Jackie Pepper reports that, despite the tragic death of Reeva Steenkamp and Pistorius’s subsequent fall from grace, fellow paralympic athletes still find inspiration from his rise to fame as they carry the torch for the next generation.
Alleged yelling. Shots fired through the bathroom door. Sexual performance-enhancing drugs. A substantial firearms collection. Tears and sunken eyes. A murder trial.
This was not the man the world recognized as the face of the 2012 Summer Games and Paralympics. The details did not align with the man earning an estimated $2 million per year in endorsement deals with Nike, BT, Oakley and Thierry Mugler. And most importantly, this imagery did not, could not, be a reflection of Oscar Pistorius, the man who embodied the power of the human spirit.
“I was in disbelief. I thought it was a joke. Once I did some research, I tried to sleep but I couldn’t. I was just sick to my stomach.”
Blake Leeper, 2012 Paralympic silver medalist and 23-year-old double amputee sprinter was in his apartment at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, CA when his agent called him with the news.
“I tried to go to sleep and would wake up thinking it was a dream.”
Next door, Leeper’s neighbor, Lex Gillette, was also digesting the rumblings that Oscar Pistorius had allegedly shot and killed his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp, mistaking her for an intruder in the early-morning hours of February 14, 2013 at his home in Pretoria, South Africa.
Having lost all sight after suffering detached retinas in both eyes during his childhood, Gillette used special technology that read the information on his computer screen aloud late that Wednesday night.
“I was in my bed, I was staying up pretty late and I was on my Twitter page. I ran across a post from USA Today and it said, ‘Pistorius arrested…’ I was like, hold up! I clicked it and I was immediately texting people.”
The community that perhaps knew Pistorius best was collectively hit by a shock wave. Gillette, a 28-year-old long jumper who has won the silver medal in the event at three consecutive Paralympic Games, couldn’t believe the mild-mannered man he met in London—the face of his Paralympic movement—could be capable of what the news reports claimed.
“He was just a normal Joe. He was a high-profile athlete, but he’s a normal Joe. I didn’t hear anything alarming or that would make me think he’s crazy. He’s just a 26-year-old man living life and inspiring people.”
The previous few weeks were a blur. Awake. Asleep. Speaking with visitors for as long as he could stand it. No recollection of how he got here.
Nick Ekbatani sat in a hospital bed unable to watch the flat-screen television mounted on the wall in front of him because of the massive head trauma he suffered in an accident. Instead, it was flowers, cards and his own thoughts—the wheels in his head spinning faster than those of the taxi cab that hit him that day—keeping him occupied as the drama in his own life surpassed anything television could offer.
Alive despite being pronounced dead at the scene, Ekbatani had survived a coma, blood loss, and several surgeries, but he was no longer whole. Pondering what adventures—and struggles—his new life would bring was a frequent pastime in the weeks following the accident for Ekbatani, who stands six feet, five inches tall with a nice build, perfectly quaffed brown hair and a handsomely chiseled face.
“Oscar Pistorius is running today,” said one of the nurses who entered the room.
The name was unfamiliar to Ekbatani, as he had missed the media coverage leading up to the London Olympics. Riding his motorcycle up Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) on a mid-July day in 2012, the three-year UCLA offensive lineman—who had turned 25 years old just three weeks earlier—was driving northbound from Redondo Beach to meet some friends in Hermosa. What felt like a promising 70-degree Saturday would be ruined in a split second as a cabbie speeding in his van on the southbound side of PCH made an illegal left turn.
A nurse told Ekbatani about the “Blade Runner,” the first amputee to ever compete in an Olympic Games. Pistorius was a hero in his native South Africa and became a sensation during the Paralympic Games in Beijing in 2008. After winning the battle to participate in the Olympics alongside the world’s most elite able-bodied athletes, Pistorius became perhaps the most recognizable of the estimated one billion people in the world, according to the World Health Organization, who fall under the “disabled” umbrella, and the world waited to watch him run.
Looking down at the foot of his hospital bed, the space next to Ekbatani’s right leg felt uncomfortably empty as there was no longer a left leg lying beside it.
