A record-setting athlete got a hero’s welcome when he came to Seymour this week.

Margaret R. Brown Elementary School pulled out all the stops Monday to ensure Lex Gillette’s first visit to Seymour — and only second to Indiana — will be one he will remember.

After riding to the school in a firetruck, the 30-year-old Raleigh, North Carolina, native was greeted by students holding red, white and blue signs with various messages and chanting “We love Lex.”

Gillette is a three-time Paralympic silver medalist and world record holder.

Story continues below gallery

Fourth-grade teacher Jennifer Regruth escorted him into the building, where Seymour Mayor Craig Luedeman read a proclamation and declared it Lex Gillette Day in the city, and Gillette led the school in the Pledge of Allegiance.

Back outside, he went 115 feet up in the air in a ladder truck, and then he ventured back inside to participate in a physical education class and speak to groups of students. Later in the day, he played basketball and kickball with Regruth’s students.

Gillette, who is blind, said he relied on sounds to enjoy the experience.

That’s also what he had to do while interacting with Regruth’s class through Classroom Champions, a nonprofit organization which connects top-performing athletes with students to recognize their potential, set goals and dream big while educating them in practical use of communications technology, including video lessons, live chat and social media.

Signing up

Regruth’s class was one of five Gillette worked with this school year but was the only one he visited, thanks to Regruth winning that opportunity.

At the time she received the news from a Classroom Champions representative, she was driving on the interstate in Indianapolis.

“I almost crashed my car,” she said, smiling. “I just got goosebumps all over, and I just started rushing with ideas and how much the kids would like that. I just was completely over the moon beside myself.”

This was Regruth’s third time being involved with Classroom Champions and Gillette’s first. Each month has a theme, such as perseverance, friendship, fair play, giving back to the community, goal setting and steps to success.

Via video, the athlete mentor gives a challenge to the class at the beginning of the month, and the students work together on projects and activities. At the end of the month, they send a video to the athlete to show what they learned.

Gillette had to rely on hearing and memory to interact with the kids.

“It has been an eye-opener for me ever since the first time I was introduced to my classrooms and recording the videos,” he said. “It kind of takes me back to when I was growing up and losing my sight. I was around this age, and I remember how important it was to have people there to give you some guidance and help you out. So to be able to turn around and do that same thing for other kids has been amazing.”

Ways forward

Gillette lost his sight when he was 8. He was outside playing with friends one day and went into his house to eat dinner with his family when he began having trouble seeing.

His mother thought maybe he got something in his eyes from playing outside. Cleaning out his eyes made him feel better, but it didn’t help his sight.

Gillette went to bed that night and hoped his vision would be better the next day, but it wasn’t. He went to school, but his teachers noticed he wasn’t himself and was bumping into things.

His mother took him to the doctor, who found Gillette was suffering from a detached retina and put him through an emergency operation. That helped him see for about three weeks, but the retina separated again.

He went through 10 operations before the doctor said he couldn’t do anything else to help his sight.

“It was tough,” Gillette said. “I knew in my mind I wasn’t going to be able to play video games, and I wasn’t going to be able to ride my bicycle. My mom, she has been a big influence in my life, and she told me I would still be able to do a lot of things even though I couldn’t see.”

His mother wanted him to finish school, so he learned Braille. He also had to learn how to walk around by himself using his other senses and memory.

Athletic aspirations

Gillette’s family members on his mother’s side were all into athletics, and he was introduced to track and field in high school. He had to take a standing long jump test and was one of the best jumpers in his school, so his teacher had him try long jump.

“I was really confident in myself, but I couldn’t imagine myself running,” Gillette said. “We tried it out. I didn’t really like it at first, but he sat me down one day and told me, ‘I think you could be awesome at this. I just want you to trust me, and we’ll make it happen, we’ll make it work.’”

Gillette learned how to count out his strides. To help him stay straight and know when to jump, a coach stands at the takeoff board and claps and yells.

Three weeks before his visit, Gillette broke his own world record in the long jump, going 22 feet, 2 inches. Long-jumpers get six jumps during a meet, and he reached that mark on the first attempt.

