Running Forward

Oct. 11, 2011

Running. It's just a part of who Jarryd Wallace is.

It is a part of his upbringings, as it has been in his life for as long as he can remember. Jarryd's mom Sabina was a former All-SEC runner at Georgia while his dad Jeff is the current head women's tennis coach for the Bulldogs, so athletic ability runs in the family. The Wallaces made running a family activity, and it began to spark an interest for Jarryd.

It became a major part of his high school career, as he has always been a strong performer on the trails and streets where he trained. Participating in cross country at Oconee County High School as a way to be more involved and to meet other people, he was the only freshman on the varsity team. After placing third at state in cross country his sophomore year, Jarryd knew that he wanted to put all his athletic focus on the sport.

However, when this part of Jarryd's life became jeopardized because of a leg pain that would never go away, the Athens native learned to put his best foot forward to keep doing what he loved.

*****

Running was destined to take Jarryd places, and one of those was college. One may think that Jarryd's immediate first choice was Georgia; however, Jarryd had other thoughts.

"I had no desire to come to Georgia," Jarryd said. "It was kind of one of those things that Dad had been here, and I didn't really want to fall underneath the shadow of 'Jeff's son.' I wanted to be the runner. That is nothing against my dad because it's an honor that he's my father. It was just me and my pride-filled, 17-year-old mind. I wanted it to be about me and not about him. I was looking to go to places as a runner.

"I think every high school runner that has a chance to run in college wants to go to the University of Oregon. That was more of a dream than probably a potential reality. But that's just where I set my goals and said that's what's happening."

Although Georgia was not really on his mind, Jarryd went on his recruiting trip anyway thinking it would be a fun experience. Upon his arrival, Jarryd met his recruiting host, a fellow 800-meter runner, Ross Ridgewell.

"We hit it off there at the recruiting trip and got to know each other," Ridgewell said. "Ever since we first met, we have kind of had that relationship of the same event, same passion, similar running styles, similar lifestyles. It was one of those things that you hit it off with somebody, and you know you are going to be friends before you know you are going to be teammates."

His connection with Ridgewell brought new thoughts to his mind. After pretty much crossing Georgia off the list, Jarryd moved them near the top.

"That was directly because of Ross and I's relationship," Jarryd said. "Georgia hadn't changed, the knowledge of Georgia hadn't changed, my dad being at Georgia hadn't changed, but the acceptance of the team and connection I had made with Ross changed. The desire to be a part of Georgia changed."

Things were going great for Jarryd until an obstacle came his way his sophomore year during track season and his junior cross country season. A sharp pain overcame his right leg causing a lot of pressure and sometimes his foot to go numb.

Jarryd went to the doctor to be diagnosed with a stress reaction during each of those seasons. After not performing well at state sophomore year and not being able to go at all for cross country because of the pain, Jarryd and his coaches made a plan based on the pattern the pain was coming to help him in the offseason. Jarryd's training now consisted of cross training and exercises in the pool.

The new training worked like magic. That following track season, Jarryd won state in the 800 meters and the mile.

After taking the summer off to rest his body, Jarryd's senior season would be his last to do well in cross country and defend his titles in track. However, the pain came back, and the confusion returned to the aspiring runner.

The Wallaces decided to see a different doctor, and a different diagnosis was given. Jarryd had compartment syndrome, a painful condition that occurs when the nerves and blood vessels are compressed, causing a dangerous build-up of pressure in the muscles. Oddly, Jarryd's mom also had compartment syndrome while at Georgia.

In November 2007 Jarryd had an outpatient surgery to have the compartment released. On the drive home, Jarryd was in such extreme pain that it brought him to the point of tears.

"My mom was freaking out," Jarryd said. "She had the surgery done to both of her legs, and she kept saying that she doesn't remember it being this bad and that I shouldn't be in this much pain. I was thinking the block just ran out, and I wasn't on pain medication. Maybe it's just more intense than it should be. I just didn't know what was going on."

Three days after the surgery, the pain wasn't getting much better. Jarryd said his parents kept telling him that he will get over the hump of the third day and feel better the fourth. When Jarryd woke up on Monday, the fourth day after surgery, it wasn't much better. He already planned to see someone about removing the bandages, so the Wallaces went through as scheduled.

What wasn't planned was the trip to Atlanta that Jarryd needed immediately after removing the bandages and seeing the condition of his leg. Jarryd went into surgery that night where the doctor opened his leg to see that 60 percent of the muscle from his knee down was dead. After removing some of the dead muscle that night, Jarryd had five surgeries in a 10-day period. He then stayed in the hospital for 18 days before being released to go home before the Christmas holiday.

