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Sports As Metaphor: The Blake Leeper Story

Last week, I wrote about a sprinter named Blake Leeper, who is in deep preparations for the Paralympic World Championships later this month in France. Leeper was born without legs below the knee, but with the use of prosthetics was able to run cross country and play varsity basketball in high school.

When he graduated high school, his athletic career seemed to be over -- until he saw Oscar Pistorius and others competing in the 2008 Paralympics using the high-tech "blade" prosthetics. Leeper, then 18 years old, immediately applied for grants and sponsorships to raise the $15,000 necessary to get his own set and join the competition.

Last year, he tied Pistorius for the fastest paralympic 100 meters at 10.91. A new record is in Leeper's sights this month.

For me, Leeper's life -- and the entire Paralympic movement -- is a quintessential sports story, which means it's a quintessential human story. I'm writing about Leeper from afar at the moment, but I would love to write the movie version someday. It's a story that deserves telling.

Sports, movies, novels, TV series serve the same purpose in our culture. They're a metaphor for life, a ritual reenactment of the reality that life is about overcoming challenges and obstacles to achieve a goal. This is true for everyone -- no matter how rich or poor, no matter the ethnicity or religion. The specific obstacles may differ, but life will test each of us in some way. It's up to us how we handle it.

This is the basic plot of every story ever told: a character is presented with a challenge and must do something to overcome it. Overcoming one challenge leads to another, which leads to another, and so on to the end of the movie, or the fourth quarter. Unless there's overtime.

In Hollywood, the character usually overcomes the odds in the end because we love a happy ending. In team sports, there's a "two-sides of the coin" ending -- one team succeeds, one team fails. In individual sports, there's typically one victor, but "success" can be measured in many ways. For Tiger Woods, a fifth place finish in the U.S. Open is a failure. For a 16-year old qualifier, fifth place is an achievement. The underlying point remains: sports is an oft-exaggerated metaphor for the process of facing and overcoming challenges.

Probably 30 years ago now, I saw what I still think of as the most impressive athletic performance I've ever witnessed. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation held a swimathon fund raiser. Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that affects the digestive system and the lungs. Specifically, people with CF produce a thick mucus that clogs the lungs (making breathing more difficult) and makes them more susceptible to pulmonary infections.

My younger brother -- then maybe 9 or 10 years old -- signed up to swim. We went around the neighborhood hitting up family friends and complete strangers for pledges. When they heard my brother would be swimming, they made larger commitments per lap. One person promised $10 per lap.

On the day of the event, my brother got in the pool at 8:00 a.m. and swam. And swam and swam and swam...lap after lap, back and forth across the pool. He came out of the water for 5-10 minute breaks, but continued swimming laps until the event ended in the afternoon. That day, he swam approximately two and a half miles -- an amazing display of determination and endurance because my brother has cystic fibrosis. That's why the pledges were so big. No one thought he could swim more than a hundred laps.

This is why a guy like Blake Leeper fascinates me. Born without legs below the knee, he got his first prosthetics at 9 months and decided with his family that it would be an excuse for absolutely nothing. The prosthetics he wore to run cross country and play basketball weren't high-tech blades. What got him through was hard work and the determination to overcome a handicap.

Now equipped with prosthetics that restore what he likely would have been able to do naturally, Leeper is a top paralympic athlete who hopes to compete in the able-bodied Olympics in 2016. I'll be following his progress. And taking notes for the screenplay.