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This year's Paralympic Games begin today with the opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro. For the next 11 days, the focus will be on more than 4,000 athletes with disabilities gathered for the games. NPR's Tom Goldman has this story about one of the expected stars - a long jumper whose individual success will depend on teamwork.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: You might have heard by now Paralympians don't want your sympathy. They want you to see them as self-sufficient, high-achieving athletes just like the ones who recently dazzled at the Olympic Games. But sometimes a Paralympian can't be just like - for instance, American long jumper Lex Gillette. He's blind, and he couldn't have won silver medals in the past three Paralympics or soared more than 22 feet for a world record without help.
WESLEY WILLIAMS: Ready, right there - fly; fly; fly; fly; fly; fly; fly; fly...
GOLDMAN: Wesley Williams stands near a long jump sandpit, calling out to Gillette 80 feet away at the head of the runway. He's Gillette's beacon. He gives him a precise spot to run to. Moments earlier, Williams positioned Gillette's shoulders and feet to make sure Gillette runs straight at the pit. He does with great joy.
LEX GILLETTE: I was kind of enclosed by people's expectations about when I'm on the track and I'm running down the runway by myself and jumping into the air. It's like someone opens up this cage door, and I'm able to go out and be free and do my own thing.
WILLIAMS: Fly; fly; fly; fly; fly. That was a real good one. That was a real good one.
GOLDMAN: Before he could fly, Lex Gillette had to reconfigure a world that started going dark when he was 8 years old. Ten surgeries couldn't cure his detached retinas, and Gillette was blind by the time he was 10. He credits his mom for helping him get through the fear and sadness. She kept him in public schools so he'd still interact with sighted kids and adults. She got someone to teach him Braille and how to use a cane.
GILLETTE: Once I was introduced to those resources, my confidence boosted a lot.
GOLDMAN: Soon he was back outside, playing with friends. His balance and spatial awareness started returning. By the time he hit high school, his athleticism flourished.
GILLETTE: I had a teacher who noticed that I was really good in different exercises like pushups and pull ups, sit ups. And we had another activity that was standing long jump. And I was pretty good at that.
GOLDMAN: That led to the running long jump. He won a national championship as a 17-year-old, and Gillette hasn't slowed down since.
WILLIAMS: There you go. Come on.
GOLDMAN: Gillette also races in the sprints. He and Williams are doing 50 meter bursts on this windy, summer day pre-Paralympics at the Olympic Training Center in southern California. Williams was a sprinter in college. It shows as he and Gillette barreled down the track side by side. In a race, they're tethered by a short cord. Here at practice, they're barely touching but touching enough, says Williams.
WILLIAMS: The more and more we started working together, we have, like, an elbow type of communication. So when we're on the curve, I'm just tapping elbows. I let him know, hey, it's 50 or it's 50 meter mark. Hey, we're running up on the 75 meter mark if we're running anything far.
GOLDMAN: Gillette says they have built an unbreakable trust over their nine years together.
GILLETTE: It's like we are one unit. It's such a fluid movement, and I mean it's incredible.
GOLDMAN: Tomorrow at the Olympic stadium in Rio, Williams will be there next to the pit, helping Gillette zero in on the target, clapping, urging Gillette to fly. If Gillette does and finally breaks his silver medal streak to win gold, Williams won't get a medal. Guides don't get medals unless it's a running event. But in both their minds, it'll be a medal that fits around two pairs of shoulders. Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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