A leg in faith
Jarryd Wallace heads to the Paralympic Games just two years after giving up a leg so that he could continue to run
Runners gather at the far side of the track as time nears for the men’s final in the 400 meter dash. The 105 degree temperature from two days earlier has abated somewhat, but at 10 a.m. the sun is beating down from the Indiana sky with mid-summer intensity.
Jarryd Wallace warms up for the race with a push off the starter’s blocks and short jog. He kneels, his elbow on his knee, Tim Tebow style, and says a quick prayer before returning to the blocks to get into position.
A few minutes later, the race is over. Wallace’s time, 55.38 seconds, is a personal record for that distance. But he finishes in fourth place.
It is his third final in three days and his last chance to place in the top three runners for an automatic spot on the 2012 U.S. Paralympic Track & Field Team that competes this month in London.
It is not the finish he had hoped for, nor the one he had all but planned for two years ago June when he had his right leg amputated so that he could continue running. When he told his parents he wanted his name alongside the other record-holding Paralympians on the U.S. Olympic Committee website. When he told USOC Paralympic track and field director Cathy Sellers he would be on her team in 2012.
Jarryd Wallace, far left, competes in a preliminary heat of the 200 meter dash during the U.S. Paralympic Trials. He placed fifth in the 200 meter finals. In the lane to Wallace’s left is Jerome Singleton, who placed third in the event; next to Singleton is Blake Leeper, who was first. All three men will represent the United States at the Paralympic Games in London. Photo by Steve Ehretsman.
Yet, he’s smiling as his family and friends approach after the race. “Awesome,” he says of the trials in Indianapolis. “All these guys are (veteran runners). I’m the rookie in the bunch.”
That night in a closed-door meeting—USOC officials and competitors only—Sellers nears the end of the list of athletes who will be on the 2012 team.
“She said, ‘We’re taking Jarryd Wallace.’ I got the last spot,” he tells his parents, reducing them all to tears.
“I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”
“Really, I didn’t think I’d be in there,” he says. “It’s just humbling. It’s unbelievable.”
The son of accomplished athletes—Jeff Wallace (BSEd ’85) lettered in tennis at UGA and has coached the women’s tennis team for 27 years; Sabina Horne Wallace (BSEd ’86) was an All-SEC cross country runner—Wallace has been training since he was an infant. Sabina Wallace pushed him in the jogging stroller as she and Jeff trained for their first marathon, the Rocket Run in Huntsville, Ala.
Parents Sabina and Jeff Wallace flank their son for a family photo after Jarryd Wallace completes his fifth run—the 400 meter dash—during the U.S. Paralympic Track and Field Trials in Indianapolis. Photo by Steve Ehretsman.
When he was a little older he would join her on evening runs or run with the track team she coached at Athens Christian, where Wallace and his sister Brittany attended elementary school.
“He was the littlest one out there,” Sabina Wallace recalls. “He ran his little heart out.”
He was playing tennis at a young age and during middle school was home-schooled for a year so he could participate in U.S. Tennis Association junior competitions.
As a freshman at Oconee High School he played on the tennis team that finished second in the state in the class AAA division.
That fall he decided to run cross country as a way to stay in shape for spring tennis. He excelled at cross country, placing third in the state as a sophomore. In the spring, he played tennis and ran track.
It was too much at once and his parents encouraged him to focus on one sport exclusively. He could be good in both sports in high school. But “you have the potential to be great in one,” they told him.
“That was kind of the deciding factor. I was going to stop playing tennis,” he says.
He focused solely on track, sometimes running twice a day to build his strength. Soon he was plagued by a pain in his right leg. The diagnosis: stress reaction, a condition that causes the bones in the leg to become inflamed and typically occurs when a runner increases his training too quickly.
In March 2007, eight weeks before the regional high school competition, he had to take a break. He stayed in shape running on an underwater treadmill at UGA.
He went on to set personal records in both the one and two mile events at regional Class AAA competition. But in the state finals a week later he came in 6th place in the two mile event and 10th in the one mile.
During his junior year of cross country, he had a similar experience, with stress reaction causing him to miss the state competition.
He started training later in 2007 for the spring track season. That year he was the state high school champion in the 800 and 1600 meter runs.
Buoyed by the success, he began cross country his senior year with a vengeance, eager to make up the time and miles he’d missed the year before. Again, stress reaction flared just before the end of the season.
“I told my doctor, ‘I’m going to run through it,’” he says.
In pain and sick on his stomach from ibuprofen, he managed to barely stave off the second place runner to win the regional 1600 meter cross country meet. But two weeks later he finished 10th in the state competition.
It would be his last race for almost four years.
