Sunday, June 12, 2011

Paralympics champ Oscar Pistorius challenges narratives of inspiration


NEW YORK -- Oscar Pistorius is perhaps the most unconventionally built athlete gunning for a slot at the London Olympics -- a double-amputee runner whose performance has earned him the right to compete alongside the top able-bodied 400-meter men in the world.

Pistorius will race against a strong field in the June 11 Adidas Grand Prix in the latest stop on his quest to log a time that would assure him a start in this summer's world championships and next year's Games. Meanwhile, he continues to dominate disabled competition and is the reigning Paralympic gold medalist and world record-holder in the 100-, 200- and 400-meter events.

The "Blade Runner" -- who strides along on carbon-fiber prostheses that resemble short, curved skis -- is viewed fondly from the stands as an overachiever and a people's champion who fought the efforts of international track and field authorities to keep him out of "regular" competition. He embraces his stature as a role model but rejects the artificial sweetener some would sprinkle into his story.

"If I ran badly, I don't want people to write that my race was inspirational," he told reporters this week.

Yet Pistorius, 24, says he has only recently understood and applied the dedication it will take to reach his true potential. And it took a somewhat conventional dramatic twist -- a life-threatening accident -- to jolt him into that realization.

Idled by a minor knee injury in February 2009, Pistorius and a friend took a motorboat out for the afternoon on the Vaal River in his native South Africa. He was sitting sideways as he piloted the boat at about 35 mph when he clipped the end of a pier just barely submerged by high water. The boat stopped dead. Pistorius' torso ricocheted against the chair, breaking his ribs, and one side of his head caved in when it smashed into the steering wheel.

Pistorius had wrecked a motorbike or two before, but knew this was far more serious.

"I remember lying in the ambulance going in and out of consciousness," he said. "I thought, 'This is it, I've done it properly now.' I was extremely placid. I was so certain I was probably going to die."

The impact shattered his jaw, nose, cheekbone and one eye socket. Surgeons essentially had to cut the skin of his face away from his skull as if it were a rubber mask to do reconstructive surgery. Pistorius, who lost three pints of blood, was placed on a ventilator and then put in a twilight state after he tried to rip the tubes out of his throat. He awoke about a week later to discover that police were investigating him for reckless driving (he wasn't charged) and to hear media reports insinuating that he'd been drinking (he hadn't).

The worst was yet to come, as all the gains Pistorius had made in the two seasons since turning professional had vanished by the time he got back on the track several months later. "I didn't break 47 seconds [in 2009], and the last time I ran 47 seconds, I was 17 years old," he said quietly, his hazel eyes steady. "I'm 22, 23, starting on the peak of my career. Then I realized this is a career that I've been very blessed to have.

"Maybe it was a good thing that I went through that. It just gave me a little bit of an extra edge to say, 'Look, buddy, if you've got six training sessions a week on the track, you make all six. If you've got five in the gym, you make all five, you give it 100 percent.' In the past, I'd make four sessions, and if I didn't feel well, I'd stay home."

No wonder Pistorius now regards his legal battle with the International Association of Athletics Associations as "the easiest part of my career." Getting to the start line is one thing. Putting in the tedious training and making infinitesimal adjustments to improve is another.

Success did come naturally to Pistorius, as strange a statement as that may seem about a man born missing his calf bones. His legs were amputated below the knee when he was 11 months old, yet as a schoolboy he reveled in playing tennis, water polo and the ultimate tough-guy sport, rugby. He began running as a means to rehab an injury.

His speech is well-mannered and punctuated with boarding-school "sirs" and "ma'ams," but there's clearly a spiky pride just below the surface. Pistorius does not suffer pat questions or stereotypes gladly. He attributes much of his free spirit to his mother, Sheila, who died when he was 15. She left instructions in her will that her family was to forget that day and instead celebrate her birthday, May 8, each year.

Pistorius is still working with the same coach, Ampie Louw, who "snuck" him into his first race at a regional meet when he was dabbling and then never let him leave the sport. "My job was to get him out of rugby as quickly as possible," Louw said. The teenager proceeded to train seriously for the 100-meter event for three weeks and beat the world record for double amputees by a full second.

In July 2007, he was invited to run against elite able-bodied athletes in Rome and Sheffield, England. The latter field included U.S. 400-meter specialist and multiple Olympic medalist Jeremy Wariner, who is also running in New York this weekend.

"We don't like to talk about that race," Wariner said, laughing, as he sat side-by-side with Pistorius at a press event this week. It had poured rain at the race in England. At the gun, Wariner stumbled out of the blocks and stopped, eschewing the rest of the race. Pistorius finished last and was disqualified for running out of his lane. It was, in short, a complete anticlimax.

By then, Pistorius' times were getting close enough to the Olympic standard that IAAF officials had taken notice. They filmed him, tested him (with his consent) and put sports scientists to work trying to analyze whether his prosthetic limbs gave him an advantage. They also wrote a rule that seemed tailored against him, 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." In January 2008, the IAAF announced that Pistorius ran afoul of that rule and banned him from able-bodied races.

Pistorius successfully contested the ban before the Court of Arbitration for Sport, which castigated the IAAF's methodology. The ruling came just two months before the Beijing Olympics, leaving scant time for Pistorius to make the cut. He ran the 400 in 46.25 seconds to make the "B" standard for Olympic competition, but fell short of the "A" standard of 45.55 seconds that would have guaranteed his selection by South Africa. Six other runners from his country surpassed his time in the 400 and were chosen for the relay.

Then came the accident that rearranged Pistorius' facial architecture and his priorities. In many ways, the past two years represent the first time he's ever focused solely on being an athlete -- zeroing in on the humdrum necessities of his trade, diet and tactics -- rather than an ambassador sprinting for a cause. He does cardio and plyometric work with a former world cruiserweight boxing champion. He chokes down raw-vegetable smoothies and is visibly leaner. Louw has made a point of having him train in wet conditions to overcome his fears about traction in the rain.

The fractions of seconds that will make a difference to Pistorius need to be carved out of the first half of his 400, a challenge since his prostheses inevitably mean a slower start and more gradual vector to full gas. Pistorius used to consistently run the second half of the 400 faster than the first, an unusual pattern that most analyses attributed to his prosthetic legs. "You can't be scared of the first turn," Louw has told him, and Pistorius has listened hard and experimented with his pace.

This Olympic lead-up is already very different from the previous one. There are no legal distractions, and Pistorius has already comfortably qualified for the "B" standard with a personal-best time of 45.61 seconds in March. But he's after the sure thing -- a sub-45.25 performance -- that will allow him to control his competitive destiny. A bout with the flu caused a dip in form last month, and he finished eighth and last at the Prefontaine Classic last week. But Pistorius has another year to make the grade for London, and a half-dozen chances in the next few weeks to qualify for the able-bodied world championships.

"I have no doubt this time next year we will have qualified for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games," he said.

Even Pistorius -- so bent on being respected for his abilities rather than his disabilities -- would have to admit that would have the power to inspire.