Like most young children, Elexis“Lex” Gillette loved to play: hide-and-seek, basketball, football, and video games. Lex’s typical childhood drastically changed at the age of eight. In 1992, he completely lost his vision in both eyes due to recurrent retina detachments.
“When I was told I wasn’t going to see again, I thought about how I’m not going to be able to play with my friends anymore, not going to be able to play Super Mario Brothers,” Lex said in a recent phone interview. “It was tough.”
Lex’s mom has been legally blind since 18. Although her vision impairment is not as severe, she was able to relate to Lex. “She did what she could to make sure that I’m going to be in a favorable position to be successful in life,” Lex says. That meant teaching Lex how to read Braille, use a cane, and socialize.
Throughout his childhood, Lex maintained an affection for sports. Once he became comfortable with his blindness, he got right back into athletics. “I got that desire again, to want to see what’s out there,” he says. “My mom encouraged me to try new things and still be a kid.”
Lex sure did find something new: track and field. At a high school meet, Lex posted one of the best scores out of 1,500 students. That was when he realized he could be good at the sport. “I thought, This may be fun.”
At 16 years old, Lex attended a sports education camp in Kalamazoo, Michigan, for kids with visual impairments. In the final long jump competition, he was matched up with against a “legend” at the camp. “Nobody had beaten him in running long jump,” Lex said. After an average first few jumps, Lex catapulted himself far enough into the sand to beat his opponent. “In my mind, that [win] told me I was ready.”
The long jump sounds simple enough: Runners sprint on a runway 131 feet long and jump at the edge of a takeoff board, landing as far as possible in a large sand pit. But for a sightless person, it’s not easy to know exactly when and where to jump. To solve that problem, Lex’s first coach, Brian Whitmer, acted as a guide, telling Lex that it was the most effective way to do things. Currently, Wesley Williams serves as Lex’s guidance coach, and has for the past seven years.
“His job is basically to be as loud as he can,” Lex explains about his guide coaches. “He’s there for safety, letting me know where everything is, trying to paint a mental image for me so I’ll feel comfortable and know where I am at all times. He’ll come down to where our starting point is, and he’ll set me up and make sure that I’m facing the correct way. Then he’ll run down to the opposite end and start clapping. As long as everything is good, and I look good down the runway, he continues to [yell and clap]. If something doesn’t look right, he’ll tell me to stop and we’ll go back and regroup.” Lex adds: “I’m responsible for running by myself and I’m responsible for knowing how many steps I need to take before I get to that takeoff board. I know that my approach from [the runway] is 16 to 18 steps, but it’s gotten to the point where I don’t need to count [the steps] in my head; it’s all muscle memory. I run as fast as I can until I get to my 16th step and propel myself into the sand.”
Lex’s ironed-out routine helped him prepare to compete on the national stage. In his first event, the 2002 United States Association of Blind Athletes (USBA) Championships, not only did Lex win gold, but he also set the American long jump record. For the next several years, Lex continued to dominate as he medaled in nearly all of the events he participated in – and also broke his own American record several times.
As an athlete with a disability, the biggest stage for Lex’s performance is the Paralympic Games, held every four years. In all three of his Paralympic appearances – 2004 in Greece, 2008 in China, and 2012 in London – Lex returned home with silver. He is in the process of preparing for the 2016 Games in Rio, Brazil, where he is fixated on the elusive gold medal.
Despite his numerous accolades, Lex is staying successful off the track as well. As a songwriter and singer, he released a song on iTunes, On the Stage, in April of 2012. “Music is something that everyone listens to,” Lex says, “and that was always another outlet for me to communicate with people.”
Another way for Lex to stay in communication with people is via Twitter. By using his iPhone’s screen reader program, Lex enjoys following friends and family. He also enjoys reading tweets about the latest happenings in the sports world. (His take on the Super Bowl? “It was ugly.”
Lex also serves as an inspiration for many. His slogan, “No Need for Sight When You Have a Vision,” is something he has embodied his entire life. “Sight wasn’t going to be the determining factor in whether I was successful or whether I was going to win or lose. It was me saying, ‘I have this dream, now how am I going to be able to accomplish it?’ ”