'In Love with the Sport': Jeremy Campbell on Breaking Boundaries

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Jeremy Campbell's medal case had better be big. This year, the 21-year-old Texan brought home from his first Paralympic Games two gold medals in the T44 class (transtibial amputation), including a world record in the pentathlon that included personal records in four of its five events. Along with his gold-winning performance in the discus throw and pentathlon, he also set a personal record in shot put and participated in the long jump. His biggest rival in the pentathlon, Urs Kolly, had been taking gold home to Germany for the past 16 years, and Campbell plans on a career equally long-lived. He told The O&P EDGE about taking the gold from Kolly, staying cool under fire, and his verdict on Paralympians taking on the Olympics.

The O&P EDGE: Congratulations on your incredible performances in Beijing. This was your first Paralympics. In pentathlon, you were competing against Urs Kolly, who has taken the pentathlon gold at every Summer Paralympics from 1992 to 2004. Before you got there, before you were actually in the competition, what did you think your chances were of taking the gold from him?

Campbell: I thought that I had a pretty good chance if I showed up and just competed because things were going really well prior to arriving. In our Paralympics trials in Arizona, I barely missed his world record by 16 points. It was palpable. From the time I was at the trials until I went to the Games, I really just went out and focused on the things that I knew would give me those 16 points. And I got those 16 points.

The O&P EDGE: You broke your personal record in the shot put, you took gold in the discus, and you took a world-record gold in the pentathlon. Those were incredibly high-stakes contests for you. How did you stay focused and calm?

Campbell: That was really hard, especially in the pentathlon. Before the last event came, the 400m sprint, I pretty much knew that I had it wrapped up. The fourth event was the discus, and I knew that I had to get some good throws in to seal the deal. After I got that last throw in, I kind of knew and was already celebrating inside. Before the 400, I had to keep telling myself, "it's not over; it's not over." I really had to make sure that I finished that last event and crossed the finish line, and that nothing had gone wrong before I could really celebrate at last.

The O&P EDGE: How did it feel when you made it? So many people train for years to get to the level that you're at, get all the way to the competition, and then their prosthesis blows out or they have an accident and can't compete. You knew that was a possibility, so what was it like when you finally heard the results, climbed on the podium, and had the medals around your neck?

Campbell: It was unreal. Being at my first Paralympic Games, it was much more than I expected, so when I accomplished that after having trained the last couple of years-and it's been tough, mentally, physically, and emotionally-finally getting the gold medal around my neck and breaking the world record was unbelievable. I was so glad that my hard work had paid off. Now I'm just looking forward to the future. I'm enjoying life right now, but I can't wait to keep going because now that I know how my hard work paid off, it keeps me going. I'm much more excited now for the future.

The O&P EDGE: With a competitor like Urs Kolly to serve as your example, you know that some athletes in your events have incredibly long careers, and you're obviously looking toward the future. Are you planning to be a full-time athlete for as long as you can, or are you thinking that there might be other kinds of work in your future?

Campbell: I've taken the last year and a half off of school to be a full-time athlete so that I could really focus on doing everything that I could do there. For the next few years, though, I want to go back to school. Even with all the time I put into training, there's still a lot of down time that I could use for school. I'm going to go back to school, train just like I have the last few years, and hope for a long career.

The O&P EDGE: What do you plan on doing in school, and have you decided where you're going to go?

Campbell: That's a decision that I'm in the midst of. I have a few options, so I'm just narrowing down my choices.

The O&P EDGE: You've been an athlete your whole life, including being a high school all-district athlete in basketball, track, and football, and a lot of that time, you were competing against people with two legs. Do you think that people wearing prostheses should be able to compete at the highest levels against people who aren't wearing prostheses?

Campbell: Absolutely. People are saying that we have advantages over able-bodied athletes because of our prosthetic limbs. It's not that, it's just that some people are using their disadvantage in a particular way. I was competing in able-bodied sports all through high school, and I see no problem with it. I think we should be able to do it.

The O&P EDGE: The last few months have been pretty dramatic for your family. Your brother Caleb became the first West Point draftee to the NFL in 11 years and then was rather famously deployed right after he hit training camp and lost the opportunity to play. You then went to the Paralympics and took incredible victories. How did your family react to your wins?

Campbell: They've always been so supportive. I called them and e-mailed to let them know, and they were just as ecstatic about it as I was.

The O&P EDGE: You had to tell your family about winning those medals through e-mail because the Paralympics weren't broadcast in the United States. How do you feel about that?

Campbell: Well, the sport is growing. There are a lot of new people from the United States-it's just not widely known here-and so to get there, it's going to take time. I think that once it reaches here and is televised, people are really going to fall in love with the sport, just like I have and all of the athletes have, and because we're doing the same things as able-bodied athletes. What we do isn't a feel-good story. We're athletes. We're really breaking some boundaries and while doing that we're overcoming all these obstacles, so in some ways it's even more of a story than an able-bodied running with the same time. It's just fascinating how we overcome these obstacles. So I think that once it does grow up a little here in the United States, it's going to be big.

Editor's note:  For more interviews with Paralympians and their prosthetists, see the related articles below.