At a young age, Lex Gillette lost his sight following several surgeries for detached retinas.
But with support from friends, family members and coach Brian Whitmer, Gillette overcame that to become the Paralympics world record holder in the long jump at 6.73 meters, or about 22 feet.
He’s participated in the past three Paralympic Games, including the most recent in London, England, each time earning a silver medal for the long jump.
Since losing his sight, Gillette has lived by the mantra, “no need for sight when you have a vision.” And that’s what he told hundreds of students Monday at Otwell Middle School.
“I could have easily sat there and felt sorry for myself,” he said. “But the people around me saw something better.”
It was Whitmer, now a coach at Otwell, who Gillette credits with giving him a start in track and field.
“Initially, I didn’t like doing the sport ... it was still something that was new to me,” he said. “He helped me see that I could be successful in athletics. Before that, I thought you need to be able to see to do everything.”
Whitmer, then a physical education teacher for the visually impaired in North Carolina, first met Gillette when the latter was a freshman in high school. Though it took a little time to figure out which sport he would excel at, the teacher knew Gillette was a natural athlete.
“He’s absolutely phenomenal,” Whitmer said. “He’s the example I use in my health class all the time. When I’m talking about health and I’m talking about goal setting, I’m talking about him.”
Whitmer and Gillette still talk regularly and are a part of each other’s families. The coach said getting to see Gillette on Monday was nearly as exciting for him as it was for the kids.
Gillette’s visit had a special meaning for one student in particular, Otwell sixth-grader Augustu Pacleb.
Like Gillette, Pacleb is blind but strives to compete in the 800-meter run.
Pacleb got to enjoy a private lunch with his two closest friends and Gillette. In addition to being inspired by the athlete, Pacleb also got to hold the athlete’s silver medal and wear his jacket.
“It was pretty awesome to meet a paralympian that’s totally blind like me,” he said.
Inspiring youth is why Gillette has added motivational speaking to his repertoire, which also includes songwriting and playing the piano.
“I’m trying to share my story with them and let them know that anything is definitely possible,” he said. “Being able to educate kids ... propels you to another level.”