There was a south wind blowing up the homestretch of the Cuyamaca College track last night as three runners settled into their blocks for a special 200-meter dash. The 200 wasn’t originally on the schedule for this, the third of four all-comers meets in the popular Summer Nights T & F Series put on by the San Diego-Imperial Association of USATF. But U.S. Paralympic coach Joaquim Cruz asked officials if they would squeeze three of his runners into the program, as one athlete in particular had a goal he needed to achieve under calendar constraints.
The Summer Nights Series was begun last year by former local stars Paul Greer and Thom Hunt, who also staged the 2008 and 2010 USATF National Cross Country Championships at Mission Bay Park. Their love for the sport and dedication to the Summer Nights Series mirrors many such local track series around the country. Not the kind of meets which garner much media attention, they instead represent the kind of all-comers competitions which both introduce and sustain the sport at all levels, offering opportunities to any who seek to explore the excellence that lies within. This special 200-meters was right up their alley.
The prevailing southerly winds were one reason the temperatures remained in the mid-80s even as the sun began its descent behind the hills lining the west end of the El Cajon, California campus. For 24 year-old retired Marine Corps lance corporal Brandon Pelletier the wind would be an important consideration in determining his immediate future, as the 200-meter stretch of track that lie before him ran north to south into the prevailing breeze.
“He needs to improve his time to 23.10 to become a resident athlete at the Olympic Training Center,” explained Coach Cruz, the 1984 Olympic 800-meter champion from Brazil, who now helps coach U.S. Paralympians in Chula Vista south of San Diego. “He ran 23.93 at the nationals in June in Miramar, Florida when he won the 200 meter title (Class T46), but he needs to hit the “B” Paralympic standard to earn full-time residence.”
This is only the second year of Paralympic competition for Pelletier, a Marble Falls, Texas native who ran the 110 and 300 meter hurdles while in high school. Injured in a truck crash in Iraq in 2007, Brandon’s right arm was crushed, and is now paralyzed below the elbow. He was also shot twice while in service, once in the neck, another time in the side. Though his arm is lifeless, he has declined all suggestions to have it amputated.
“They can always cut it off,” he says, “but they can never put it back on. Besides, the way technology is improving, who
knows what they’ll be able to do in the future.”
Though Brandon ran track for Marble Falls High School alongside 2008 1500-meter Olympian Leo Manzano, he didn’t return to the sport until last year after rehabbing from his injury. It was while attending triathlon camp in January 2010 with Team Semper Fi, the sports program for injured Marines, that Brandon met Cathy Sellers, U.S. Paralympics Director, Track & Field Sport Performance.
“She saw me run, and asked if I’d be interested in the Paralympics,” recalled Brandon. “What’s that, I asked. I really didn’t know what it was. But I competed in the Warrior Games in 2010 and 2011, and Cathy said, ‘we have room in Chula Vista if you’d like to get serious about London 2012.”
Divorced in September 2010, the offer from Ms. Sellers was just the lifeline Pelletier was looking for.
“One bad door closed to allow another good one to open.”
As the gun sounded along the backstretch at Cuyamaca College, Brandon swept into stride in lane four, his right arm held low at his side. To his outside in lane five ran Blake Leeper, a double below-the-knee amputee and member of the silver medal winning 4 X 100 meter relay team (T42-46) at the IPC Athletics World Championships in Christchurch, New Zealand this January. And in lane six raced David Prince, a single, above-the-knee amp who won the bronze medal in the 400m (T44) at the IPC World Championships.
With the small crowd of fellow runners and spectators urging him on Brandon dogged Prince down the homestretch fighting for every split second. Prince crossed first in 23.41. Pelletier came next in 23.86, four-tenths up on Leeper’s 24.28.
“This is only my third week at the training center,” said Brandon after his effort. “From no training to 23.86, that’s pretty good, a PR into the wind. So I’m already making times. And Cathy and Coach Cruz going out on a limb for me, I’m not gonna let them down. When everyone said, ‘you can’t’, they were the ones to say, ‘just watch him.”
The former Marine has until August first to accomplish his goal. The next opportunity lies at the Summer Nights Track Series Championships which will be held July 22nd at San Diego’s Lincoln High School. We will report.