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One-legged sprinter Singleton always keeps his eyes on the prize

Marissa McClain/Daily
Engineering senior Jerome Singleton prepares to run in the indoor track and field building on January 26th, 2010 Buy this photo

BY BEN ESTES
For the Daily
Published January 27, 2010

Every day, a world-class, medal-winning athlete walks across this campus amongst a sea of 40,000 of his peers. But you have no idea he exists.

He isn’t a football player. He isn’t one of the many past Olympians who attended school here, back to relive his college days. He doesn’t even don a varsity jacket.

No, this athlete hasn’t been — nor will he ever be — on a Wolverine varsity team. Officially, he’s just one of many bright students in the College of Engineering.

But he also managed to win two medals in Beijing in the summer of 2008.

Oh, and he happens to have just one leg.

The first thing that strikes you about Jerome Singleton when he walks (yes, walks) over to meet you is how normal he appears. Sporting a pair of glasses, with a mild demeanor, he looks like any other undergraduate. But Singleton is anything but normal. He is the world’s top sprinter in his class, having outperformed just about every feasible competitor.

Singleton was born in Greenwood, S.C. with fibular hemimelia, a serious bone disorder. His fibula bone never grew in, essentially leaving him without an ankle. As a result, his right leg had to be amputated below the knee when he was one and a half years old. He now uses a prosthetic leg.

So at an early age, Singleton learned that the best way to handle his disability was simply to live like he didn’t have one.

“I grew up in a loving family,” Singleton said. “They treated me like everyone else. I was in a community that let me play sports since I was a kid. I was playing basketball, football, track.”

In fact, he was a skilled enough athlete to be ranked one of the top 100 football prospects in the state of South Carolina as a high school senior. But Singleton decided against pursuing any sports dream he may have had, accepting an academic scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta to study math, physics and engineering.

It was there, while doing academic research about prosthetics in 2006, that he learned about the Paralympics. He read an article about Marlon Shirley, an American two-time Paralympic champion.

“I approached the coach at Morehouse and told him I was going to try and be a Paralympian,” Singleton said. “That’s what got me back into track. It made me want to see if I could compete at that high level.”

Singleton joined Morehouse’s team and eventually made his first U.S. Paralympic squad, participating at the Paralympic Pan-American Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2007. His success in the T-44 amputee category led to his selection to the U.S. team for the 2008 Beijing Paralympic games, where he won gold as part of the 4x100 relay and captured silver in the 100-meter dash.

Singleton came to Ann Arbor in 2008 to finish his education through a special dual-degree transfer program. Before he even arrived, Michigan men's track and field coach Fred LaPlante took notice.

“We had a fella on our team, Dominic Smith, who had been in that (dual-degree program),” LaPlante said. “I asked Dominic, ‘Hey, do you know this Jerome Singleton?’ He said, ‘Yeah, he’s coming to school.’ And I said, ‘I’d like to meet him, just to welcome him being here’ … He came by and we just started chatting and I think maybe by the second or third time he came by, he said, ‘I’m here, would you coach me?’ And that’s how it started.”

So began a relationship both parties acknowledge as nothing short of special. Because of his past participation at Morehouse and NCAA transfer rules, the sprinter had no eligibility left. He could never be a Wolverine. Nonetheless, the coaching staff took him under its wing.

Singleton experienced some early injury problems, but after Bo Sandoval, the strength coach for the team, arrived this past fall, his development took off. For his part, Sandoval, who has experience working at the U.S. Olympic Training Center and with other Para-athletes, said that it has not been difficult at all to work with someone with Singleton’s condition, especially because of his attitude.

“We just have to tailor techniques and get things to fit him,” said Sandoval. “With (Jerome), he’s always wanting to favor the side that he doesn’t have the prosthetic on, so it’s a matter of keeping some balance … It’s just easier with him because, again, he has that high-level experience, so there’s no hesitation. There’s no confidence issues or anything like that.