By Published: Aug. 24, 2018

Blake Leeper

Double-amputee sprinter Blake Leeper visited CU Boulder this week for testing that could determine whether he may vie for a spot at the 2020 Olympics. (Credit: Glenn Asakawa/CU Boulder)

One of the world’s fastest men visited CU Boulder this week, blazing around the corners of the track and clocking nearly 30 miles per hour on a treadmill in the Applied Biomechanics lab.

Blake Leeper and Alena Grabowski at Balch Fieldhouse
Grabowski with Leeper at the track.

The scientific question at hand: Does a double-amputee running on prosthetic blades have an advantage, or disadvantage, over sprinters with legs? The answer could ultimately determine whether he will be allowed to compete at the 2020 Olympics.

“We’re here to get the numbers and find out the truth with scientific nonbias,” said Blake Leeper, a 29-year-old elite sprinter from Kingsport, Tennessee.

In June, Leeper—who was born without legs and runs on Ottobock carbon fiber blades—ran the 400-meter sprint in 44.42 seconds, shattering his own record and that of Oscar Pistorius, who in 2012 became the first and only below-the-knee amputee to compete against able-bodied runners at the Olympics.

Leeper now has his eye on the 2020 games. However, the International Association of Athletics Federations maintains a rule prohibiting “mechanical aids” unless amputee athletes can prove their prostheses do not, as some have alleged, give them a competitive edge.

Alena Grabowski, assistant professor of integrative physiology, specializes in studying lower-limb prostheses and was instrumental in determining Pistorius was not at an advantage—a finding that enabled his 2012 Olympics debut.

“For kids who had an amputation and for adults who had some sort of physical disability—to see this guy push the boundaries like that, it opened a door,” Grabowski said.

Pistorius was convicted in 2015 of murdering his girlfriend and sentenced to more than a decade in prison. But his running achievements inspired a new generation of runners with disabilities—including Leeper—to think big.

Blake Leeper sprints at the track
Leeper sprints at the track.

Leeper notes that he faces numerous challenges that he sees as disadvantages, including sores and swelling in his stumps and balance problems that make it harder to lift weights at the gym.

He came to CU Boulder for scientific answers.

Grabowski took measurements of Leeper’s movement out of the starting blocks and around curves, measured his aerobic metabolism and fatigue levels on the treadmill and will compare the data to measurements of able-bodied runners and other runners with amputations, including Pistorius. She expects to have results within a few months.

Meanwhile, Leeper says he’ll keep his eye on 2020.

“My goal is to be the fastest man in the world.”

Read more about Grabowski’s work in the spring issue of the Coloradan Magazine.