the spots. I was so worried that I was going to miss my stop, I kept asking, “What stop is this, what stop is this,” thinking, A few more stops down and you’re going to be in Mexico! I’ve ridden a bus, too. It helps when streets are alphabetical. As long as I can get a good description, I’m a pretty adventurous person. I will figure it out.

I’m guessing you’ve met some interesting people in your career. Who is the coolest person you have ever met?

Terrell Owens, on a flight. Sunday is football day. I like the radio, but the TV commentators are all right.

You blog about training for London, your NFL predictions, ESPN interviews, and being blind. And you’re a singer-songwriter (loved your cover of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep”).

I started the blog in May 2011. I have a Mac. I type with a keyboard that isn’t Braille—there’s a bump on F and J. I also use a software called Voiceover. For my music, I go into [the Apple program] Garage Band, and convert my song to an MP3, and that’s how I put it up on the blog. Yamaha makes the most blind-friendly keyboard.

Music is a universal language—the whole blind factor. People sometimes don’t listen to what I have to say, but people listen to music, so I feel like certain things I have to say, I can say through music, and people listen. It’s the biggest thing that helps me out.

Want more Team USA? Lex Gillette and 11 other local Olympians reveal little-known facts about their sport.

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