Throughout his recovery time at home, Jarryd used a wound VAC and stayed in a hyperbaric chamber at Athens Regional four hours a day for six weeks to help close the wounds.

"I look now at the sacrifices my folks had to make and it's just really cool that they were willing to do that," Jarryd said. "It was kind of funny because it took my dad about two weeks to come in the room and watch dressing changes. By the end he was doing dressing changes. Mom and him have a minor medical degree. If anything good came out of it, that was one thing positive."

Another positive came for Jarryd, as Georgia wanted to honor the scholarship the cross country team was going to give him before his injury occurred. Jarryd helped recruit runners for the Bulldogs as a host when they came for visits since running was not an option. After a year, though, Jarryd unselfishly offered up his scholarship so that the team could use it to better themselves.

For the next year, Jarryd was in a lot of pain. Wanting to be able to have a normal run again before his birthday in May, Jarryd realized that wasn't going to be a reality. Jarryd couldn't feel much of his lower leg because of nerve damage, and though feeling came back to his leg, his foot never got it back. Because of this, every time Jarryd would step out of his shoes, he and his family would have to check to make he didn't step on a rock or get a pressure sore.

All of Jarryd's emotions finally came out in March after surprising his track teammates at Oconee with a run in the 100 meters at a competition. At the finish line, Jarryd's mom waited. When Jarryd crossed, the two embraced and cried. All the emotions Jarryd kept bottled up came flooding out.

"It was a really cool moment for them, and kind of a way for me to say thank you to them and I'm still here for you and the team because they were such a support system for me," Jarryd said. "It was probably one of the hardest moments too because it really set in there was a good chance that I probably wouldn't be able to run again."

Over the year things gradually got worse, as his foot began to drop and pull inward making it difficult to walk. In January 2009, Jarryd had to get a Taylor Spatial Frame, a cage-like frame that stays on his foot with 11 pins and needles in the bone that slowly train the muscles to realign his foot. Jarryd would slowly turn the crank each day to painfully put his foot into position. He had to be on crutches for six and a half months.

Jarryd's foot got back to normal, but the problem wasn't fixed. Eventually his foot started going out of position, and he had surgery in October 2009 to lengthen his Achilles' tendon, which got his foot back to standing position.

Since the surgeries began, amputation was always the last option. Now, it was becoming the only option.

Everything was leading up to a moment at a Wisconsin hotel computer. Before going to Wisconsin with his dad and the tennis team for national indoors, Jarryd took a look at the big scheme of things.

"I had to look at my future and look at what I wanted," Jarryd said. "It just didn't add up. Nothing made sense. I was never comfortable. I was constantly in pain. I couldn't stand on my feet much longer than two to three hours before I was done for the day pretty much. Obviously I forced myself to be on more than that, but comfort wise it wasn't there. I wasn't able to run.

"I looked at my future. I wanted to have a family, and I wondered if I was going to be able to play with my kids out in the yard. Would I be able to throw a football or play basketball if I had a son? I didn't think so, and I wasn't ok with that at all."

While in Wisconsin, Jarryd met with Dr. William Turnipseed who told him that he had an 80-year-old's leg on his 20-year-old body.

"He pretty much said that it's not a matter of if you have an amputation, but when you have an amputation," Jarryd said. "That was the first time that someone probably straight shot me with reality. It was also something I needed. That was a humbling meeting."

Once back at the hotel, for the first time Jarryd's heart and mind felt ready for an amputation. As he sat in front of a computer, Jarryd Googled "Paralympic track and field records."

"That's just who I am," Jarryd said of the search. "I made up my mind, that's what I'm doing, and I'm going to run again. Not only am I going to run, but I'm going to excel. I know I can. I made it through all of this, why can't I make it through everything else?"

Jarryd continued to search as he got on YouTube and typed "amputee wake boarder." Wakeboarding is one thing that he loves to do. Jarryd and his dad would always get out on the lake in the early summer mornings and blast Tom Petty while wakeboarding together. Jarryd hadn't been able to do that in three years. After seeing an amputee can wakeboard as well, he was ready.

