Jarryd Wallace and Ross Ridgewell look like mirror images of one another.
Their bodies appear made from the same mold, and their strides and profiles synch up as they speed through a recent practice at Spec Towns Track.
But Ridgewell gives Wallace some distance before hitting a turn and then catches up to his training partner.
“It’s just like in a race, someone’s going to come up on your shoulder, and you need to just stay focused on yourself,” Ridgewell says.
But Wallace puts on the afterburners, pulling away for the final stretch of their drill.
“Sometimes you just have to contain some of that competitive nature, you know?” Ridgewell says as the two are doubled over sucking in air a few yards past the finish line.
That’s easier said than done for Wallace, who 26 months after having part of his right leg amputated will compete in a little more than a week in the 4×100-meter relay and 400 at the Paralympic Games in London.
That competitive nature opened doors for him as a promising high school athlete, and it’s earned him a trip to England, where he is now training before his events begin on Sept. 5.
“The surreal feeling of what’s happening really hasn’t even hit me yet,” Wallace, 22, said. “I’ve got training camp outside of London for 11 or 12 days, and I don’t think it’s going to sink in until I actually run over there. But I’ve got my bags packed, I’ve got my uniforms shipped to me. It’s real now.”
Real as it may be, Wallace’s story is almost too fantastic to believe, even for himself, he admits. Every turn is met with serendipity and luck in bundles big enough to match his ambitions of being the fastest runner in the world.
There was a chance meeting with Scott Rigsby, a double-amputee Ironman competitor who inspired Wallace when he was mulling over his amputation options. There was the email he wrote to U.S. Paralympic Track and Field coach Cathy Sellers just before his amputation, promising to make her team in time for London Games with the trials slated for just days from the two-year anniversary of the surgery. And then there was his trip to Mexico for the ParaPan American Games, making the team at the last minute only to win a gold medal and set a world-best time in the 100 just 18 months after losing his leg.
It’s all moved so fluidly and so fast, and that’s just the way Wallace dreamed it might.
“I think the past two years have gone by faster than any two years in my whole life,” said Wallace, who runs with a “blade” prosthetic like the one used by Olympian Oscar Pistorius and uses a more traditional leg when not training. “It’s amazing to me what I’ve been able to accomplish, from being able to walk six weeks after the surgery, running 12 weeks after, starting to train six months after and winning a gold medal 18 months after. It’s unbelievable, really.”
In his blood
Training aside, there’s little doubt Wallace was born into his role as an elite athlete.
His father, Jeff, is the Georgia women’s tennis coach and a former Bulldogs tennis player, and his mother, Sabina, is a former Georgia All-American distance runner.
By the time he was 5, it was clear he had the mentality that drove them to success.
“We’d throw the baseball in the backyard back then, and we had a little T-ball stand and a Wiffle Ball bat,” Jeff Wallace said. “He’d literally stay in the yard until he got so tired he had to put his little plastic chair there next to the T-ball stand and sit in it to keep hitting. We have pictures of that, and it always reminds us of how he was always so athletic and never wanted to sit still.”
Wallace picked up other sports — soccer, skiing, wake boarding and tennis — and excelled at every level. By the time he reached high school, he had begun to focus on tennis and running, and he was the only freshman on the Oconee County varsity team. It was then that he began to realize his own potential.
“I kind of started to get really competitive when I was playing tennis, but I got especially competitive running my freshman year,” Wallace said. “I was surrounded by older, bigger guys, and I wanted to beat them every day. Between my dad playing tennis and my mom being an All-American runner, I felt like I just had it in me, that it was in my blood. And when you get someone like that into competitive sports, it just becomes second nature to you.”
All went well through Wallace’s first two years of high school, but he developed leg pain his junior year and was diagnosed with compartmental syndrome, which can lead to muscle and nerve damage and requires surgery and sometimes amputation. Yet he still managed to win state titles in the 800 and 1,600 that season and had 10 surgeries over the next two years. Several colleges had offered him track and field scholarships, and Georgia offered to honor theirs even when the condition became so bad that it was clear Wallace would never run as an able-bodied athlete.
“It got so bad because he was in pain and addicted to the medications, and at that point he was basically crippled” Jeff Wallace said. “The whole amputation thing was going to improve his life considerably. Most people have something tragic happen to them and one or two days later have a leg amputated. For us, we were blessed enough to be able to consider this and make a decision we thought was going to be the best thing to do. And in the end, the decision was made because we all realized this was something that could help Jarryd make some of his dreams come true.”
Step by step
On June 22, 2010, Wallace had his leg amputated.
Six weeks later, his parents teared up when they saw him walk with a prosthetic leg — and without a limp — for the first time in years.
In November, they saw him run down the street for the first time, and it was apparent then that their son would be just fine.
“He looked so smooth, so great,” Jeff Wallace said. “If he had a pair of sweatpants on all the way down to his ankles, you’d think he was just some regular guy running. That day was special for our family because we realized he was going to get right back to where he was and live his life.”
By then Wallace and Ridgewell had become close friends. They met when Ridgewell, then the Georgia track team captain, hosted him on a recruiting visit. Once Wallace decided to begin training for something big, he called Ridgewell and asked him to be his coach.
On Jan. 6, 2011, in six inches of snow, two friends took their first training run together. They traveled Baxter Street and Alps Road, winding through campus with London on their minds. It was a lofty goal for someone who just months earlier had lost a leg, but Wallace has outdone himself with every step.
“He has far exceeded my expectations and most people’s expectations,” Jeff Wallace said. “When you lived something like we lived the last couple of years, it just seems like you can only take the next step of what you’re dealing with and where you are living in that moment. The future is just a hope when you’re dealing with surgeries and amputations, and you’re just worried about one decision at a time, not where it leads down the road. But Jarryd really stuck to his goals and took them one step at a time, just like that.”
Those steps added up quickly. Less than a year later, in November 2011, Wallace ran a world-leading 11.31-second 100-meter dash at the ParaPan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico.
Now it’s possible that Wallace could be in the mix for a Paralympic medal or two when the Games begin this week in London. He’s vying for spots on a 4×100 relay team that features five contenders all ranked in the world’s top eight, and he qualified for the U.S. team in a 100 final that saw a new world record and American record set by the top two finishers and a last-place effort that would have won a national title a year ago.
“I think, for our team, anything short of not winning a gold and breaking a world record will be a disappointment,” Wallace said. “That’s what this training camp is going to be about — finding out who has the best chemistry and who can do this best together. We all run low, low 11-second 100s consistently, so it won’t be an issue of time.”
Not to mention that he considers the 400 his natural event and is drawing some inspiration from knowing he will be competing against Pistorius, who recently made history by becoming the first amputee track athlete to compete at the Olympics.
“I’ve had a few setbacks in my training, and my times aren’t exactly where they’ll need to be for London, but there’s a training cycle,” Wallace said. “Ross has me right on track for where I need to be peaking in London, and who knows what can happen?”
With Wallace’s track record, it could be anything. But regardless of his finish, Wallace said he couldn’t ask for anything more than the opportunity he has.
“Two or three months before I had my leg amputated, I made a statement that I would be on this team,” Wallace said. “And now I am, and it’s a huge testament to my support group, my coach, my family and my therapist and all the people who encouraged me to keep running and chasing down this dream.”