Desmond Jackson, the amputee sprinter who graces the cover of our July print issue, was just 16 when he competed in the Rio Paralympics five years ago. He was a high school student with no income of his own, no health insurance, not even a driver’s license.
But he had his mom, Deborah, which was quite enough.
Like so many parents, spouses, and friends, Ms. Jackson played in indispensable and largely unrecognized role in the making of a world-class amputee athlete. Over the years she served as her son’s equipment manager, traveling secretary, scheduler, training coordinator, lobbyist, sports psychologist, and business administrator. She gradually evolved into Team Jackson’s de facto general manager, overseeing a network of relatives, friends, coaches, and mentors to keep Desmond’s career moving forward.
Nearly every athlete who competes in Tokyo has a similar team behind them. That’s the hidden beauty of adaptive athletics, Jackson says: They bring people together, creating communities that benefit not only the competitors but also each member of the supporting cast. That sense of belonging brings rewards at each step of the journey, Jackson adds. A podium finish is a fantastic outcome if it happens, but the core dividends—the relationships, the experiences, the personal growth—have already been banked long before the medal ceremony.
Jackson shared her reflections last month about adaptive sports’ power to build supportive, inclusive communities that welcome people of all ages, backgrounds, and athletic ability levels. The interview is edited for clarity and length. (Also see our interview with Desmond Jackson from earlier this year.)
Dez credits you with a large amount of his success and his ability to overcome hurdles. How would you describe the role you played in his athletic growth?
I was a single, working parent, and single, working parents need assistance. When I couldn’t do things on my own, I had people who were standing in the gap, and it’s been that way continuously. Initially that was my mom, my dad, and other people in my immediate family. But as we got rooted in the community, our church family was huge in terms of providing support. In fact, Desmond’s first sport interaction and team sport participation was through our church. Desmond started playing basketball and soccer through the church. I was reluctant to let him participate, but the men who ran those programs encouraged me to allow it. He played baseball with them, soccer, basketball, and he did well. So that kind of opened my eyes about his athletic abilities.
What made you reluctant to let Des participate?
It’s just that the trail had not been blazed yet. There wasn’t anybody like him in our community who had done this [ie, competed as an amputee in able-bodied sports]. I also had to think about the kids on the other side of things, the able-bodied kids. I was looking at the big picture—their reactions, the possibilities of him getting hurt or perhaps him hurting them because he was wearing a prosthetic device. And then what if he hurts the prosthesis? Fortunately, none of that happened, and my church family assured me continuously.
He always had a desire to play football, and that was my greatest reluctance. You know, that’s a huge contact sport. He kept saying, “I want to play football, I want to play football.” I finally found a flag football team, and he did play one season. But he didn’t have any fear. He didn’t see himself as being a bit different. I refused to use the word “handicap” while he was growing up. We continuously promoted ability as opposed to disability. So he thought could do all things, and he did. Just the other day he was getting ready to take the trash out, and he didn’t have his leg all the way secured. I said, “I don’t know if you can do that because you don’t have your leg on.” His response was: “Mom, please don’t tell me about things I can’t do.”
When he initially got involved in sports,was he competing on an athletic prosthesis or just his regular walking-around prosthesis?
During the initial years he was wearing his everyday prosthesis. But let me back up a little bit. I got the great opportunity to work with a prosthetic clinic at Duke [University] as a patient care coordinator. When you have a young son who’s an amputee, who could turn that down? Because of that job, I saw everything related to prostheses. And one day, I just happened to be flipping through a magazine, and I saw a group of kids about Dez’s age running across the field with blades. It was the Challenged Athletes Foundation promoting their service in a magazine and highlighting these young boys. So that’s how I learned about a blade.
Dez was about eight years old, and I just wrote them nonstop. Eventually they accepted Desmond into the program, and that’s where he got his first blade. Even the prosthetists in our office [at Duke] had never seen one, so it took a bit of hand-holding. As we grew in the sports arena, our prosthetists also grew, because they didn’t know anything about it.
As he matured and became more serious about competition, did you end up having to go outside your area to partner with a prosthetist who specialized in athletic technology?
We did. Because of my job with the prosthetic clinic at Duke, I was also exposed to the Amputee Coalition of America, and I attended those conferences to see all the most innovative equipment. If anything mattered to me, it was making sure Desmond had the best mobility and access to new devices at all times. So by the time he was in middle school, and he was the first kid in North Carolina to compete in [able-body] track as an amputee, there was situation during a meet where he crashed on the track because his prosthesis gave out. He finished the race, because his coach went out and hopped with him, but that was a wakeup call. I started looking for people who had a bit more experience, and that took us to Charlotte. I found a prosthetist right outside Charlotte who had some experience.