A double-amputee was running in the Olympics?
The wheels were once again spinning.
The summer of 2012 was also bit of a blur for Blake Leeper.
“On that medal stand to look over and see my mentor, I took it all in,” Leeper says of finishing second to Pistorius in the 400m at the Paralympic Games in London.
“We gave each other a big hug, as to say, ‘We did it!’ Ending with gold and silver between us two was an amazing feeling.”
A few years earlier, Leeper was just another fan in awe of the Blade Runner.
A birth defect left Leeper without lower legs but prosthetics allowed him to walk at an early age and play sports throughout childhood. Despite being a successful varsity basketball player in his native Tennessee, Leeper figured his athletic career would end upon graduating from high school.
“Sports is the reason that got me through life. People judge a book by its cover, and I used sports my whole life to prove, ‘Don’t treat me any different.’ I gained a lot of respect through sports. Now that that was almost done, I was a lost soul. I was going through freshman year [at the University of Tennessee] trying to find my way.”
In an instant, Leeper’s path would reveal itself.
“In 2008, I’m watching [the] Beijing Olympics. I saw Oscar and [American single-leg amputee] Jerome Singleton running the 100m race. It blew my mind, especially because Oscar was the only double leg amputee in the finals. I was like, ‘Man, that’s so cool.’ I had seen blades a few times but that was my first time seeing someone compete on that level and I was so inspired.
“Seeing them on TV, that right there was a light bulb that just clicked in my head…It was crazy. It just gave me hope. If he could do it, I could do it.”
A few years after graduating from UCLA in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in political science, Ekbatani was better off than many recent college grads in the U.S.; he was employed. Working for ESPN as a high school football analyst and event coordinator, Ekbatani was content but questioned the direction in which he was headed, somewhat of a “quarter-life crisis” as he puts it.
When the speeding taxi smashed into his motorcycle on July 14, 2012, Ekbatani had a brand new crisis on his hands. He awoke from a coma on July 18.
“My leg was mangled; it was unsalvageable. My head hit the ground and my helmet shattered to pieces. I recoiled and smashed my skull into pieces, so I had some head trauma.”
Doctors and an on-scene police officer told Ekbatani that he was lucky to have survived the accident. Surgeons amputated the slight reminisce of flesh and bone below his left knee. An eternal optimist, Ekbatani was happy to be alive.
“In the amputee community and the disabled community, this [below-the-knee amputation] is called a ‘paper cut.’ I have my knee. They’ve mastered the foot and ankle in technology. I’ll do everything that I’ve ever done before in time.” This was a vision that became even clearer when Ekbatani finally watched the man his nurses had boasted about for so long.
“When I got out of the hospital I ended up watching some YouTube clips [of Pistorius] and I got to see the technology in the works and see him run on those blades. From afar, you can’t tell the difference. It’s just running. It’s pretty crazy.”
As a man with all four limbs, Ekbatani’s athletic career would max out at the collegiate level. But after watching clips of Pistorius—who required amputation after being born without the fibula in both legs—from both the Olympics and Paralympics, Ekbatani realized the loss of his leg gave him another opportunity to become a professional athlete. Go figure.
Oscar Pistorius seemed to shift the culture of nearly every institution he touched. With winning—six golds, one silver and one bronze medal since the 2004 Paralympics in Athens—came fame, and fame begat power. For years, Pistorius used that power in positive ways.
“When Oscar was the new guy coming in, the guys there at the time maybe weren’t that nice to him. It was competitive,” says Leeper, who was surprised at how friendly his idol was when he met Pistorius for the first time at the World Championships in New Zealand in 2011.
“When we came along, the new guys, [Pistorius] said he wanted to do it different. He understood that we were competitors but we had a bigger mission. He wanted to bring attention to Paralympics. We all have great relationships. We are very competitive on the track, but off the track it was a very different relationship.”
Pistorius used his growing influence outside of athletics as well. In 2010, Pistorius began serving as an ambassador to the Mineseeker Foundation Initiative, working with communities affected by land mines. Pistorius also filmed a spot for South Africa’s “It Gets Better” campaign in support of LGBT youth, and just two days before his arrest, he announced the launch of his own foundation to support disabled children.
