Desmond Jackson Moves Forward After His Paralympics Suspension

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Desmond Jackson, one of the fastest above-knee amputees in the country, qualified for his second Paralympics but will not go on to the finals

Desmond Jackson

By Hannah Lee | Photography by Cornell Watson

The rock reads “Believe.” Situated outside Desmond Jackson’s back door, he sees the script carved in stone every day. It’s both reminder and inspiration, a sign of where Dez came from, but also where he’s going.

Usually, that’s to Morris Williams Track and Field Stadium, just in time for a morning training. This month? It would’ve been to the 2021 Tokyo Paralympics, where Dez had hoped to set an international record in the 100-meter dash. That might not have been an unreasonable goal either, considering Dez entered the U.S. Paralympic Trials in June with the fastest time. For good measure, he also placed second in long jump.

The sprinter, however, is provisionally suspended from the U.S. Paralympics for testing positive for a banned substance by the United States Anti-Doping Agency in late July. “This matter is currently under investigation, and Desmond is prayerful for a positive outcome,” his mother, Deborah Jackson, told Durham Magazine in an email following the publishing of this original story in our August issue. “And, due to the sensitive legality of this matter, neither Desmond nor his family are able to divulge the details of the case. However, it is important to note that my son is a good person, and he would never knowingly take something to lessen his chances of making his second Paralympic team. … This is catastrophic for us. It all feels like a bad dream.”

For as much as Dez had hoped to accomplish on the track in Tokyo, he’s going to move forward – think beyond it. And, importantly, he believes. Thanks to Deborah, he always has. 

“It was mainly my mother at first, but I wasn’t treated like a person with a disability,” Dez says. “That trickled down to my mentality to what she taught me as a child and how other people started treating me like everyone else, and never considered me to be lesser than.”

Desmond Jackson

Dez’s leg was amputated above the knee due to a congenital birth defect as an infant. He learned to walk by his first birthday all the same. By the time he was 3, he barely ever sat down.

In fact, Dez was invited to be part of the finale in a race against John Register, who earned the silver medal in the long jump at the 2000 Paralympic Games, at the Disabled Sports USA International Challenge at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in 2002. Deborah and Dez’s grandma Evelyn Waddell, who flew down to Orlando with Dez, looked away. Their nerves were unsettled, but when the gun went off, Dez, who had never run before, ran. His little leg with no knee that he couldn’t bend glided across the ground. The stadium went wild.

Dez has chased that feeling ever since.

“That should have been the clue right there for me,” Deborah says, “but I was still a slow learner, that he was gonna go on to do great things.” 

It wasn’t until six years later that Dez officially picked up track after trying almost every other sport besides football. The Jacksons finally got the hint when Dez broke seven national records in his age group at his first track meet in Fishersville, Virginia, at age 9.

That’s when it all hit. Deborah canceled personal vacations and applied for every grant known to man. She made the three-hour drive to Charlotte every month so Dez could train with the Carolina Cruisers or meet with the state’s best prosthetists. She even sent him to the London Summer Games in 2012. He was just 12.

“That was such a special experience for me,” Dez says. “Being there, seeing the crowd, seeing the athletes, seeing the podium. It was the icing on the cake, and it motivated me and inspired me to reach that point.”

That’s when Dez started competing at Rogers-Herr Middle School as the only amputee on the track and field team and eventually at Hillside High School, where the student-athlete earned First-Team All-America status all four years.

He went on to compete as the youngest Black male on the U.S. Track & Field Paralympic Team during the Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016. And now at age 21, he is an ambassador of the #ShowTheWorld campaign, launched by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee in June, to drive support for the Paralympic movement. 

“That was always the goal for me: to open a door for people with disabilities – not only amputees,” Dez says, “to be able to [give them] the courage and motivation, and [for them] to be allowed to even compete in track or any other sport that they prefer.” 

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Hannah Lee

Hannah Lee is the assistant editor at Durham Magazine. Born and raised in Winston-Salem, she attended UNC-Chapel Hill and double majored in broadcast journalism and German.

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