Hillside runner blazing a trail

Dec. 01, 2013 @ 03:47 PM

Some great ones have sweated it out for Hillside High School.
In the 1960s, Daniel McLaurin III, Tommy “Hawk” Long and their Hillside teammates earned the Pony Express nickname for their frenetic style of play.
Years later, John Lucas Jr. and the great Rodney Rogers graced Hillside’s basketball court. Some would tell you that Lucas was even better at tennis.
Hillside football coach Antonio King groomed North Carolina Tar Heels running back Khris Francis.
Desmond “Dez” Jackson is next, working out with Hillside’s indoor track team, breaking a barrier in the process. 
The indoor track season cranked up in November, and Dez, a freshman, is positioned to become the state’s first amputee to compete in high school track and field, Hillside athletics director Bob Hill said.
“It’s good for me. It builds my confidence up,” Dez said. “It just shows everybody that I can do what they can do, too.”
In gym class at Hillside earlier this year, Dez said he finished first among his classmates during a mile run.
It’s as if Dez, 14, was born to run despite entering the world with a rare condition that doctors believed would be helped by amputating his left leg. Dez was fitted for a prosthesis and was walking before he turned 1. Before too long, he was running and hasn’t stopped.
In August, Dez went to Puerto Rico for the International Wheelchair & Amputee Sports World Junior Games and won a gold medal in the 400-meter run. He was competing as a member of Junior Team USA and also secured a bronze medal in the 100.
Dez also gets after it in the 200 and long jump, as well as the discus, shot put and javelin throws. He has set national records and right now is the standard bearer for his age group in the 400, said his mother, Deborah.
As a member of Hillside’s track team, Dez would be running against athletes who are not amputees. Durham Public Schools athletics director Larry McDonald has some concerns about that.
“I just want to make sure he’s in a position where it won’t put him in a bad situation,” McDonald said. “I want him to be successful. My charge is to make sure he’s on even ground.”
McDonald said Dez is permitted to run against traditional athletes. But McDonald added that he needed to hear from N.C. High School Athletic Association Deputy Commissioner Que Tucker about what standards need to be in place to ensure fairness for all.
Tucker said she was checking with the National Federation of State High School Associations regarding Dez’s situation.
Dez runs on an Ossur Cheetah sprinting foot and an Otto Bock running knee, said Kelly Bruno, one of his trainers. Those prostheses are made of a carbon composite material and provide no advantage for Dez, she said.
“The fact that Oscar Pistorius, a bilateral below-knee amputee from South Africa, was allowed to compete in the Olympics in 2012 endorses that statement fully,” Bruno said. “If anything, Desmond is at a bigger disadvantage on the track since, as an above-knee amputee, he also has to overcome the mechanics of a hydraulic knee over a fully functioning able-bodied knee.”
Bruno cited a study she said concluded that the force produced by a running-specific prosthesis was impaired by 9 percent when compared to a normal leg.
That said, Dez will be able to hold his own for Hillside, she said.
“I do think that Dez could compete at the high school level against able-bodied athletes, given the wide variation of talent and depth in the high school sports,” Bruno said. “He should have the same opportunity to compete in high school as any other young man or woman, both for the experience and the physical training. He may not come in first or second in high school track, but he will gain invaluable experience racing every week, which would translate into a better performance in international disabled track and field meets where he could very well bring home gold for the U.S.”
Dez’s goal is to become the youngest athlete in the 2016 Paralympic Games. That’ll require money for training and equipment, which is detailed at www.giveforward.com/fundraiser/v363/.
Bruno was the second amputee on the popular “Survivor” television show. She, like Dez, was born with a birth defect in one of her legs, becoming an amputee at 6 months old.
Also like Dez, Bruno embraces a challenge, having completed three Ironman races, two 100-mile ultramarathons, a 100-kilometer ultramarathon and a 50-mile ultramarathon.
Bruno finished medical school at UNC and is a resident in anesthesiology at the university.
When Dez ran track in middle school, he sometimes was at the starting line all by himself. That’s no fun, and it’s why Dez ought to be able to put on a Hillside uniform and go against traditional athletes, Bruno said.
“The point of high school track and field, or any high school sport for that matter, is to identify talent, but a secondary and equally important goal is to make the individual involved feel like part of a team,” Bruno said. “Now, imagine lining up at a start line completely by yourself. At that very moment, would you feel like part of a team? Absolutely not. You’d feel alone and isolated. You’d wonder why you were different and therefore being treated differently than everyone else. To me, that completely contradicts the point of team sports in high school.”
Hill said the NCHSAA would handle the fairness issues related to Dez. He said his job in the meantime is to do what he can to facilitate Dez’s desire to be a student-athlete at Hillside.
“His disability is an opportunity for us to be trailblazers when it comes to athletics,” Hill said. “He is a student-athlete first.
“The young man is a competitor.”
Durham-based fitness trainer Christopher Williams doubles as Dez’s coach and mentor, developing the young man’s body, fueling his spirit.
At a recent workout, Williams appeared to have his mind made up to get every ounce of sweat out of Dez, who wouldn’t want to have it any other way.
“I know I’m not the same,” Dez said. “I just try to work a little bit harder to prove myself when I’m on the track.”