Hillside High School senior Desmond Jackson started competing in track and field at age 8 with the Carolina Cruisers in Charlotte. “Most of my teammates were wheelchair users, and I joined as the first amputee,” says Desmond, whose leg was amputated above the knee due to a birth defect before he was a year old. In seventh grade, he started competing with Rogers-Herr Middle School; it was around that time that Desmond and his mother, Deborah Waddell Jackson, set their sights on the Paralympics.
“My mom actually got to travel to the 2012 Paralympics in Beijing with a group of Paralympic hopefuls,” he says, “she came back and shared the experience with me. After that, [my goal was to try] to become the youngest African-American amputee to make the 2016 Rio team.”
He practiced vigorously with the help of personal trainer Christopher Williams, world record-holding amputee runner and athlete Kelly Bruno, N.C. Central University track coach Tavius Walker and current personal coach Jamaal Daniels of Cardinal Gibbons High School. In September, Desmond’s dreams of joining Team USA became reality.
Competing in the men’s 100-meter, 200-meter and long jump events, Desmond describes Rio as an eye-opening adventure. “I got to run alongside athletes I had only heard about,” he says. “The experience itself helped me to become a better athlete and individual.”
He didn’t medal, but ranked ninth in the 100-meter and seventh in long jump. And for the third year in a row, Desmond was named a U.S. Paralympics Track & Field High School All-American. “It’s a great feeling!” Desmond says of the accomplishment. But he is quick to note the milestone could not have been reached without the support of his family, specifically his mom, late grandfather James E. Waddell and grandmother Evelyn Waddell, as well as the supportive members at his church, White Rock Baptist, and his coach. “Coach Daniels is more than a coach to me,” Desmond says. “He’s a mentor, a role model, and more like family.”
I got to run alongside athletes I had only heard about.
The experience itself helped me to become a better athlete and individual.
As he prepares for the 2017 World Championships in Athletics in July in London and the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo, Desmond is thankful for the broader Durham community’s support, too. “Blazing the trail as a challenged athlete isn’t always easy, but my hometown blazed this path with me,” he says. “They always encouraged me, cheered me on, and I’ll never forget that.”
Photography by Briana Brough