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Al Mead: jumping into the record books.

Al Mead, 37, a member of the U.S. Paralympics team, is currently training for the 1996 games in Atlanta, Georgia, where he will compete in the long jump, high jump and pentathlon. Mead, an above-knee amputee, also serves on the board of directors for the Atlanta Paralympic Organizing Committee and on President Clinton's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

Out in the community, Mead is greeted enthusiastically--and with more than a little awe--by youngsters who recognize him from one of his many disability-awareness presentations in local schools. "I always give the kids demonstrations of how my prosthetic leg works," he explains. "I even jump up to the basketball hoop and grab the rim. They are always amazed."

Mead is a partner in an executtve search firm in Atlanta. He also serves as the music director at Liveoak Baptist Church in College Park, Georgia. He lives with his wife of 10 years, Rochelle, and their daughters, Karen Ashley, 7, and Monique, 4. The following was adapted from an interview between Mead and Exceptional Parent intern Ellen Bullock.

I grew up on Chicago's south side with my mom, Gwen, my dad, Albert Mead Jr.--I'm actually Albert III--and two younger siblings, Jenny and Steve. My family was very close. We all went to church together, and we always ate dinner together. We did everything as a family. I'm sure this closeness played a big part in easing any pain I had growing up with an artificial leg.

The events leading up to the amputation of my leg probably began when I stepped on a nail; my mom brought me to the doctor, who just sent me back home. Then, a few months later, I was shooting some hoops with my godmother's son, and I fell down on my back. For some reason, am started my foot hurting all over again.

I was nine years old. I remember the day clearly because it was the day of the Martin Luther King Jr. funeral in April 1968. When I got to my godmother's home and explained what had happened, I remember the attention was divided between me and the televised funeral.

My godmother thought I had sprained something. She rubbed my leg down, and I soaked my foot at home. But a few days later, when it continued to hurt, my uncle, a medical technician at a local hospital, did a few informal procedures to assess the location of my pain. He was the one who noticed that most of my foot was numb. Convinced something was really wrong, he brought me to the hospital.

The doctors agreed something was seriously wrong and kept me in the hospital for their examination and treatment. Eventually, they had to amputate my foot. A few days later, they determined that the infection was worse than originally thought. So they amputated again, just below the knee. Then, still later, they amputated my leg just above the knee. So I actually had three amputations.

When my mom first told me they were going to amputate, I wasn't particularly upset, probably because I didn't really understand what I was facing. I remember my mother crying, and I told her, "Don't cry, Mom. My leg's gonna grow back, isn't it?"

A time of change

It wasn't until the end of my five-week hospital stay, when they started training me to roll a wheelchair and walk on crutches, that I realized drugs were going to be different. It really hit me when I came home so obviously different from the day I'd left.

I had to stay home from school until I got my first prosthetic leg. While all the other kids were at school and my parents were at work, I spent a lot of time on the comer of our block. I would just sit there, with my crutches over my lap, watching the cars go by. I must have looked pretty sad because the cars started slowing down. Some of them stopped, and people got out and gave me money.

I decided right away that this was not the way I wanted to be seen--a poor little crippled kid feeling sorry for self. I knew I had to start turning that stereotype around.

Back in the game

I started learning to ride a bike soon thereafter. I just climbed on and started practicing. My mom says I almost gave her a heart attack the first time she saw me trying to ride my bike with one leg. She didn't know whether to yell at me to get off the bike or just let me go and hope for the best. She swallowed her fear and let me continue to ride. I fell on my face a few times, but soon I was able to ride with one leg.

Once fitted with my first prosthesis, my next challenge was getting back into our neighborhood games of "alley football." The kids were reluctant to include me, because they were afraid of being blamed if I got hurt. I eventually convinced them to let me play and it didn't take me long to get a good feel for a hop-skipping type of run. When I finally got my hands on the ball, I headed for the goal line at the end of the alley. At that moment, the bottom part of my leg fell off.

There was my foot on the ground, and I had the football, and nobody knew what to do. I said, "Hey, don't worry, guys. I'm OK. Just let me get this touchdown, then I'll go get my foot fixed."

I have no doubt that my participation in sports was the rehabilitation vehicle that got me back into the mainstream of society Baseball was my first love; I played on a community team, eventually becoming an all-star catcher. I even learned to steal bases. I played hockey in the winter and I started to play basketball in seventh grade. I tried out for the basketball team in high school but even though I made the cut, the coaches decided again letting me play because they were worried about the possibility of a lawsuit if I got injured. But I played intramural basketball, and our team won the school tournament. That made me feel a bit better.

It wasn't so much that I loved sports, but that I loved the challenge of letting everybody know that I could hang with them and be just as good, in spite of the additional challenge I faced. My biggest struggle was with a series of prosthetic legs that just couldn't keep up with me. hi those days, prosthetics were not made to accommodate sports activities or active kids. I would bail out of swings like everybody else, or I'd climb a fence and jump off, then I'd walk home and there would be ball bearings all over the floor. Not a week passed that I didn't have to bring my leg in for some sort of repair.

