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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.

The Technology Behind Blake Leeper

Yesterday, I wrote about an athlete named Blake Leeper, who I stumbled across recently. Leeper, who was born without legs below the knee, will be sprinting in next month's Paralympic World Championships in Lyon, France with the aid of the kind of high-tech prosthetic "blades" used by South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius.

Despite being born without lower legs, Leeper played basketball and ran cross country throughout high school. Leeper thought his athletic career was over when he graduated from high school -- right up until he saw Pistorius and others running in the 2008 Paralympic Games with prosthetic blades.

He promptly raised the $15,000 to get a set of blades for himself. It took him three months to get comfortable with the new prosthetics. In his first race in 2009, he qualified for a spot on the U.S. Paralympic team.

Last July in Canada, he tied Pistorius' 100-meter paralympic world record with a time of 10.91 seconds. Like Pistorius, Leeper is hoping to compete in the Olympics as an able-bodied athlete.

The blades were developed by a medical engineer named Van Phillips, who figured out how to build prosthetics that store kinetic energy like a spring, which allows athletes to run and jump effectively.

The blades are constructed of a reinforced carbon fiber -- a strong, light-weight material that's now used in an array of settings from athletic gear to bicycles, sailboats and nearly any equipment where high strength-to-weight ratio is important.

The manufacturing process involves layering together 30 to 90 carbon fiber sheets, which is then autoclaved to remove bubbles and fuse the sheets into a solid plate. Once the plate has cooled, it's cut into the now-familiar blade shape, which is then bolted to a carbon fiber socket that's custom fit to Leeper's legs.

Spikes, developed by Nike research, are mounted to the bottom of the blade, which aid in traction and help athletes such as Leeper sprint at maximum speed.

The blades are slightly longer than a runner's biological leg and foot would be. The curve replaces the ankle hinge with a compression that bends and releases with every stride. When a runner is standing still, he looks like he's standing on tiptoe because there's very little compression of the ankle curve. And oh yeah, no running backward -- the blades have no heel and are designed for forward motion only. Wearers report that the blades almost seem to have a mind of their own. It's nearly impossible to stand still and it's even difficult to move slowly in them. It takes strength and training to control them.

The prosthetics do a remarkable job of restoring a person to a performance level near his biological potential. In a study done to determine whether Pistorius was gaining an unfair advantage competing in the able-bodied Olympics, researchers found that biological legs had an elastic energy return of 93-95 percent. The return from carbon fiber blades: 92 percent.

While the technology is fascinating, the real story is the dedication and hard work of athletes like Blake Leeper, who are stretching the boundaries of what's possible for people with disabilities.

The 2013 NBA Draft: Ye Olde Draft Analyzer (YODA) Rankings


Yeah, I know the draft is already underway. Sue me, I've been busy. Won't go too deep into the weeds on this. Below are the scores each player received in Ye Olde Draft Analyzer (YODA), which is my attempt at developing a system to objectively evaluate NCAA draft prospects.

YODA uses box score stats that have been run through a stat formula I've developed to measure a player's overall productivity. It includes adjustments for a prospects age, athletic/physical tools, and his team's strength of schedule.

Below are the prospects with first round grades in YODA and their YODA score. The top score in YODA history is a 36, which was posted by Shaquille O'Neal in his sophomore season. Here's how monstrous that season was: the next best was Anthony Davis...with a 28.

2013 Overall YODA Ratings

  1. Victor Oladipo -- SG, Indiana -- 19
  2. Cody Zeller -- PF, Indiana -- 14
  3. Nerlens Noel -- C, Kentucky -- 9
  4. Ben McLemore -- SG, Kansas -- 8
  5. Otto Porter -- SF, Georgetown -- 8
  6. Steven Adams -- C, Pittsburgh -- 8
  7. Anthony Bennett -- PF, Nevada-Las Vegas -- 8
  8. Trey Burke -- PG, Michigan -- 7
  9. Kelly Olynyk -- C, Gonzaga -- 7
  10. Michael Carter-Williams -- PG, Syracuse -- 6
  11. Gorgui Dieng -- C, Louisville -- 6
  12. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope -- SG, Georgia -- 6
  13. Shane Larkin -- PG, Miami (FL) -- 6
  14. Reggie Bullock -- SF, North Carolina -- 5
  15. C.J. McCollum -- SG, Lehigh -- 5
  16. Tyrus McGee -- SG, Iowa State -- 4
  17. Jeff Withey -- C, Kansas -- 4
  18. Mason Plumlee -- PF, Duke -- 3
  19. Shabazz Muhammad -- SF, UCLA -- 3
  20. Alex Oriakhi -- PF, Missouri -- 3
  21. Zeke Marshall -- C, Akron -- 2
  22. Nate Wolters -- PG, South Dakota State -- 2
  23. Ray McCallum -- PG, Detroit Mercy -- 2
  24. Elias Harris -- SF, Gonzaga -- 2
  25. Jamaal Franklin -- SG, San Diego State -- 2
  26. Allen Crabbe -- SG, California -- 2
  27. Gregory Echenique -- C, Creighton -- 1
  28. James Southerland -- SF, Syracuse -- 1
  29. D.J. Stephens -- PF, Memphis -- 1
  30. Carrick Felix -- SG, Arizona State -- 1
  31. Kevin Young -- SF, Kansas -- 1
  32. Mike Muscala -- C, Bucknell -- 0
  33. Solomon Hill -- SF, Arizona -- 0
  34. Ryan Broekhoff -- SF, Valpariso -- 0
  35. Pierce Hornung -- SF, Colorado State -- 0
  36. Colton Iverson -- C, Colorado State -- 0
  37. Ryan Kelly -- C, Duke -- 0
  38. Erick Green -- PG, Virginia Tech -- 0
  39. Maurice Kemp -- SF, East Carolina -- 0

That's more than enough since once a YODA score drops below a 3, the player's prospects as a pro diminish significantly. 

The most notable disagreement between YODA and the draft sites and NBA scouts is Maryland center Alex Len. Over at Draft Express, Len was listed as their top prospect in this year's draft. In the actual draft, he went 5th overall. In YODA, he ranks 43rd with a score of -1. I'm not arrogant enough to say that I'm right and DX and GMs are wrong, but I do think YODA suggests Len is not as strong a prospect as he's reputed to be. His college production wasn't impressive -- especially considering his relatively weak team and less than overwhelming schedule.

I expect to write more about the draft using YODA in a week or so when my schedule at least edges back toward normal.

Until then, Wizards fans can feel pretty good about getting Otto Porter at third overall -- sort of the SF version of Bradley Beal. Cody Zeller or Nerlens Noel also would have made good picks in that spot (since Victor Oladipo was taken with the 2nd pick), but Porter should make a good pro.