The Scholar-Athlete: Jerome Singleton Talks Education, Family, and Paralympic Gold
Jerome Singleton is that rarest kind of young sportsman-a humble, unpretentious world-record-breaker whose scholarship could actually come to overshadow his athletic accomplishments. Throughout his teens, Singleton competed as a varsity multisport athlete against all able-bodied competitors, despite having had his right foot amputated as an infant (he was born without his right fibula). Then, he entered Morehouse College, Atlanta, Georgia, the highly regarded, traditionally all-male, all-black university, where he worked as a researcher while completing two majors and running able-bodied track. There, in 2006, he stumbled across information about the Paralympics, and within one year he was competing on the world stage. With consummate Southern cordiality, the 22-year-old South Carolinian described to The O&P EDGE the journey to his first Paralympic Games, his remarkable education toward a career in O&P, and his perspective on having taken a silver to South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius' gold by .03 seconds.
The O&P EDGE: Congratulations on your excellent performance at the Games, Jerome. Just to get started, would you tell me about your practice schedule from the time you qualified for Team USA in June and when you actually made it to Beijing?
Singleton: Oh, yes ma'am. I trained five days a week and went to the weight room three days a week. On the days I was in the weight room, I would train probably four hours that day, and then the days that I didn't go to the weight room, I would train for two.
The O&P EDGE: Well, your performances on the field show it-they were incredible this year. When you think back to Beijing, what's your single most important memory?
Singleton: My family. My mother and father were able to come out to the Games, and I was just thankful that I got to share it with family this time. A lot of times, when I went to international races, they hadn't been able to come and watch and partake in the festivities.
The O&P EDGE: How do you think they felt about watching you?
Singleton: (Laughs.) Well, they were happy. We were walking one day, and my dad asked my mom, "Did you ever think that we would be out here? In Beijing?" I was like, "I didn't!" (Laughs.) Not when I was younger. But another thing that was really good was that I really enjoyed competing and actually medaling, because I never thought that would happen either.
The O&P EDGE: When you got to Beijing, did you think you had a good chance of setting a world record?
Singleton: I thought we had a shot in the relay, based on the times that we were running as individuals. Then the relay team changed due to injuries and some people not getting classified, so we weren't positive that we would make the record, but we knew we had a shot at winning the gold.
The O&P EDGE: The 100m sprint is one of the Paralympics' most popular events. How did you feel to race it and to cross the finish line, knowing that you had taken a silver?
Singleton: I started out well, but I knew Oscar Pistorius' top-end speed is faster than most of the rest of the amputees and most of the rest of people in general, so I knew that if I saw Oscar that I wouldn't be able to catch him, but if some of the other athletes came, I might have a shot at pulling ahead of them. So, I only saw Oscar at the very end, but I thought it was too late, because when I looked down, we were already past the finish line. So initially, I thought I won the race (laughs). So I went over to him and we were embracing each other, and I thought I won the race, but then we found out later that he nipped me at the finish line. But I was just thankful to be in the race with so many great athletes. Marlon Shirley was there, the two-time Paralympic champion in the 100m. Brian Frasure, he was in the race, and I know that he's done so much for the sport, and he's one of the world champions. I think he won the 4 x 100 relay the last time. (Editor's note: Frasure won gold in the 4 x 100 and a world-record gold in the 4 x 400.) And Oscar Pistorius, he's made so many strides to promote the Paralympics, and I think about how his being in the race and in the Paralympics just brought so much exposure to the sport for all the people out there.
The O&P EDGE: You double majored in math and applied physics at Morehouse College, and now you're transferring to the University of Michigan to add an industrial engineering major. Is that a triple major, or a double with second degree?
Singleton: (Laughs) Well, ma'am, when I talk about it, I call it a triple major because I had three different majors, but I'll end up getting two degrees, one from Morehouse and one from the University of Michigan.
The O&P EDGE: With that courseload, how do you balance training with your education?
Singleton: Well, being in college while training allows you to have a structured schedule. I used to work in the research lab while I was at Morehouse, so I could go into my lab, get something to eat, and then train. To me, training and running track gave me time to hang out with other students and just keep in shape. It was more of an outlet than a hindrance. I enjoyed school because I was learning subjects I wanted to learn, and if you're going to do anything, you might as well strive to do it as well as possible.
The O&P EDGE: Are you planning on continuing to run in the future, as you continue your education and start your career in prosthetics?
Singleton: Oh yes, ma'am. I would like to pursue the Paralympics as long as possible. If I thought about slowing down, I'd have to think about how the Paralympics might come to the U.S. in 2016, and how I would love to run in front of the U.S. one time. When I was in China it was great, but each home crowd supports its own athletes. If we got a chance to compete at home, it would be good.
The O&P EDGE: I've read that you were studying at Morehouse by the time you first heard about the Paralympics. What was that like?
Singleton: Well, ma'am, I actually found out about the Paralympics because I was pursuing biomedical engineering. I just put "biomedical engineering" into Google and came upon Marlon Shirley's page. It talked about how he was a two-time Paralympian and he was a below-the-knee amputee. So I went to paralympics.org and looked at the qualification times, and I believed that I could hopefully compete at that level. And then I talked with the Morehouse coach, coach Willie Hill, and he started to put me in contact with other individuals who did the Paralympics. Then I got in touch with coach Joaquin Cruz, and he helped me to run more and become a better athlete also. The first team I made was 2007, for the Parapan American games.
The O&P EDGE: And so when you did those qualifying races, was that the first time you had raced against other people with amputations?
Singleton: Oh, yes ma'am, that was the first time actually competing in any disabled sports.
The O&P EDGE: How did you feel about racing at such a high level with other people whose lives have been pretty similar to yours and who could really give you some competition?
Singleton: I was just happy. When I went out to compete against other disabled athletes, it was a great experience in that everybody had their own story. When you know that people have similar backgrounds, you can ask questions that you probably couldn't ask before, like about how you deal with certain aspects of your life that an able-bodied person may not know about.
Editor's note: For more interviews with Paralympians and their prosthetists, see the related articles below.