Getting into track and field

After high school, I moved to Atlanta, Georgia to attend Morehouse College. I decided to put sports behind me and concentrate on my studies. Initially, I thought I might become a doctor, but I ended up majoring in business.

Just before finishing college, I heard there was going to be a sports competition for amputees in Statesboro, Georgia. I got all excited because although I hadn't stayed involved in organized sports, I was still in pretty good shape.

It was my full amputee meet ever, and my first attempt at any track and field activities. I signed up to run the 100-, 200- and 400-meter races--and I broke world records in all three events. I also tried the high jump and the long jump, and I broke national records in both. This competition was the first time I'd ever met other amputees who were active like me.

World record

Several unexpected highlights of my track and field career occurred at the 1988 Paralympic Games in Seoul, Korea. I was competing in the 100 meters, an event in which I was undefeated. The regular Olympics and the Paralympics were being held at the same venue, and my mom and dad were there at this huge stadium waiting to see me compete. So picture this: the gun goes off and I dash out of the starting blocks. I'm 15 meters into the race--in the lead--and my leg breaks in half! You're talking about a big defeat, because this was a race in which I was virtually assured of a gold medal

I didn't get a medal in the high jump either. So, it all came down to my last event, the long jump, in which I had never medaled internationally. A Canadian, Arnie Bolt, the world record holder in the high jump, was also favored in the long jump. Sure enough, on his third jump, he broke the current world record. But in my third jump, I broke the record he had just set. I came away with the gold medal. hi the years since, the long jump has become my main event.

Hop, skip and a jump

After Seoul, prosthetics technology started to catch up with the activities we were doing. I got a new running leg--the weirdest--looking thing I'd ever seen. There was no wood in it; it was all alloy metals and plastics. This was the first leg that could allow me to run leg-over-leg. But I told the prostheticist, "Hey, I broke the long jump world record with my hop-skip run. I'm comfortable with it, and I'm going to stick with what works."

At the 1992 games in Barcelona, Spain, the stadium was packed--the Europeans really love track and field. In the midst of my concentration before the long jump, everyone in the stadium started clapping rhythmically. When I started to run, they started clapping faster and faster. It was electrifying, and in my first jump, I broke the world record.

But it was probably the shortest-lived world record ever, because in his first jump, the West German athlete that followed me jumped further. And he used the leg-over-leg running style. I came away with the silver medal, finally convinced that I needed to run leg-over-leg. Today, with an even newer leg, I'm running leg-over-leg and looking to recapture my world record at the 1996 Paralympics, right here in Atlanta.

I think the world will be amazed and impressed with how rapidly Paralympians are closing the gap between themselves and Olympic athletes without disabilities, For example, a double amputee [U.S. athlete Tony Volpentest, a double arm, double leg amputee] now runs 100 meters in 11.6 seconds--only 1.7 seconds off Carl Lewis' world record.

Parents as partners

A parent who wants his or her kid with a disability to get involved in sports must be prepared to be that kid's partner. Mostly, kids need support from their parents. They need their parents to cheer them on, to encourage them to keep pushing and to allow them to share their concerns.

My parents are a good example, particularly because I was a real financial liability to the family. I kept tearing up my leg, and they had to keep paying for repairs. They could have shown some reluctance to do that; but they didn't. They just kept encouraging me to be as active as I wanted to be. They were my partners in the very best sense of the word.


On more than one occasion, Mead has been able to combine his love of music and sports. Here, he sings the National Anthem at the Georgia State Games in 1993. He also sang at the closing ceremonies of the 1988 Paralympics in Barcelona, Spain, where he captured a silver medal in the long jump with a jump of 4.62 meters (15 feet, 2 inches).

RELATED ARTICLE: About the Paralympics...

The Paralympic Games began as the International Wheelchair Games, first held in 1948 in London. In 1960, the competition was renamed the Paralympics. Over the years, the games came to include athletes with a variety of disabilities including visual impairments, paraplegia and quadriplegia, cerebral palsy, amputation and dwarfism.

In the next Paralympics, athletes will compete in 17 different sports including track and field, swimming and volleyball. The 10-day games will be held in Atlanta in 1996, following the summer Olympics. The Atlanta Paralympic organizing committee has planned a number of youth and education programs to coincide with the event. These programs include a "Paralympic Day" in local schools, a Paralympic youth sports camp and a mentor program. For more information about the Paralympics or any of these programs, contact the 1996 Atlanta Paralympic Games, One Atlantic Center, 1201 W. Peachtree St., Ste. 2500, Atlanta, GA 30309-3448; (404) 588-1996; (404) 724-2811, fax.
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Title Annotation:Role Models; Paralympics hero
Author:Bullock, Ellen; Mead, Albert III
Publication:The Exceptional Parent
Date:Feb 1, 1996
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