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 4×100 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. He’s an extremely confident person.”
The trio of strength trainer, track coach and athlete, in general, has high confidence in its propensity for success. They all operate under the idea that there are no limits to Singleton’s development.
“With (LaPlante) … I’ve never had a coach take the time to try to make me be as good as possible,” Singleton said. “I want to at least let him know that his efforts are showing results. I know that if I tune in to what they have to say, we’re going to take it to a-whole-nother level, and it’s going to be very exciting.”
The relationship between the young sprinter and his 59-year-old coach is an intriguing one. They may have their generational differences (when told his coach compared him to Mick Jagger, Singleton could only laugh as he had no idea who the singer was), but their bond is strong. And despite all the praise Singleton heaps upon him, LaPlante is quick to downplay his role in his pupil’s success, saying to this day he does not really understand everything surrounding Para-athletics.
“I just happen to be the guy that’s here,” LaPlante said. “I really enjoy it because when anybody’s got a passion for what they do, no matter what it is, that’s exciting. Here’s a guy who really embraces the sport, embraces his academics, and life in general. He’s really a joy to be around. Guys like that, you’re always pulling for.”
Last Saturday, Singleton competed at the Simmons-Harvey Invitational in Ann Arbor, a non-scoring meet open to participation from non-team athletes. The crowd was abuzz with excitement as he lined up for the 60-meter dash, erupting with cheers when he broke the T-44 amputee world record for the event, posting a blazing time of 7.34 seconds and shattering the old mark by 44 hundredths of a second — an astonishing margin. Singleton said that, though he has set records before, this one was “special” because he did it in front of people who care about him.
Despite his incredible feats on the track, there has been one athlete Singleton has been unable to top: Oscar Pistorius, the South African double-amputee who made global headlines in 2008 when he won a legal battle making him eligible to compete with able-bodied athletes. Pistorius missed out on his goal, however, failing to qualify for the Beijing Olympics. (For the record, Singleton agrees that Para-athletes should be able to compete with able-bodied performers and would be running for Michigan if not for his lack of eligibility.)
“I just hate to lose,” Singleton said. “After I win, I’m thankful. But after I lose, it sticks with me for a long period of time. You have to go for the win, you have to at least test your boundaries. I’ve been blessed to beat most of the Paralympic athletes out there.”
It was Pistorius who defeated Singleton in the 2008 Paralympics by a mere three hundredths of a second. Though they have had several good battles, Singleton has yet to pull away and take victory. They are the two best Para-athlete sprinters in the world, and share a rivalry that, in typical Singleton fashion, is friendly off the track but vicious on it.
“We talk off the track, but when you come to the track, it’s about business,” Singleton said. “Until I beat Oscar, (losing) is going to stick with me for a long period of time.”
Despite what has been put in front of him, Singleton has fought diligently through it with a grin.
“Him being around the guys on our team is terrific,” said LaPlante. “They see a guy who’s very dedicated to what he’s doing and works hard. He’s one of the guys. We give him crap like everybody else. That’s the fun part of it all.”
Above all his tangible athletic ambitions (besting Pistorius, winning gold at the World Championships in 2011 and then in London at the Paralympics in 2012), Singleton said his main goal is to change the perception of the disabled through his sprinting.
“If I can come out and run for a short period of time and make people feel a little bit better about themselves, or make them want to take that next step and just walk a little bit more, get a little bit more healthy, that’s what I would like to do,” Singleton said. “Everyone out there wants to see something special and I’m going to provide that for them.”
Singleton will graduate with an engineering degree this December. What happens beyond that is anyone’s guess, but there doesn’t appear to be any goal out of reach.
“I have faith,” Singleton said. “I pray at night, and I have a lot of faith. If I stay humble and really believe … I would like to become a legend in terms of Paralympics, one of the best to ever come through the sport. I’m going to work for it, and hopefully by the time my career’s over, I’ll be remembered.”