Underneath the rock star status and electric smile remained a man who, like his afflicted peers, just wanted to create and maintain normalcy.
“[Oscar would] come to my room and give me advice, tell me his stories. Being that we are both missing both of our legs, our stories are similar. There aren’t too many double leg amputees you can just hang out with. He played rugby; I played basketball. It was so cool,” Leeper says of the friendship he developed with Pistorius over the last two years prior to Pistorius’ arrest. As an enthusiastic mentor, Pistorius played funny prank phone calls on his mentee when the two stayed at the same hotel during competitions.
“The one that I remember from last year [during the 2012 World Cup in Manchester, England]. . . He acted like an old lady and called me. I was thinking, ‘Who could this be?’ Of all people, that was the last person I expected. He has a really great sense of humor. His heart is really in the right place. He came over and [we] spent almost the whole day together hanging out, talking and sharing insight.”
Not all of the insight was pleasant. The harsh reality of life in Pistorius’ native South Africa was openly discussed in what now seems like an eerie case of foreshadowing.
“He talked about how bad the crime was, that South Africa was a rough place and extremely dangerous compared to the States and European countries,” Leeper says. “Other athletes have traveled to South Africa and told me the same thing.”
Six months after the accident, Ekbatani moved into an apartment in one of Los Angeles’ Westside beach towns. He lived alone for several months, maintaining independence despite his injuries. Ekbatani was fitted for a prosthetic leg after a months-long setback in the form of osteomyelitis, a potentially lethal bacterial infection that developed in his left leg. Ekbatani underwent multiple surgeries to remove some of the dead tissue and bone and has additional surgeries scheduled—including the rebuilding of his femur—in hopes of eventually eradicating the infection.
Ekbatani was unable to wear a prosthetic for several months because of the severity of the infection, during which time crutches were his preferred mode of transportation between his apartment and a nearby Starbucks, where he uses the Internet, socializes and writes daily. Inside the apartment, he used a wheelchair. While not completely clear of the infection, Ekbatani now uses a prosthetic.
Despite being incredibly fit and confident, losing a leg can make even the strongest person vulnerable, an issue Ekbatani took up one evening with his then girlfriend (now fiancee), television sports broadcaster Kelli Tennant.
“You know, I really want to perhaps, like, start shooting guns at a shooting range and keep a gun in a safe in my home, just in case,” Ekbatani told Tennant. “I mean, I can’t wear my [prosthetic] leg right now and I’m in a wheelchair at home. If some bad person were to come in, I’d be defenseless. ‘Please sir, don’t hurt me,’ you know? What am I supposed to do?”
Tennant wasn’t too keen on the idea, citing several recent episodes of gun violence, including the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Feeling as though he was fighting a losing battle, Ekbatani tabled the topic for the time being, and Tennant went home.
Two hours later, Ekbatani’s cell phone sounded. It was a text message from Tennant reading, “Oh my god. Oscar Pistorius just shot his girlfriend.”
Once again, Pistorius had immediately impacted Ekbatani. The news hit incredibly close to home as the horrible story emerged from a far-away continent.
“It just got me all emotional, and I don’t get very emotional. . . Needless to say, I’m not going to be getting a gun.”
Pistorius’ star could have been a bright force for decades. Now, it is all but extinguished. The World Health Organization’s 2011 estimate of one billion people worldwide suffering from disability indicates plenty of room for expansion among the disabled athletic community. The corporate support garnered by Pistorius was viewed as a major victory for disabled athletes. Instead, he has now been dropped by his major sponsors and he withdrew from competition as he prepared for trial. Unfortunately, the fallout extends beyond Pistorius.
“I’m afraid it will affect Paralympics athletes,” Leeper says of Pistorius, whom he still loves and supports, while also grieving for the Steenkamp family.
“Just from a business standpoint, when he [became a mainstream celebrity and competed in the Olympics], he was able to acquire so many different corporate sponsors, like it was everywhere. He had so much support,” recalls Gillette of the hoopla surrounding Pistorius during the summer of 2012.