“When I was competing that day, I felt good, and I knew I was going to do something. I was ready,” he said. “I didn’t want to stop competing then. I wanted to keep going. I wanted to break it again.”

He said achieving a record takes a lot of practice, weightlifting, eating well and listening to coaches. He has trained at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, since 2004, including living there since 2008. That’s also where Seymour native Eric Werskey currently lives and trains.

“You have so many people that help you get to that point where you can jump that far,” Gillette said. “My first-ever jump was 15 feet. It has taken me a few years to get to 22, but we have a lot of great coaches at the training center, and they all work together to make sure all of the athletes can compete at a high level.”

Gillette’s other field event is triple jump, which involves three jumps and a board that is farther away from the sand pit.

On the track, he runs the 100- and 200-meter dashes with a guide, and their hands are connected by string. The guide communicates with him so he stays in his lane, and Gillette must cross the finish line before his guide.

“The cool thing about track and field, I think for me, is that it gave me the ability to see again,” Gillette said. “When I lost my sight, it was really tough for me, and I didn’t know if I would be able to do a lot of things that I had done when I could see. When I found sports, it told me you can still go out and achieve a lot of great things, and you can be successful not only in sports but in life. And it showed me that I have a lot of potential.”

Olympic accolades

Gillette competed in the Paralympics in 2004 in Athens, Greece; 2008 in Beijing; and 2012 in London. He’s now working toward the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, where he hopes to earn his first gold medal.

Off the track, Gillette plays beep ball, which is a modified form of baseball for the visually impaired and blind. His other trip to Indiana was a few years ago playing in a beep ball tournament in Indianapolis.

He also plays basketball, volleyball and golf, rides BMX bikes and has been skydiving.

Turning back

Of all the things Gillette experienced during his visit to Seymour, he said the most memorable was receiving a book of letters from Regruth’s 23 students that were handwritten and translated into Braille.

“When I’m going through different things or I’m at a competition and need to get away from the stresses of thinking about trying to win, I have that notebook, and I can turn back to it,” he said.

From Day 1, Gillette said, he had a good connection with Regruth and her students. He said the kids exceeded his expectations.

“It’s kind of like they have given me sight again,” he said. “There are so many things out there I just don’t even recognize, and they have brought light on those things and described so many things and opened up their hearts and minds, so it’s like another form of being able to see. … The kids have helped me see further and wider than I could have ever possibly imagined.”

Regruth had her class write down their thoughts about blind people at the beginning, and Gillette said it was interesting to see their perception change.

The students said they were inspired by Gillette’s mantra, “No need for sight when you have a vision.”

“Being able to see how Lex can do all of this stuff when he can’t even see, he gets me motivated and to not give up,” Alexandar Mullins said.

“He is kind, brave and will try anything,” Faithe Petty said. “Lex has the biggest heart, and I think he should hold the record for that, too.”

Getting to meet him in person topped off the experience.

“I thought it was really cool because if we weren’t in this program, we wouldn’t be seeing him today,” Brooke Trinkle said. “Today has been a really fantastic day.”

Regruth said she has seen a lot of positive changes in her students and herself, and Gillette is a big reason for it.

“Our classroom really became a team,” Regruth said. “It was, ‘How are we going to work together to respond to Lex to show him what we learned?’ It’s obvious how much respect they have for him and how much they love him. I hope he knows the difference he has made in these kids.”

On the Web

For information about Classroom Champions, visit classroomchampions.org.

Gillette file

Lex Gillette is the best totally blind U.S. long and triple jumper in the history of Paralympics.

He’s a three-time Paralympic silver medalist, the reigning world champion in long jump and a 14-time national champion. 

He also competes in the 100- and 200-meter dashes.

The 30-year-old Raleigh, North Carolina, native lost his sight at age 8 after recurrent retina detachments.

He lives and trains at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, working toward the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

He lives by his mantra, “No need for sight when you have a vision.”

This was his first year as a Classroom Champions mentor.

Author photo
Zach Spicer is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at zspicer@tribtown.com or 812-523-7080.