Who would have guessed that the Barber Shop is where I'd run into one of the most inspiring people I've ever come across.
In just fifteen short minutes, I had found myself a role model, and I didn't even know who he was. The only thing I knew about him was that he failed to qualify for the Olympics, thanks to a 75-word blurb in my local paper.
That and the man was running on two prosthetic legs.
That alone had me wanting more information.
I had to know more about Oscar Pistorius—a sprinter from South Africa. A sprinter from South Africa with no legs.
So I entered him into my cell phone in an effort to remember his name and its spelling, in hopes of finding out more about this man later.
What I thought to be too good to be true in the paper turned out to be real: Oscar Pistorius—a man with no legs—is trying to qualify for the Olympics.
Not the Special Olympics or the Paralympics—he's been there and done just fine—but the able-bodied Olympics in Beijing, beginning on August 4th.
His qualifying runs however, haven't been going as smoothly as possible—on July 2nd in Milan, Oscar ran a 47.78 in the 400m, which is two seconds lower than the minimum time needed to qualify for the Olympics (45.55).
Despite being "disappointed in his performance", Oscar is far from done in trying to qualify for the Olympics—he's come too far in his life and in the past four years to do that.
At the age of 11 months, Oscar's legs were amputated just between the knee and the ankle due to the congenital absence of the fibula—meaning that instead of the fibula, there was instead a fibrous band in place of the missing bone.
Ten years later, at Kloof Primary and Pretoria Boys' High School, Oscar wasn't letting his prosthetics hinder him, as he participated in Rugby, Water Polo, and Tennis. He would continue on with all three as he grew up, and eventually picked up on wrestling too.
It wasn't until 2004 however—when the then-18 year old Oscar suffered a Rugby-related knee injury—that 'Blade Runner' found his love of the track.
The success followed early for Oscar, as at the 2004 Paralympics he won a gold in the 200-metre and a bronze in the 100-metre, beating numerous single-amputee runners, and also setting a World Record in the 200 (21.97s).
The following year, Pistorius found more success, earning a gold in the 2005 Paralympic World Cup 100-metre and 200-metre races, and breaking the record he set the year before in the 200, and the following year he again broke his 200-metre World Record time (21.58s), as well as establishing new benchmarks in the 100 (10.91s) and 400 (46.56) races for the physically disabled.
He was quick to jump into the world of able-bodied racing as well, receiving an invitation to IAAF Grand Prix in Helsinki, Finland—a 400-metre race—and he's also raced in the 400-metre at Rome's Gala Garden and the Norwich Union British Gran Prix in which he finished seventh out of eight racers, thanks in-part to Jeremy Wariner stumbling at the beginning of the race and then not finishing.
Despite the inspiration of a man trying to ovecome the odds however, the critiscm and accusations started to fly.
It was said that his 'blades' (Known as the Cheetah Flex-Foot) were too long and provided an unfair advantage as he could cover more ground, while the carbon-fibre in his 'feet' supposedly reduced the investment of energy seen in an able-bodied runner. Then the point that there was no lactic-acid build up in his lower legs was also brought up.
Pistorius and his supporters continually said that he was provided no "extra-edge" however, and in fact the legs could even be a hindrance (dependant on conditions such as wind, weather, and his slow-starting). The return of energy from a natural leg was also proven to greatly outweigh that of Pistorius' artificial legs.
The International Associate of Athletics Federations (IAAF) went ahead in banning "any technical device that incorporates springs, wheels or any other element that provides a user with an advantage over another athlete not using such a device", and began to monitor Pistorius to determine if his appendages gave him an ill-begotten advantage.
Based on the findings from the IAAF and Gert-Peter Brüggemann (A German scientist who determined that the legs used 25% less energy and less vertical motion combined with mechanical body-lifting work), it was decided that Oscar had a "clear advantage" over able-bodied athletes, and his bid to compete in the Olympics was overturned in January of 2008.
Despite the 'clear-cut' evidence, Oscar still believed he should be allowed to compete with able-bodied runners:
"If they [the IAAF] ever found evidence that I was gaining an advantage, then I would stop running because I would not want to compete at a top level if I knew I had an unfair advantage."-Telegraph.co.uk
Pistorius appealed the ban through the Court of Arbitration for Sport in hopes of keeping his dream alive. Using results from an American lab where more variables where taken into consideration than in Brüggemann's tests, the CAF determined there was insufficient evidence to prove Pistorius' advantage over the able-bodied, and in May of 2008, the ruling was reversed—however only for Pistorius' case, not for all runners of the same condition.
In light of all of this, Oscar has come too far to turn back, which is why he's not just stopping with his failed stab at the Olympics on the second—he's got two more qualifying runs in Rome and Lucerne on the 11th and the 16th, which he hopes go better than the race in Milan.
If not, it wouldn't be the end of the line for the Fastest Man on No Legs. He could still earn a spot on the relay team for South Africa, but in his eyes, it only counts if he's in the starting four and not a reserve:
"If I make the team I don't want to be the reserve for the relay, I want to be in the top four. I want to bring something to the race and make the relay stronger."
The biggest things that drive Oscar are his will to provide more opportunities like this to those who suffer from disabilities like his, and his mindset of wanting to be the difference maker in his country's athletic system, his will to compete, and the pride in earning his own way. It's one of the reasons that he won't accept a wild card berth from the IAAF to the Olympics:
"I do not believe that I would accept. If I have to take part in the Beijing Games I should do it because I qualified."
And if not this year, then Oscar says he'll just be better prepared to compete for a spot in the 2012 Olympics, because in his eyes, he'll have reached his peak at age 25.
It's been 1,100 words and to be honest, I still can't believe what I'm writing—the man is truly an inspiration to me (Did I mention that he's doing all this while staying up-to-date in his studies of Business Management and Sports Studies at the University of Pretoria? Yeah....it's impressive), and I can't help but pull for him and leave a little yellow sticky-note on my computer monitor, reminding me to check the results of the Olympic qualifiers on the 11th and 16th.
I guess it just goes to show you: Keep your eyes open the next time you're in the barber shop—you never know who you might run in to.
Bryan Thiel is a Senior Writer for Bleacher Report, as well as the NHL Community Leader. If you want to get in contact with Bryan you can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or you can view his profile here. You can also read more of his work in his archives.
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