Lex Gillette started losing his sight in the bathtub.
He was 8, washing up before bedtime, when he noticed everything looked blurry. His mom figured he got something in his eyes playing outside. They washed his eyes with water and he went to bed, thinking everything would be fine in the morning.
It wasn’t. Teachers at his Raleigh elementary school sent him home early the next day – he kept bumping into things – so his mother took him to the doctor.
Gillette had detached retinas, they said, and he needed emergency surgery.
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For three weeks afterward, Gillette could see again. But eventually his sight blurred, leading to a second surgery, and then a third. It was always the same – three weeks with his vision, then a slow decline.
“When I would wake up the next morning,” Gillette said Thursday before Saturday’s Paralympic trials in Charlotte, “I’d see a little less than what I did the day before.
“Until one day I woke up and I couldn’t make out anything anymore.”
Ten surgeries couldn’t fix Gillette’s sight, but his mother refused to let her son’s blindness hold him back. She empowered him to become the man he is today – a three-time Paralympic medalist and world record-holder in the long jump.
“The rest of the world, they’re not blind,” Gillette said his mother told him. “This is gonna be a real-world experience.”
A hidden talent
Gillette’s early struggles with blindness weren’t just physical.
“Even at that age, it was hard to grasp the concept (of not being able to see),” he said. “Having friends, not really being able to explain to them what’s going on, it was a social barrier.”
But Gillette’s mother kept him in public schools. He learned to read Braille and use a cane to walk alone. Eventually he ended up at Athens Drive High School.
One day during his sophomore year, Gillette’s class had to take a mandatory fitness test, which included the standing long jump.
“We had around 1,500 kids in my high school,” Gillette said, “and I ended up being one of the best ones.”
Brian Whitmer, an adapted recreation specialist at Athens Drive, took notice. He figured Gillette could add a run to his jump and potentially compete in the Paralympics.
Gillette admitted he was skeptical at first.
“I didn’t see myself running,” he said.
But Whitmer did.
Three silvers and a goal
The pair developed a jumping technique over time. Whitmer would clap and yell to Gillette to keep him in a straight line, and Gillette counted his steps as he ran.
To test the method, Whitmer took Gillette to an athletic camp in Michigan for the visually impaired. Gillette trained for the week-long camp, and at the end of the camp, competed in the long jump event.
After Athens Drive, Gillette graduated and went to East Carolina. There, he continued honing his jumps.
He competed in the 2004 Paralympics in Athens, earning silver. He repeated the feat in Beijing four years later. In London in 2012, a strained quad kept Gillette – the gold medal favorite – off the track for four weeks. He won another silver.
“You can look at it either one of two ways,” Gillette said. “One, I always come up short. I keep losing.
“Or, you have the athlete who doesn’t have anything at all, and they would die to be in this position.”
On Saturday, he’ll try once again to qualify for the Paralympics, this time in Rio. He hasn’t lost a Paralympic long jump event since 2012, and he still owns the world record – 6.77 meters, or 22.21 feet.
For someone who once doubted he could run at all, Gillette has come a long way. What started in the Athens Drive gym could culminate atop the podium in Rio.
“I refuse to go out there and lose,” Gillette said. “I refuse to get anything less than gold.”