Though more than a decade has passed, Deborah Jackson still remembers every moment of her son’s first track meet.
Then, she watched an 8-year-old Desmond Jackson earn multiple first-place finishes during his introduction to sporting events for disabled athletes. As the buzz grew louder, an unflattering hurdle emerged: a disruptive fall during the 400-meter dash brought the youngster down for the first time.
The brief moment of disappointment turned into a poignant memory of inspiration, however, as the embattled leg amputee picked himself up, finished the race and drew congratulatory praises from disabled veterans and fellow athletes alike.
Since that competition, the Campbell University graduate has become one of adaptive sports’ biggest stars and can’t help but think of his upbringing as he prepares to represent his country as a Paralympian for a second time in five years.
“I was raised properly, and that’s really all on my mother, because she didn’t allow me to feel sorry for myself,” Desmond Jackson said in a recent interview with The Daily Record.
“Instead, we took on the mantra of being a trailblazer and doing things that nobody else was doing.”
Never anticipating the struggles attached to raising a child born with a congenital birth defect, Deborah Jackson was determined to quickly overcome a “steep learning curve” in hopes of giving her son the same opportunities as able-bodied kids.
“He had to prove who he was every step of the way. ... It wasn’t always easy. Sometimes it was painful,” she said of the emotional and physical stress her son endured at times.
Desmond Jackson also recalls some of the self-doubt and apprehension when navigating various public spaces.
But a sporty childhood, that included ventures into soccer, basketball and even horseback riding, provided a sense of confidence that would soon pay dividends in a big way.
“As an amputee, I was probably still one of the most active kids because my family didn’t treat me any differently,” Jackson said.
Fitted for his first prosthetic blade at 8, the all-around athlete stumbled into a new sport that eventually supplanted those beloved extracurricular activities.
“It came fast and early for me,” Jackson said of his early track and field exploits.
Aside from the misstep during the 400, Jackson left the meet in Fishersville, Virginia as a record-holder in multiple events after also competing in the 100, 200 and long jump.
“Just to be able to do that was eye-opening,” he said.
“It was just natural for me. I knew that that was the path I wanted to go down and that I had a great opportunity, if I put in the work, to be a Paralympian.”
With an unexpectedly dominant debut in the rearview, the focus shifted to the National Junior Disability Championships – an event reserved for the nation’s best athletes that, at the same time, garners the attention of varied Paralympic recruiters.
Jackson set six records at his first NJDC event, prompting inquiries from a host of national sporting organizations. It was then, Jackson says, dreams of becoming a world champion were set in motion.
The Durham native helped Hillside High School to the 4A state championship in 2016, then took a leap into the professional ranks.
That summer, a 16-year-old Jackson qualified for his first Paralympic Games, becoming Team USA’s youngest athlete making the trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. There, he finished seventh in the long jump while also running the 100 and 200.
After high school, Jackson earned an academic scholarship to Campbell where he continued his track and field career.
“I’m thankful for the opportunity to be on that (Campbell) team ... We definitely achieved history,” Jackson said of becoming the program’s first above-knee amputee athlete.
Following the 2019 season, Jackson went back into full-time preparations for what would have been his next opportunity to take on the world’s best. But the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics were postponed due to a global pandemic, providing yet another obstacle for the record-setting performer.
With athletes mostly bound to their respective homes due to public health restrictions, Jackson found opportunities to train in the Triangle area.
He credits Duke University and Hillside for being willing hosts for his world-class workout routines that make way for successes at national competitions leading up to the Games.
"I'm on the grind for Tokyo," Jackson said succinctly.
This past May, at the Desert Challenge in Phoenix, Jackson placed first in both the 100 and long jump. In June, he took second in both events during the U.S. Paralympic trials, finally stamping his sought-after ticket to Tokyo.
Ahead of his second stint as a Paralympian, the 21-year-old feels a lot more “seasoned” than the run in 2016 and has his sights set on the podium.
“I know exactly what to expect and what to do. And I’ve adjusted my training over the years so that they’re gonna see a different athlete when I compete,” he said.
“ ... Not only medal, but ultimately, my goal is to break world records.”
As for Deborah Jackson, her son’s latest display of brilliance is validation that her personal sacrifices and selfless actions of old are being rewarded years later.
More importantly, being a parent to a world-renowned Paralympian serves as a daily testimony to the benefits of getting back up when you fall down.
“He (Jackson) showed me courage, determination ... I learned a great deal from him and I’m still learning to this day,” she said.
NBC is scheduled to broadcast more Paralympic coverage than ever before, with track and field competition from Tokyo spanning Aug. 27 to Sept. 5.
Donnell Coley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-230-2040.