Meeting someone as open and genuine as Blake, it’s tough to imagine his smile giving way to his game face when it’s time to step onto the track and into the starting blocks. But after shattering the world record in the 400-meter dash twice and collecting eight medals along the way, it’s safe to say he’s a fierce competitor.
Blake’s drive to succeed shines through both on and off the track. He’s dedicated his life to beating the odds after being born without feet, ankles, and lower leg bones due to a congenital birth defect. And he’s determined to help others turn their own setbacks into motivators so they can achieve their dreams, too.
Like travel, sports build bridges between disparate communities and cultures. So when EF hosted a Global Leadership Summit in Berlin focused on The Impact of Sports & Wellness, it was a no-brainer to invite Blake to share his story. Keep reading to explore how he’s learned not to let his disability define him and discovered a universal language that connects him with people all across the world—running.
When Blake Leeper was born on August 31, 1989, doctors told his parents he’d never walk. But at just nine months old, he was fitted for his first pair of prosthetic legs. Not only did this set Blake up to defy expectations throughout his entire life, but once he started walking, it was clear he was a natural athlete.
“Being a kid with a disability, sports gave me an opportunity to show my community and friends that I’m no different than them. Just like they put their shoes on, I would put my legs on, and we’d all go out there and play as hard as we possibly could,” he says.
Blake grew up playing baseball and basketball—it wasn’t until his freshman year of college when he turned the television to the 2008 Paralympic Games that he first saw athletes sprinting around the track in running blades. “When I saw 94,000 people in that stadium cheering those runners on, I dropped my bowl of Froot Loops and knew that’s what I was supposed to do with my life,” he reflects.
Within just two and a half years, Blake became a Paralympic medalist—though the road to gold wasn’t that smooth. “There’s been times where I’ve been denied track meets and told I can’t compete based on my disability,” he says. “So one of my biggest goals as an athlete has been to go out there and show the world that I’m just as strong and powerful as any individual.”
When Blake caught the U.S. Paralympic coaches’ attention after his first race in 2009, he was invited to train with other athletes in Brazil. It was his first time ever leaving the country and he says he felt really small—especially when he lost his luggage in baggage claim and didn’t know enough Portuguese to communicate with taxi drivers there. But instead of letting these moments deflate him, he saw running as his ticket to explore the world. “I realized I had so much to learn, and it started by competing and training as hard as I possibly could. Running could allow me to experience the world and interact with new cultures and people,” Blake says.
Since then, Blake’s career in track and field has brought him all over the globe to compete, train, and give back to local communities. And while there will always be language barriers, he says, “We speak one language and that’s running. It’s life-changing to see how sports can translate to any language and culture.” Although Blake has gained new friends (some as close as family) from all corners of the world, these connections didn’t come without pushing the boundaries of his comfort zone. “There are some growing pains you go through while traveling. But you learn by continuing to travel—you learn a lot about yourself and the places you’re in, and it gets easier the more you explore.”
Once, an interviewer asked Blake Leeper if he wished he had been born with legs. Blake replied that he’s actually thankful for his disability. “I’m a true believer that with everything I’ve been through, my adversity is my advantage. The fact that I was born without legs showed me how to get back up,” he says. And in his speech to students at EF’s 2022 Global Leadership Summit, he explained that their adversities aren’t just happening to them, but working for them. “The adversity you’re facing today, embrace it. The challenges you’re going to face tomorrow, accept them. They’re going to make you stronger and shape you into who you are.”
So what’s next for Blake? Becoming the fastest man in the world, across both Paralympic and able-bodied runners. He knows it’s a big dream, but that’s why he’s chasing it. He connects this self-assurance to having the opportunity to compete in sports as a child. “When you allow somebody who’s different to go out there and show their talents to the world, it builds confidence that goes past the track or field and into their daily life. Then they discover themselves and what motivates them, so they can go out there like anybody else who wants to achieve their dreams,” he explains. As Blake prepares for the Paralympic Games in 2024, instead of asking “why me?”, he’s asking “why not me?”—and encourages everyone else to do the same, no matter how big the dream is they’re chasing.