Paralympic track and field athlete, Jerome Singleton, poses for a portrait during the 2012 Team USA Media Summit on May 15, 2012 in Dallas, Texas. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Even as a child growing up in South Carolina, Jerome Singleton Jr. displayed a natural talent for sports.
In seventh-grade, he made his middle school’s basketball team. By the time he reached seventeen he was one of the top 100 high school football players in the state. Singleton says he was able to compete alongside his able-bodied peers not only because of sporting prowess, but due to an unyielding determination to succeed. “I believe I have been blessed with a gift to excel in different facets of my life.”
The middle child of three children, Singleton recalls a loving and supportive family home. He credits his parents, Jerome and Jacqueline, for their selfless support and high expectations, despite his disability. Born in July 1986 and raised in Greenwood, South Carolina, Singleton was born without a fibula and had his right leg amputated below the knee when he was just 18 months old. Talking about overcoming challenges, he says, “I want to show people they can change their life.”By high school he was playing football and basketball, as well as running on the track, with a prosthetic limb –not the ‘J shaped’ leg he uses today. Paradoxically, Singleton reveals close friends have given him the nickname “turtle” because “he does everything slow, except running.”
Even with his youthful optimism, Singleton does acknowledge facing setbacks and bouts of “self-consciousness.” He admits, he tried to conceal his amputated leg by “wearing long socks” and at times, his prosthetic foot would break off while he was playing sports.
“It’s only as I got older, especially competing in the Paralympics, that I have come to fully embrace my disability,” says the 26-year-old.
Singleton’s journey to the Beijing 2008 Paralympics began in his sophomore year at Atlanta’s Morehouse College, while he was studying a dual degree in math and applied physics, on a NASA scholarship. He went to the track coach at Morehouse and told him, “I want to be a Paralympian,” he says.
“Morehouse has made me the man I am today,” he says. “I was surrounded by people who looked like me, including African American male professors; after that I knew I didn’t have any more excuses.”
His academic talents also gave him the opportunity to intern at NASA and Cern, the European Organization for Nuclear Physics in Geneva.
After a few ups and downs, Singleton finally fulfilled his sporting ambitions in Beijing. He won a silver medal in the 100-meter (T44) finals and was a member of the gold-medal-winning 4x100m men’s relay team. Overnight, he became one of the world’s most respected Paralympic sprinters.
“Beijing was an amazing experience,” he says. “It changed my perspective on life.”
Testimony to his academic excellence, after the games, he transferred to University of Michigan to finish his dual degrees and added a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering to his plate. At the same time he continued competing and winning medals at international sporting events.
Last year, Singleton was back in the headlines when he beat the fastest amputee on the planet, Oscar Pistorius, to earn a gold medal in the World Championships. That defeat ended Pistorius’ seven-year Paralympic winning streak.
With such high expectations, Singleton’s performance at the London 2012 Paralympic Games was a surprise. He was placed 6th in the 100m and came 5th in the 200m. He was also set to run in the 4x100m relay but Team USA was among three teams disqualified.
“This is the first time I didn’t medal.” He attributes his performance to minor health issues, though explains that he uses experiences, good and bad, as a “learning curve and opportunity to grow.”
Singleton believes it is a shame that over the years the Paralympic Games have been viewed as a poor cousin to the Olympics, with less media coverage and athletes typically securing less lucrative sponsorships deals. Regardless of this, he says, the tracks and field events in London were packed with sold-out crowds and coverage was significantly better than in 2008.
In the face of assumptions that viewers are not interested in disabled sports, Singleton predicts the Paralympic Games gaining popularity in the coming years. “The Paralympics gives us a chance to look at athletes pushing to their limits, despite the challenges they have had.”
Now back in the states on a busy schedule, which includes setting up an organization to help U.S. children with prosthetic limbs, Singleton says he is as determined and focused as ever.