"That was a really tough thing," Jeff said of deciding to amputate. "It made it a lot easier for us because of his attitude, spirit and desire to improve the quality of his life through doing this and to rid himself on the day in and day out pain he is in and the major disability that he had. It was just very comforting with the amount of support we got and his strong faith, and I just feel like it became so apparent and obvious that this was the right thing to do. This would allow him to move forward and do so much more than what he would ever be able to do with the leg and foot that he had. It just became a situation of we are doing it and now we just have to find who is going to do it and kind of go from there."

Jarryd began to research prosthetics. One day he got a phone call from Scott Rigsby, the first double below the knee amputee to ever complete the Ironman Hawaii competition, after a friend of Jarryd's met him. The two talked for 45 minutes, and before Jarryd knew it, Rigsby had set him up with an appointment at ProCare Prosthetics.

"It was a well-educated, well-researched, mature decision to improve his way of life that way," Ridgewell said. "How many people can you see taking that time and effort to make such a huge decision? That's one of those days that is going to stay with me forever. Just thinking of me I don't know if I could make that decision. He just so confidently and purposefully made the decision, and ever since he hasn't looked back. He just keeps going up and forward."

Things continued to take care of themselves, and on June 22, 2010, Jarryd had the amputation. Six weeks and a day later, Jarryd took his first step pain free. Wakeboarding came at seven weeks, and Jarryd's dad had to keep Jarryd from being too aggressive and doing any flips by pulling the boat back when Jarryd got that look in his eye of wanting to do one. Getting fitted for running was next on the agenda, and 12 weeks and a day after the amputation, Jarryd ran for the first time in four years.

"They were really shocked at me because they were wondering how I was running so well," Jarryd said. "The advice they told me was to trust it, and I did. It took me little bit to get used to it, but I have been running my whole life. I know what the form is supposed to feel like."

"He looks no different running now than he did in high school with two proper legs," Ridgewell said. "It is amazing to see how he has gone full circle--from not being able to walk properly to being here running again."

As quickly as Jarryd got his running form back he was taking off in Paralympic track competitions. Jarryd is currently ranked seventh in the world in the men's 200 meters and 10th in the world for the men's 100.

His time in the 100 qualified him to join the U.S. Parapan American Games track and field team for the Parapan American Games in Guadalajara, Mexico, on November 12-20, 2011. Jarryd is the first amputee within their first calendar year of racing to qualify for a national event.

"It's very exciting," Jeff said of his son's achievements. "He was a runner before this and you just want him to be a runner after. He was an elite runner that won state championships. He found his niche and was really good at what he did. All of a sudden he had it completely taken away. Obviously for us to see him now back on the track and back competing, running, training and just doing all the things he did before and just loved so much, there are almost no words to describe it. It's phenomenal.

"I am amazed how far he has come and how fast he has gotten there. To run the way he did at U.S. nationals and qualify to represent the United States in the Pan American Games is really special. It's just an honor. I think he is really just scratching the surface on where he will be able to go from here."

Since searching record times in the Wisconsin hotel, making it to the Paralympics in 2012 and breaking those records has been an ultimate goal. Jarryd will have the chance to reach the games in London when the Olympic Trials take place this coming summer.

By his side is former teammate Ridgewell as his coach. Having worked with amputees before and with one of the best in world record holder and arm amputee Heath Francis, Ridgewell helps Jarryd train for the events and hopes to be in London with Jarryd running for his home country of Australia in the Olympics.

"The people that he competes against who I talked to said it took them three years or more of training to even get close to the times that Jarryd ran in 12 months," Ridgewell said. "For him to make the U.S. team for an international competition 12 months after an amputation is unheard of. Some of these people have been amputees their whole life. The talent we have to work with is amazing. Just being in the position he is now in just starting to run, he is just starting to let the world know that he is here."

*****

Running is just a part of Jarryd. The prosthetic leg is just a part of Jarryd. He is more than just those parts. In fact, this whole process has shown that the sum is much larger than those parts.

"Anybody who goes through a trying situation such as the one he has gone through, you are going to be mature beyond your years just because of the experiences and things that are happening to you," Jeff said. "You can't help but mature and see life in a different light. I think he has handled it just as well as anybody could his age."

As Jarryd's life keeps moving forward, he knows and accepts that there is no going back.

"People ask if you go back and can change one thing in your life what would you change," Jarryd said. "I look back at my life and there is not one thing I would change. If I could start it all over again, starting from going into the surgeries, I would do the same exact thing because of who it has made me as a man, my relationship with my family, relationship with the Lord, the story I have now and the opportunity I have to share my testimony with people. It's humbling that the Lord has chosen me to be a servant of his. It's overwhelming sometimes, but it's real

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