Desmond Jackson has been an amputee since he was 9 months old, so it is all he has ever known. By age 8, he started to participate in adaptive sports through different events his mother found and just kept going. “I enjoyed it and I did everything; basketball, baseball, soccer, and flag football. I played all these sports and even rode horses for a time period when I was younger,” Jackson said. “To this day, I love all sports. It has always been a genuine relationship between me and sports.” However, his running actually started at 3 years old when he ran with John Register at the Wide World of Sports at Disney World as the finale for the Disabled Sports International Challenge. Thus, the journey begins.
At age 10, Jackson honed in on track and field when he competed at his first track meet- and did pretty well. “It was an experience that was life changing for me. I found out about the Paralympics and what the future could hold and the potential I might have.” It was then that he decided to focus on his skills and talent.
He wanted to run for his middle school’s track and field team. “They had never had an amputee run on any track team in North Carolina, so I was the first,” Jackson said. “I knew from an early age I wanted to be a trailblazer and open doors for other people with disabilities to play a sport, either competitively or for fun.”
It was challenging at times. “I learned quickly that you have to be resilient and you have to face adversity head on. It was all worth it in the end. It was about remembering what motivated me and my family… my ‘why’ (why I wanted to play sports), which was for the love and passion of it all.”
But Jackson also knew it would help other people and not just him. “It was bigger than me really.”
Jackson began competing at international meets since he was 14 years old when he went to two meets in Puerto Rico and England. “It was a great experience to see athletes from other countries and it was a small taste of what the Paralympics would be like.” Two years later, he would be the youngest African-American athlete on the track and field team at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.
In the 10 years or more that he has been training, Jackson has been able to try different techniques. “Most athletes train. So for me, being consistent is the most important thing right now. How many days are you training each week? Are you training properly?” He is in the gym a lot because he wants to put on some weight and get stronger. “I’m 21, so I’m trying to get my grown man’s body. I want to see that transformation from when I was 16 in Rio to 21 in Tokyo. I want there to be a visible difference.” As a sprinter, Jackson is also focused on the various technical aspects of running, including block work.
Over the years, Jackson has held a number of youth records nationally. “But Ezra Frech has broken a lot of those.” Jackson currently holds the100 meter record in U.S. “Hopefully, I will lower those records and add the long jump to it.”
The long jump and the 100m is his bailiwick. “I’m a sprinter. But I’m definitely passionate about and very competitive when it comes to the long jump. Those two things I care about the most.” Jackson has dropped some events, including the 200m (due to rule changes), and other field events to focus on both of those competitions.
Unlike adaptive athletes in other sports, the pandemic has had minimal impact on Jackson’s training. “I’ve been able to transition from the track to the field. My coach and I made the best of it and I made some gains as a result. It also helped me stay injury free and get stronger.” The grass, compared to a track, provided some resistance and had a different impact on his body.
Going into Tokyo, Jackson has high expectations. “I want not only to make a transformation, but to break my personal best. I’m aiming for a great outcome in track and also want to perform well in long jump,” he said. “Anything could happen, but I’ve put the work in and hope things will work out in my favor.”
On or off the track, Jackson tries to do his best. He wants to encourage everyone, regardless of physical abilities, to remain active; especially the disabled community. “You can do all the things you would want to do if you were an able-bodied person, it just may be a little different. My mother and I have a phrase where we redefine the word disability by promoting ability only.”
When it comes to the Paralympics, Jackson still feels like a lot of people still don’t know about this elite competition. “It is like speaking a foreign language to a lot of people.” Which he has gotten used to. “People don’t know what they don’t know. But I want to break barriers for amputees and for people with disabilities in sports.”
“We’re adaptive athletes, but we’re still athletes. The Paralympics has allowed us to be professional athletes. We are able to do amazing things with our bodies that most people wouldn’t think we could do. It’s pretty amazing.”
But Jackson is quick to point out that it truly takes a village. He acknowledges the great efforts that his mother Deborah has made as well as coaches, trainers, and others that have gotten him to this point. “We can’t do this alone. We all need someone to help us at some point and its okay to ask for help.”
You can follow Jackson’s journey on Instagram at @desmondandrejackson or check out his website at Desmond Jackson (desmond.jackson.com).
(Top photo by Deborah Jackson. Middle photo by Stephanie Sevilla. Bottom photo by Henry Tyson.)