How far is that from Durham?
It’s a minimum of two hours each way. So he went to school and I went to work, and then we went to the prosthetist. He might be doing homework in the car, but we got through it. Sometimes they saw us on weekends. They made accommodations for us.
We stayed with that group up until Rio, but as Desmond progressed and his needs progressed, we learned that practice was not as extensive as we needed. Then we were introduced to another prosthetist who could provide what he needed. Now, this prosthetist was in Florida. So when Desmond came to me and said, “This group really wants to work with me,” I said: “I don’t know that I can get you to Florida.” But they worked with us. They had a program. They got us down there, and it was the best choice we have made.
What’s the name of that practice?
We work with Stan Patterson at Prosthetic & Orthotic Associates. His whole approach is totally different. It’s innovative. It’s individualized. It’s research-oriented. They are using statistics and designing equipment themselves. It’s just the best. So that’s where we ended up.
You mentioned Jamaal Daniels, the coach who helped Dez get to the finish line when he crashed out in middle school. How did you make that connection?
I actually met him through some mutual friends. It was a leap of faith to some extent, because he had never worked with an athlete of this nature. We didn’t know if he could make the adaptation to provide Dez with what he needed. At that initial meeting, we had to drive 30 or 35 minutes. I was just doing my due diligence, talking to different people, looking at results, and trying to determine if they could transfer those same skills to an individual like my son.
It sounds as if you really had to build a support infrastructure, or an ecosystem, around Dez for him to reach his potential. You’ve mentioned his coach, prosthetist, church, family, friends . . . . was anyone else playing a role?
We’re always going to be aligned with Challenged Athletes Foundation. They gave Desmond his start, and we’ve got great relationships with the staff there. So we’re always going to be at their beck and call if they ever need our assistance. We also did some things with Disabled Sports USA (now Move United), and we even traveled to the Disabled Sports International Challenge—that was our very first introduction to a track and field event. That’s where we met John Register, April Holmes, Rudy Garcia-Tolson, Roderick Sewell, and people of that stature. Some of them were just starting their careers.
In addition to that, I started a support group in the Raleigh-Durham area. It was called PALS—Pediatric Amputee Links and Support—because it was vitally important to me that Desmond see other children that looked like him. That was one side of it. But the other side was that I needed to interact with other parents who were experiencing some of the same things I was experiencing.
I worked in conjunction with the limb-loss nurse from Duke. Her name was Nancy Payne. You don’t find many hospitals that have a limb-loss nurse, so that was a huge benefit. Nancy and I formed a partnership to create this pediatric amputee group. We started out with maybe seven or eight kids. This couldn’t be your typical support group, where you sit down to listen to speakers and get information. We’d do meetings at the pool instead, or at Chick-Fil-A, and let the kids run around together. We’d go to bouncy houses. We’d have picnics.
I would always thank the other parents for coming, because it’s empowering to get information from other people who are on the same path that you’re on. Those things get transferred over. Some of those kids became CAF kids. We had somebody who liked to dance. We had kids with many different skills, but they could all see other kids that look like them. And that makes all the difference.
It’s clear the community around athletics has been a real benefit to your family. Are the doors open to that community for people who don’t view themselves as athletically gifted?
Absolutely. When we lived in the District of Columbia and Dez was a little boy, I took him to a support group that I found there at a huge Washington hospital. I was determined to expose him to other amputees and let him see people like him. We walked into this room, and the mood was not good. These were new amputees, and a lot of them seemed depressed or sad. Desmond came in with shorts on, and you could feel the energy change. People sat up. They smiled. They started talking to each other.
I’m saying this because even if a person is not an elite athlete, the energy they gain from seeing other people do things is contagious. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. If you’re open and responsive, it can change your mood completely. It can give you the motivation to try to do more. I may not be able to run, but I can get out and walk. The thing is to keep moving. Do you want to get out of that chair? Do you want to try to work with your prosthesis? Do you just want somebody to talk to?
Having worked in a hospital with people who recently lost their limbs, I know these connections can be game-changers. It is up to each individual to decide which route they want to take, but I’ve seen so many cases where the outcome has been favorable. I learned early on, the gift of mobility is one of the biggest gifts there is. We don’t think about it like that, but it’s huge. So Desmond enlightened me and helped me grow as a person. Most people thought I was opening doors for him. He was really opening the door for me.