A doctor in Atlanta diagnosed chronic exertional compartment syndrome, in which the muscles inside the compartments of the leg swell and restrict blood flow to that area. Sabina Wallace was familiar with the condition, having suffered it at UGA. After surgery on both legs, in which doctors made incisions on the insides of her calves to relieve the pressure, she was able to compete with no further problems.
The syndrome was in both of Wallace’s legs as well, but worse in the right.
“Let’s do one (leg),” he decided, looking forward to spring track. “I’ve got to be able to defend my state title.”
The surgery was Nov. 29, 2007. Wallace estimated he would need four to six weeks recovery time and be back on the track with no further problems. Three days later he was back at the hospital with an infection. Doctors opened both sides of his leg and discovered that 60 percent of the muscle from the knee down was dead. They were now in rescue mode to save the leg. Wallace wore a wound vacuum for six weeks and lay in an oxygen chamber each morning to encourage the healing process. Skin grafts would follow.
“When I left the hospital for the first time the doctor told me there was a good chance I would never be able to walk again,” he says. “I said, ‘That’s all right, I don’t need to be able to walk again I just need to be able to run again.’”
Talk to anyone who knows Jarryd Wallace and you’ll hear the same descriptive words—positive, upbeat, determined, committed.
“He’s a very determined, positive guy,” says Dr. Janos Ertl, the surgeon who removed Jarryd’s leg in 2010. “This guy’s a motivated kid. His life was taken away from him overnight.”
But there were dark moments as Jarryd worked through the stages of grief.
One beautiful Sunday in April 2008 he was having lunch with his family after church when he had a horrible realization.
“It was the first day it really hit me I was never going to be able to run again,” he says.
He walked to the high school track, jumped the fence to get inside and tried to run. He could only hobble around the oval.
Raised in a strong Christian household, Wallace always had faith in God. But this was challenging that faith.
“I fell down in tears. I was pretty mad at God,” he says. “‘Why me? Why now? If this is the kind of God you are I don’t want to have anything to do with you.’”
He started at UGA in fall 2008 with a track scholarship he was awarded before his surgery. He went to workouts and meets, supporting his teammates as much as possible. But without a focus on running he turned to other distractions—alcohol, drugs and girls. He was “running from God,” trying to figure things out on his own, he says now.
His parents watched, feeling helpless.
“He had to deal with it at some point,” Sabina Wallace says. “We could tell it was starting to hit him in a different way. I think that was part of the process and we had to let him experience that. There wasn’t anything we could do.”
Months passed and he endured more surgeries. He spent two months confined to his house with his leg and foot pinned into special frames that would be gradually adjusted to realign his foot with his leg.
ttes and deflates to help increase circulation in his legs and allow them to recover faster. Canine pals Sadie and (not pictured) keep him company.
When the frame came off he was walking fine—for a while. He continued to lose muscle and the foot turned inward again.
In October 2009 he had his 10th surgery to try and repair the leg. This time doctors lengthened his Achilles tendon by two-and-a-half inches, released the joint capsules in the foot and transferred his posterior tibula to the other side of the leg. Then they fused everything in place.
He was back to a neutral state, walking well but needing a brace to do any activities.
Around this time he became reacquainted with a girl who had been a childhood friend. They began hanging out together, playing music and singing at venues around town and at church. Wallace was falling in love and was ready to tell her that.
“Literally, as I was getting ready to say the words, she said, ‘Jarryd, I’ve been praying about our relationship and I don’t think the Lord wants us to be together anymore.’”
He was devastated. Back to ground zero with God. When she left his apartment, he slammed the door and hit the wall.
“I was like, ‘Lord, what else are you going to take from me. You’ve taken the two things I loved.’”
In that moment, Wallace says he felt God sending him a message: “I’m right here. I always have been. I’m just waiting for you to stop running from me.”
“I just said, ‘Lord I’m not going to run from you anymore. I’m going to run for you.’ That’s how I’ve decided to live my life from now on.”
It was Jan. 6, 2010.
“That’s when everything changed,” he says. “Everything began making sense.”
In February, he traveled with his parents to Madison, Wisc., to see Dr. William Turnipseed, a vascular surgeon with expertise in compartment syndrome. Turnipseed had reviewed Wallace’s medical records before the visit and was forthright.
“I said, “Look, you’re a nice guy, you’re going to get married some day. Do you want to have your kids running around you instead of playing with them?’” Turnipseed asked Wallace.
“You’re going to be an old man at 30. You need to decide if this is how you want to live, or you can jettison the leg and get on with your life.”
Turnipseed’s words resonated with Wallace. “In that moment I made the decision to have my leg amputated,” he says.