All Olympic hopefuls spend tens of thousands of dollars per year on coaches, training and travel accommodations alone. For physically disabled athletes, the costs are even higher.
Running blades cost anywhere from $20,000–$40,000, an expense considered a “luxury,” not a necessity by insurance companies. Because these medical devices are not covered by insurance, athletes are forced to pay completely out of pocket for the custom-fit, carbon-fiber blades.
Nearly each of the more than 4,000 Paralympic athletes has some degree of financial support via sponsorship, proving Pistorius’ commercial success crucial on many levels.
“I feel like some people know about Paralympics, but to have someone swing that door wide open for everyone to see, that was huge for the visibility of the Paralympic movement,” Gillette says of Pistorius’ rise to fame with his historic crossover into the Olympics.
“It just so happened to be that he was the face and the ambassador [of the Paralympics]. I just hope that people don’t forget the mission and the 4,099 athletes who competed in the games, and that they don’t forget [these athletes] are working hard and trying to inspire people.”
The hope, the motivation that Pistorius represented for so many years does live on, remaining fresh in the mind of one young man who will never forget it.
On a warm Saturday afternoon, all types of interesting folks stroll past Starbucks as Nick Ekbatani sits at a long table placed against a floor-to-ceiling window, providing the best seat in the house for people watching. Ekbatani’s athletic dreams are on hold until he fully recovers from the infection in his left leg. Thanks to the Swim With Mike program—a scholarship for physically challenged athletes offered by USC—Ekbatani recently enrolled in Business School.
At times, he speaks so enthusiastically about the Paralympics, you’d think he was scheduled to compete inside a packed arena tomorrow.
He sits comfortably in a wooden chair with his left leg gently resting on the tabletop, the stump below Ekbatani’s knee poking out of a rolled up pant leg. His crutches are propped up against the wall to his left. As he looks out the window reminiscing about old weightlifting routines and taking swimming lessons from the gals on UCLA’s swim team, the conversation is halted when a bright-eyed, nervous-looking young lady awkwardly approaches.
“Hi, I was at Brentwood and I saw you speak and I wanted to say it was really good. I really, really liked it a lot.”
Ekbatani offers sincere thanks coupled with a smile and his handshake, asking the petite blonde for her name.
Lily is a high school freshman who heard Ekbatani speak a few days earlier at Brentwood School’s Diversity Day, where he represented the disabled community.
“Adversity is adversity and it’s going to happen to all of us. So in that way, we’re very similar. What Oscar represents is how a human being can overcome adversity, how there’s no excuses. I mean, if a guy with no legs can run stride for stride with Olympians, what can’t you do?”
Ekbatani engages Lily for a minute or so, reminding her to, “Come say ‘hi’,” the next time he speaks at her school. Slightly stammering as she says goodbye, Lily walks away, star struck.
Both Leeper and Gillette are already training for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, living at the Olympic Training Center full time. Their careers as professional athletes will come to an end eventually, a thought both men keep pushed in the back of their minds.
When he isn’t training, Gillette spends much of his free time at schools and community events using his voice as a tool to influence groups of young people he cannot see. His voice can also be heard singing the national anthem at ballparks around Southern California and even on iTunes, where Gillette has a record for sale.
Leeper also wants to make a career out of motivational speaking and spreading the gospel of the Paralympic movement. Both men want to write books about their lives.
Along with Pistorius, Leeper is the subject of a movie called, “The Invincibles,” a documentary chronicling the journey of several Paralympians from the London Games to the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio.
Leeper and Gillette don’t speak much about the past, instead focusing on the present and future with clarity and confidence.
“You quit doing stuff for yourself but do it for people with the disabilities in the world, for the little kids who are bullied, and the outcasts. I’ve been the outcast,” Leeper says with a palpable passion.
“I was always picked last for the team. But I can tell them that I’ve turned it around and made something good out of it. This is what I’m meant to do. I’m excited to see who is going to be the next double blade runner, who can do it better.”