SECOND PICTURE GALLERY ADDED: We meet 50 of America’s top Paralympians training at RAF Lakenheath in advance of London 2012
DOUBLE amputee Blake Leeper bounded over with a grin as broad as the Olympic flame and with the modesty of a Tibetan monk.
But this unassuming 22 year-old, who has been using prosthetics since before his first birthday, is in Britain for a reason and one not entirely unconnected with Jonnie Peacock, the Fenland athlete who has become the Face of the 2012 Paralympics.
Blake is here to take on Jonnie and the likes of Jerome Singleton and, of course, Oscar Pistorius in the 100 metres field at the Paralympics in London.
But prior to heading off to London, the 50 strong track and field competitors from the USA Paralympics squad have been staying local, guests of the 48th Fighter Wing of the US Air Force at RAF Lakenheath.
“It has been a very special welcome to Britain,” said Blake who has been at Lakenheath for the past week preparing and training for the Paralympics.
“The secret is that there is no secret,” he said. “You simply need to stay focused.”
He has watched the 19 year-old Doddington boy Jonnie Peacock’s career blossom, witnessing his ability to “continue to get stronger. Hard work does really pay off.”
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At Blake’s level of international competitiveness the talk is of “sub 12 minute races and sub 11 minute races”, the 11.96 seconds 100 metres he ran in his first 100 metres race three years ago forever staying in his mind.
He’s played basketball and baseball but the 100 metres T43 world record is where, for him, Jonnie and Oscar the momentum now is. Last month Blake equalled the 10.91 world record set by Pistorius so he knows he’s more than up to the challenge in London 2012 but then again he also knows that Peacock shaved .6 seconds of that record and so maybe the man to beat.
The introduction to the media by the Lakenheath was a gentle, flexible and informal affair.
Nearly all of the USAF Paralympic squad lined up for interviews, chatting animatedly about their experiences of being in Britain – many for the first the time- and of how this country is proving an exceptional host.
The range of talented and exceptional men and women seemed unending as each was introduced – and prizing out of them their individual achievements at times difficult.
Wheelchair racer Paul Nitz, for example, is a multi gold medallist and is passionate, committed, delightfully cheerful and a shining example of putting adversity in its place.
Born with a spinal cord injury he works by day in insurance and by night trains, trains and trains some more.
“Sport has driven about everything I’ve done,” he says. His first gold was achieved in Barcelona 20 years ago and they’ve been piling up since.
Cathy Sellers, the USA track and field director for Paralympics, has been delighted with the welcome at Lakenheath.
“You couldn’t have asked for anything better,” she said, describing how American families had been involved in a sponsorship programme to support each Paralympian by hosting their stay.
Elsewhere the base has been awash with volunteers to help daily prepare the track for training and to keep the refreshments flowing.
Cathy believes the support offered at Lakenheath in advance of the athletes moving into the Olympic village “makes the difference in a lot of medals. It helps the athletes get over jet lag and adjust to the time difference.”
Cathy says the team goal is 30 medals and rebuffs criticism from those members who want more.
“I will take the 30 first,” she says. “We will get greedy later.”