In the great tradition of American sprinting, strong young men run fast and talk even faster. Jerome Singleton Jr. brings the full sprint-star package, from the charming conceit to the stocked résumé. During a recent news conference in Dallas with fellow U.S. athletes, Singleton smiled broadly, tossed humility out the window and let it be known who was in the room.
“My name is Jerome Singleton Jr.,” he said into a microphone. “I’m the fastest amputee in the world.”
He’s America’s answer to Oscar Pistorius, the widely acclaimed South African sprinter hoping to compete in both the Olympics and Paralympic Games this summer. The way Singleton sees it, he and Pistorius, whom he defeated at the most recent world championships in the 100 meters for below-knee amputees, are going to have one compelling, must-watch showdown at the Paralympics in London.
“Muhammad Ali had Joe Frazier,” Singleton opined. “Magic Johnson had Larry Bird. Oscar Pistorius has . . . you’re looking at him.”
Singleton can back up his grinning shtick. His surprising victory in Christchurch, New Zealand, last year ended Pistorius’s seven-year win streak in Paralympic 100 races. Singleton, 25, won in a photo finish as both clocked 11.34 seconds.
In their previous two meetings, Pistorius edged Singleton by .03 of a second. At the 2008 Summer Games, Pistorius chased Singleton down from behind to win in 11.17. He ran him down again at a Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, England, a year later with a victory in 11.13, leaving him with another silver medal.
The similarities between the two end at their speed. Pistorius has two prosthetic legs; Singleton, who was born without a right fibula and had his leg amputated below the knee at 18 months, has only one. Pistorius has become widely known for his pursuit of a qualifying time in the 400 meters that would secure him a place in the Olympic Games as a member of the South African team.
Singleton has no such hope. In the United States, an Olympic qualifying time gets Singleton nowhere, because plenty of able-bodied Americans earn that every four years. With so much competition, Singleton has little hope of ever securing a U.S. Olympic spot. He hopes, someday, merely to qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials.
His best time in the 100 is 11.1 seconds; the three U.S. men who win Olympic team slots in the event this summer likely will run below 10 seconds.
So should Pistorius win a place in the Olympic 400 field, Singleton will be waiting for him at the Paralympics, which begin after the Olympics end.
“If he goes to the Olympics and does well, I don’t want any excuses when he comes to the Paralympics,” Singleton said. “Don’t say you’re tired.”
The jabs aside, Singleton shows great respect and appreciation for Pistorius, crediting him for the attention he has brought to athletes with disabilities as well as the motivation he handed Singleton by blowing by him in Beijing to win the 100 gold medal.
“I saw a green flash go by me real quick,” Singleton said. But “I think it was a blessing to get silver.”
The second place reminded Singleton that, though he had made a name for himself throughout his life by excelling in athletics — as a starting strong safety at Dutch Fork High, he was named one of the top 100 senior football prospects in South Carolina by the High School Sports Report — it was his academic prowess that would provide insurance for his future.
Singleton won a full academic scholarship to Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he majored in mathematics and applied physics. At the University of Michigan, he added a degree in industrial engineering. During his collegiate years, he served internships at NASA’s Glenn Research Center in Cleveland and CERN, the world’s largest particle physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland, and did research at the Park City (Utah) Math Institute, an outreach arm of Princeton’s famous Institute for Advanced Study.
His various projects? He worked on an engine to assist with the Mars landing, an imaging system for the early detection of cataracts, and the effects of photoactivity on subterranean termites.
“If I wasn’t doing the Paralympics,” Singleton said, “I would have my Ph.D.”
At CERN, he assisted a team of scientists trying to find additional dimensions in space.
“What impressed me most was how eager he was, how genuinely interested he was in whatever task I’d give him,” said Oliver Baker, a professor of physics at Yale University who accompanied Singleton to Geneva. “He was just excited about physics. That’s what it takes for somebody to make a difference, to achieve some distinction in the field. You have to love it . . . you sort of have to be hungry for it.”
Singleton, who also played on school teams in baseball and basketball, said he brings hunger to every discipline in which he banks his time. He said his father, Jerome Sr., frequently told him he could use his life to be a warning or an example, and he preferred the latter.
“I want to be the best,” Singleton said. “I know everyone has invested in me. I’m not going to sacrifice that gift.”
Singleton has trained for the last five years with Curtis Frye at the University of South Carolina. Frye said Singleton’s work ethic is like nothing he has ever seen; he called his potential “limitless.”
“He doesn’t have a crutch mentality,” Frye said. “That took great mentorship and great parenting. His father and mother are strong people. They never allowed him to handicap himself, and they never allowed him to entitle himself.”
Prosthetic legs have been the subject of controversy in some corners. The world track and field federation (IAAF) originally banned Pistorius from able-bodied races before the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, contending that his legs gave him a technical advantage. An arbitration panel overturned that decision.
Singleton said he has studied the scientific literature on Pistorius’s carbon-fiber prosthetic legs and concluded that Pistorius does indeed have an advantage — over runners with only one prosthetic leg.
Singleton said his natural left leg helps him explode out of the blocks faster than Pistorius, but the balance Pistorius gains running on two artificial limbs helps him make up ground fast at the end of 100 sprints and in longer races.
“I can get out really well,” Singleton said. “But he starts to reel me in. This happens because he’s balanced. . . . In a 100, it equals out . . . At the end of the day, I’ll race against anybody.”