Paralympian races toward goal with a grateful heart

Paralympic runner, Jarryd Wallace, practices at UGA track in Athens on Wednesday April 28th, 2021. 
PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Caption
Paralympic runner, Jarryd Wallace, practices at UGA track in Athens on Wednesday April 28th, 2021. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Jarryd Wallace’s best races begin with a feeling: the perfect combination of good nerves and peace. It is the same feeling he discovered in 2010, the year he chose to have his leg amputated.

During his sophomore year at Oconee County High School, Jarryd became a track star; a regional and national record holder at 15 years old. The son of Jeff Wallace, the University of Georgia tennis coach for the past 36 years, athleticism came naturally to Jarryd. He grew up playing tennis and running 5Ks with his family on the weekends. During his junior year of high school, Jarryd decided to make a choice between tennis and track.

“I knew I wanted to be a collegiate athlete and I felt my potential as a runner was greater,” said Jarryd, now 30. “I put the racket down because the newness of running, the challenge of it, and the camaraderie that came with being on the team was really attractive.”

By the beginning of his senior year, he was getting offers from colleges, including a track scholarship from UGA. Excited as he was, he was feeling something else much greater: pain. He had struggled with extreme discomfort in his leg for nearly two years and been treated off and on with six-week stints in a walking boot, until finally being diagnosed with Compartment Syndrome, a rare condition caused by pressure building from internal bleeding or swelling of tissues.

“The doctor presented a six-week process that would begin with surgery and end with a pain free season,” said Jarryd. “I was excited for that, excited to defend my titles and become a national champ at UGA.”

That six-week plan, however, was thwarted just four days after surgery.

“I had an appointment with a therapist who looked beneath my bandages and immediately told us to head back to Atlanta, where I had the surgery. She said something was seriously wrong,” said Jarryd. “I never did look to see what she saw, but we drove down to the emergency room at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where I proceeded to have six surgeries over the next 18 days, as well as two blood transfusions. In the end, because the muscle had died, I had to have 60% of my muscle from the knee down removed.”

Jarryd left the hospital with both sides of his leg cut wide open. He had to sleep on his parents’ floor with a wound vac, which decreases pressure around the wound and assists the healing. With the muscles gone, tendons were exposed. He endured that for six weeks and spent four hours a day, five days a week in a hyperbaric chamber before he could have skin graft surgery, which he describes as the most painful part of the process.

Throughout this time, Jarryd kept an optimistic attitude. He was cognizant of how hard the situation must have been for his parents and he wanted to keep his champion mentality for all their sakes. That lasted about four or five months.

“It was a beautiful Sunday in May, I had lunch with my family on the back deck after church and I wanted to run,” said Jarryd. “I walked to the high school, jumped the fence and tried to run a full lap around the track. I hobbled, kept falling, and started yelling at God. That was the beginning of a difficult 18-month journey.”

As Jeff describes it, his son went from being one of the most athletic kids, to someone who was crippled with pain and could hardly do anything. They tried every surgery that every doctor suggested, but Jarryd’s pain was still unbearable.

“We went to Wisconsin to meet with Dr. William Turnipseed, an expert in Compartment Syndrome,” said Jeff. “He asked Jarryd what he wanted out of life. Jarryd said he wanted to be a normal kid, pain-free, and one day be the kind of dad who could throw a ball out back with his children. The doctor told him that was an amazing dream, but not realistic with his situation. That’s when he recommended amputating Jarryd’s leg.”

Jarryd, whose faith in God had recently guided him out of his depressed state, left the appointment without a trace of sadness or anxiety.

“Amputation never felt like a negative,” said Jarryd. “I had survived my ‘woe is me’ season and realized there was more to life than being an athlete. I knew my family loved me unconditionally and that alone gave me such peace. I still wanted to run, but I knew God had a plan for me, regardless. And though I had stopped dreaming and setting goals for a while there, at that appointment, Dr. Turnipseed allowed me to dream again. It wasn’t the story I would have written, but it’s the story I was meant to walk, and I was OK with that.”

Caption
Jarryd Wallace, before practices at UGA track in Athens on Wednesday April 28th, 2021. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Jarryd Wallace, before practices at UGA track in Athens on Wednesday April 28th, 2021. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Caption
Jarryd Wallace, before practices at UGA track in Athens on Wednesday April 28th, 2021. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

At his hotel that evening, Jarryd Googled “life as an amputee,” “running with a prosthetic,” and “para runner world record list.”

“He called his mom and I to the computer, pointed to the screen and said, ‘my name is going to be on that list,’” said Jeff.

Months later, on June 22, 2010, Jarryd’s leg was amputated. In September 2010, he ran with a running blade for the first time. In November 2011, he ran at the Parapan American Games in Guadalajara and won a gold medal in the 100-meter dash. He holds world records and has world championships. While he was a middle-distance runner in high school, he is now a sprinter, running the 100 and 200-meter races.

“I’ve been around elite athletes for so many years and I know what it takes to compete at the highest level,” said Jeff. “The amount of work Jarryd has put into going from a middle-disance runner to a sprinter is like going from tennis to badminton. It is a completely different sport with different strategy, training and use of muscles. He has become a student of the prosthetic world, putting in so much time with engineers. He trains in both the weight room and on the track – it’s been so inspiring to see what’s he’s done.”

Though UGA honored Jarryd’s scholarship and made him an honorary member of the track team, he never ran there as a student. The UGA track is, however, where he trains now as a professional.

“Most university track and field coaches have opportunities to train both students and pros,” said Althea Thomas, the UGA associate head coach of track and field, and Jarryd’s coach of two years. “Jarryd is like most elite athletes. He’s highly self-motivated and wants to be the best. He focuses, he listens, learns, and applies, and he always sees the cup half full. He’s a fierce competitor, but it’s his heart and intentions that drive everything he does, extending to everyone he encounters.”

Caption
Paralympic runner, Jarryd Wallace, practices at UGA track in Athens on Wednesday April 28th, 2021. For AJC inspire story. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Paralympic runner, Jarryd Wallace, practices at UGA track in Athens on Wednesday April 28th, 2021. For AJC inspire story.
PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Caption
Paralympic runner, Jarryd Wallace, practices at UGA track in Athens on Wednesday April 28th, 2021. For AJC inspire story. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Jarryd married his wife, Lea, four years ago and the two are parents to Levi, 18 months old.

“Being a dad has challenged me,” said Jarryd. “I have an extra set of eyes on me, and the concept of ‘legacy’ always goes through my head. I always wanted to leave a legacy and, now that I have a son, I know what that means.”

Beyond the example he wants to set for his son, Jarryd wants to continue his advocacy for the adaptive community and create opportunities to make their lives as limitless and seamless as possible by developing affordable blades, a project he is already working on with an engineer in Japan.

As that comes to fruition, he continues to run. He is currently training for this summer’s Paralympic Games in Tokyo and will be running the Wings for Life World Run on Sunday, May 9.

Jarryd begins and ends every race kneeled in prayer. He thanks God for the platform he has been given, for the unending love of family, and for the peace his faith allows – best explained by a hymn Jarryd knows so well.

“When peace like a river attendeth my way

When sorrows like sea billows roll

Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say

It is well, it is well with my soul.”


MORE DETAILS

The Wings for Life World Run on May 9 is virtual. Thousands of people participate worldwide and 100% of proceeds benefit spinal cord injury research. If you would like to join Jarryd’s virtual team, visit the Wings for Life World Run website and search for “Team Wallace Elite,” or you can choose to run individually or start your own team. www.wingsforlifeworldrun.com