Wallace rubs ice on the end of his amputated limb to help reduce swelling following a training session. In his down time he maintains a website and tweets to his followers on Twitter.
As soon as he got back to the Marriott hotel where his family was staying, he Googled Paralympics and looked up the times of the world’s fastest amputee runners.
“I want my name to be next to this one day,” he told his parents.
He spent the next four months researching the amputation process and looking into prosthetic legs. He became friends with double amputee and Iron Man Triathlete Scott Rigsby (BSFCS ’93) who connected him with Pro Care Prosthetics and Orthotics in Buford, Ga., which had built Rigsby’s prosthetic legs and running blades.
Since it was elective surgery, the family had time to plan. They selected Ertl, in Indianapolis, to do the surgery based on recommendations from doctors and therapists. Ertl’s technique involves reconstructing the amputated leg by connecting a bone bridge between the lower limb bones. This allows the socket connecting the prosthetic leg to the limb to fit better and allows the limb to bear more weight.
Stephen Schulte, owner of Pro Care, inspects the base of Wallace’s leg before fitting him for a new socket to hold his prosthetic leg and running blade. Looking on is Steve Ehretsman, vice president for marketing and business development for the company, who lost his right leg 11 years ago in an accident.
“I was excited about it. I was ready to go. It’s something I can’t explain or expect people to fully understand,” Wallace says. “I had a certain peace about it. I was going to have my life back.”
It was a little tougher for his parents.
“The first time you hear (amputation), you’re like, don’t even go there,”
Jeff Wallace says. “But you see somebody that athletic, almost being crippled and addicted to pain killers, unable to do the little things we take for granted. ” Jeff Wallace says he could tell the kind of athlete his son hoped to be, and told him, “You’re never going to be that with that leg.”
As he had with his previous surgeries, Wallace carried a Bible his mother had given him into the operating room. Just before he was put under, he prayed over his family, asking God to help them be strong and at peace with his decision. In the operating room he prayed over the doctors and nurses.
“It was the beginning of the next chapter,” he says.
When Wallace woke up he found his right leg shortened to just 17 centimeters below the knee.
When his parents came to the room to see him, Wallace saw an opportunity to lighten the mood. His mom sat down on the bed where his right foot would have been, and he yelled “Ow, ow, ow,” making his mother jump. “You sat on my leg,” he told her mischievously.
An intravenous nerve block, similar to an epidural, kept him pain free for three days until they eased the drip.
“The fourth day was the most painful day I’ve ever had in my life,” he says.
The doctor told him he would be able to walk in two weeks. Fortunately, Wimbledon and the World Cup of soccer gave him something to look forward to as he spent his days on the sofa, flanked by the family dogs, Ripples and Sadie.
Six weeks and a day after his surgery Wallace took his first steps. At 12 weeks and a day he ran around the Buford building that houses Pro Care.
His first run, with his dad, lasted six minutes before his foot began to drag.
The next week he went to the track to race a mile. His time: 6 minutes, 15 seconds. He then mapped out a four-mile route for himself in the Five Points and Cobbham neighborhoods.
“Let’s see what happens,” he thought. “I’m just going to go for it.”
“It was awesome.”
In January 2011 he decided to begin training for the Paralympic Track and Field Trials, a year and a half away. He asked Ross Ridgewell, an 800 meter runner from Australia who had come to the U.S. to run at UGA, to coach him.
Even when he wasn’t running Wallace kept up a strict regimen of strength training in the weight room at the Coliseum Training Facility.
Ridgewell was back in Athens to see Wallace run on his prosthetic leg for the first time.
“Within 12 months he was among the top three (amputee) runners in the country,” Ridgewell says.
He was there when Wallace won the gold medal in the 100 meter dash at the Parapan Games in Mexico in November 2011. And he was in Indianapolis when Wallace was selected for the U.S. Paralympic Track & Field Team.
Also watching: Jan Ertl, who walked over from his office in the hospital where he removed Jarryd’s leg two years earlier.
“He wanted to run. Nothing was going to take that away from him,” Ertl says. “He has the opportunity to help other people understand and motivate amputees to do great things. Most of these people can make a difference in the world if they want to.”
Ross Ridgewell, a former UGA runner from Australia, coaches Wallace during one of his final training sessions before the Paralympic Trials. A tattoo on Wallace’s right side depicts the U.S. Track & Field logo and a Bible verse, 1 Corinthians 9:27: “I discipline my body like an athlete, training it to do what it should. Otherwise I fear that after preaching to others I myself might be disqualified.”
Want to watch?
For live coverage, schedules and results during the 2012 Paralympic games Aug. 29-Sept. 9 go to http://www.paralympic.org.