Wesley Williams placed his arms on the shoulders of Lex Gillette, a blind long jumper, to line him up on the runway, then guided him down the track to let him feel the landing pit. Gillette made a couple of small hops into the sand.
Williams then steered Gillette back to the start of the runway and put him as far to the left in the lane as possible, because Gillette usually veers right when he runs. After positioning him, Williams stood down the runway, in the middle of the lane, at the lip of the sand pit. He raised his arms in the air and, with the steady precision of a drummer, began to clap.
“Lai! Lai! Lai! Lai! Lai! Lai!” Williams shouted, using the Chinese word for “come” because he finds that it carries better in the din of stadium noise at competitions.
Relying heavily on muscle memory, Gillette sprinted down the track. He knew to jump on his 16th step, after more than 108 feet. He listened to Williams’s call as confirmation that he was running straight. As he approached the sand, Williams stepped to the side.
When Gillette, 27, sprints down the runway, he cannot see where he is going. He cannot see the line he is supposed to jump from, and as he soars through the air, he cannot tell when or where he is going to land.
Gillette, with the help of Williams, his guide, holds the world record for his classification of the Paralympics, at 6.73 meters, or a little more than 22 feet.
“The first time I saw him jump,” his mother, Verdina Gillette-Simms, said, “I thought, ‘Oh, my God.’ You have to develop trust. You’re putting your son’s life in someone else’s hands.”
The United States has a robust Paralympic program and will be expected to finish near the top of the medal standings at this summer’s Games in London, which begin two weeks after the Olympics.
The United States will send 54 Paralympians, second only to China, and five of the American athletes are visually impaired.
But of the 58,000 children who are visually impaired in the United States, 70 percent are not afforded the opportunity to participate in meaningful physical activity, according to the United States Association of Blind Athletes.
Many blind athletes have lost opportunities because of cuts to physical education programs, and a stigma still exists, coaches and athletes said, that leaves parents concerned that sports put blind children in harm’s way.
“It’s not easy,” Gillette said, pedaling on a stationary bike next to the track here one morning. “It’s taken years and years of work.”
Blind since he was 8, Gillette has been training here with a focus on winning a gold medal this summer. He won silver in Athens in 2004 and in Beijing in 2008. He set the Paralympic record this spring at a meet in Arizona.
Gillette grew up in Raleigh, N.C., raised primarily by his mother, who has been legally blind since she was 18 because of glaucoma. Gillette was born healthy and with the ability to see.
At 3, doctors discovered that Gillette had a cataract, a cloudy film, in his left eye. But in recovery from treating the cataract, he sustained a retinal detachment and completely lost the vision in his left eye.
The partial blindness did not stop Gillette. “He would jump off everything there was,” Gillette-Simms said.
His vision began deteriorating again when he was 8, and over the course of a year, he had 10 operations. While her son was wheeled into the operating room for one procedure, Gillette-Simms said she heard the thumping of his fists and feet and a piercing scream.
“I think that’s the moment I realized he wasn’t going to see again,” she said.
Gillette picked up Braille quickly but resisted using a cane, even when taking the garbage out, preferring to listen for the sounds of cars coming down the street. He stayed active, playing basketball and even taking long bike rides with his mother.
“I always had him involved in things,” Gillette-Simms said. “I wanted him to be a well-rounded individual.”
He said his memory of what a track looked like was fuzzy. “It’s kind of like a dream that never fades away,” he said.
Gillette ran by himself, around his neighborhood where he remembered the curves, bends and bumps of the sidewalks. The apartment complex they lived in had several tiered ledges and curbs, ideal for jumping. Gillette-Simms let him leap, and sometimes fall, leaving him with scrapes and bruises.
“I rubbed it, kissed it, and put him right back up there,” she said.
At his public high school, Gillette was paired with Brian Whitmer, a visual impairment specialist. Whitmer took Gillette to a sports program in Michigan for visually impaired students toward the end of his sophomore year. One of the activities at the camp was long jumping. At first, Gillette was resistant.
“I said, ‘You have to at least try,’ ” Whitmer said. Gillette soared. “I freaked out,” Whitmer said.
After the camp, Gillette decided he wanted to join his high school track and field team his junior year, but he knew he lagged his sighted peers. That summer, Whitmer and Gillette met at least three times a week for training sessions on the high school track as Whitmer — who is also legally blind but can make out large shapes — tried to teach Gillette how to jump.
Whitmer called the process “really frustrating.”
There were myriad contusions and twisted ankles. Gillette ran crookedly, did not tuck his knees up high enough or failed to time his leaps properly. But he relished it.
“I felt like I was flying,” he said.
By his senior year, he was a co-captain of his track and field team, and after graduation, he attended East Carolina University. He continued to work out on his own and compete in Paralympic competitions, including the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, where he was paired with Jerome Avery, a guide runner.
In Paralympic sprinting events, a guide runner runs alongside an athlete, sometimes with a tether, while verbalizing directions. For the long jump, the guide must be stationary and use verbal cues to guide the athlete.
“It’s a huge trust issue,” Gillette said. “Nobody wants to fall or hit the pit.”
After graduating from college, Gillette moved here in January 2008 to train at the Olympic training facility. He was paired with Williams, 29, a full-time guide runner who had been a college sprinter at California State University at Northridge.
For the last four years, the two have shared a suite in the housing facility, trained with each other six days a week and eaten most of their meals together. They said they consider themselves brothers. They often communicate, much to each other’s bafflement, in nonverbal cues, Williams guiding Gillette through drills with subtle nudges.
Gillette hurled a medicine ball back and forth on the grass next to the track, ruminating on what it would take to win gold in London, and then what lies beyond. What about beating his world record? And might he be able to compete in the Olympics? His best jump is more than four feet short of the Olympic qualifying standard.
“It’s getting to a point where you can commit to just jumping,” he said. “And being free and not having any limitations.”