Lex GilletteNews

Lex Gillette Has Vision – For Paris And Beyond

by Peggy Shinn

Lex Gillette poses for a picture.
Team USA

When Paralympian Lex Gillette gives motivational talks, he often mentions the eye shades he wears during competition. Designed by Nike, the glasses are actually a blindfold — required for T11 visually impaired athletes during competition to level the playing field — and they make Gillette look like super hero Frozone from the animated movie The Incredibles.

“Honey, where’s my super suit?!” quips Gillette, using a quote from the movie.

Gillette, however, does not need a super suit to perform his feats of strength. A five-time Paralympic silver medalist and four-time world champion in long jump, he is the only totally blind athlete to have ever jumped beyond 22 feet. He currently holds the world record at 6.77 meters/22 feet, 2 inches.

But Gillette’s real super power is the message he conveys in his talks: “No need for sight if you have a vision.” It’s a message that is “literally my life,” he said by phone from Chula Vista, California, where he was training for the 2023 World Para Athletics Championships in Paris. And it’s a message that will hopefully carry him to the top of the podium in Paris next year.

Lex Gillette on the track.
Team USA

Gillette was born Elexis Gillette in 1984 in Kinston, North Carolina. An active boy, he played rec league baseball and swam, among other sports. One day, when he was 8, his vision became blurry. The ophthalmologist diagnosed retina detachment, and young Lex underwent 10 operations in one year. But none stabilized his vision, which continued to fade until he was completely blind.

His mom, Verdina Gillette-Simms, did not let her son languish in the dark. She knew that her son was a gifted athlete and insisted that he stay active. In middle school, Gillette competed in shot put.

“I was probably 100 pounds soaking wet,” joked Gillette.

Then, his freshman year at Athens Drive High School in Raleigh, Gillette discovered his real gift. During testing for the Presidential Physical Fitness Award, Gillette was the best standing long jumper in the freshman class and top three in the entire school. Coach Brian Whitmer was impressed. Whitmer was the school’s basketball coach at the time, and he also specializes in teaching the visually impaired. He convinced the Athens Drive track coach to let Gillette compete in long jump for the school team, with a caller guiding Gillette to the take-off point.

“[Coach Whitmer] opened that door to what is today,” said Gillette. “That was 23 years ago.”

Lex Gillette running on the track.
Team USA

In 2002, Gillette won the long jump at the United States Association of Blind Athletes Track and Field National Championships. Two years later, 19-year-old Gillette qualified for his first Paralympic Game in Athens, where he set a new American record in long jump (6.24 meters) and came home with the silver medal.

Gillette competed in major international competitions through college (East Carolina University) and his trophy cabinet grew. He won his first world championship medal (silver) and claimed his first two U.S. Paralympic national long jump titles. He has also competed in the triple jump and 100- and 200-meters on the track, winning silver and bronze medals in triple jump at 2011 and 2013 world championships, and a silver in the 4x100-meter relay in 2013, as well.

After graduating from East Carolina in 2007, Gillette moved to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, to train. A year later, at the Paralympic Games Beijing, he jumped farther than he had at the 2004 Paralympic Games, but with variables of weather and track conditions, he earned another silver medal in 2008.

Since then, Gillette has added three more Paralympic long jump silver medals at the 2012, 2016, and 2020 Games. But the one earned at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London means the most. With a quad strain in June that year, he missed the Paralympic team trials but made the team as a discretionary pick. Off the track for a month, he only resumed training right before the Games in London.

“Sports medicine at the Olympic Training Center here in Chula Vista got me in a really good position to be able to compete,” said Gillette. “But you still have to fight through those mental barriers and questions that you have. To be able to get back on the podium at those Games felt really special.”

Lex Gillette poses for a photo.
Team USA

In addition to training, Gillette also began considering how he could make an impact beyond the track and field. With an interest in marketing, Gillette came up with the tagline “no need for vision when you have a vision.” A friend suggested he change the first ‘vision’ to ‘sight.’

“I totally believe that it’s a message for everyone,” Gillette said. “At the end of the day, it is not our eyes that ultimately determine success. It is our ability to see a vision and to not only see it but then to develop a plan and connect with amazing people, and do everything in our power to bring it to fruition.”

Over the next few years, Gillette set out to become “the best speaker that I could become,” and his speaking career took off after he did his first TedX talk in San Diego in 2016. In that talk titled “Shot in the Dark” — where he showed the “Frozone” blindfold that Nike made specifically for him before the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio — Gillette encouraged everyone in the audience to distinguish between sight and vision by closing their eyes and imagining a world in which they achieve their highest potential.

“What does that look like?” he asked. “What would you be doing? Your true potential.”

It’s a message that brought him a standing ovation — and invitations for more talks around the world.

Lex Gillette sits in the pit.
Team USA

Gillette, 38, is now aiming to compete at his sixth Paralympic Games next year in Paris, where he wants to win the one medal that has eluded him: Paralympic gold.

His track and field career has been marked by consistency — with five silver Paralympic medals won in 17 years and four consecutive world titles dating back a decade, all with long-time guide Wesley Williams. Asked what has fueled this consistency, Gillette credits both confidence and humility: confidence in himself and his abilities while training as if he is an underdog.

“I train as if I’m still a freshman in high school training for major international competitions,” he explained. “As long as I train with that type of mindset, and with the type of ferocity as if I’m like eleventh or twelfth in the world, it helps me at major international competitions.”

Going to Paris next year, Gillette knows he will have to take extra steps, especially after finishing seventh in long jump at the 2023 para world championships.

“At this stage in my career, I’m definitely going to need to tap into technical soundness because the reality is, I’m not on 28-year-old legs anymore,” he said. “When I was younger, I could lean on amazing athleticism. I’m still athletic, but 10 years ago, it was a little bit easier.”

But he still has that vision.

Lex Gillette poses for a photo series in his Team USA uniform on the track at Chula Vista, CA
Team USA