TONTOGANY, Ohio (AP) — Far from being limited by a rare condition at birth that left him with no feet, A.J. Digby’s future as a track star appears limitless.
At 10 months old, both feet were amputated. Now at 18, the enthusiastic sprinter will represent his country at the 2016 Paralympic Games.
Digby graduated from Otsego High School in June and the next stop on his exceptional journey will be the Paralympics next month in Rio de Janeiro. He qualified to represent Team USA in the 200 and 400-meter running events in Brazil.
Digby was born with a congenital disorder that left him without fibula bones in both of his calves. As a teenager, he upgraded the prosthetic legs he uses to get around in everyday life for running blades to play sports, and it changed everything.
“When I first started running track it was a chance for me to be even with able bodies and compete side by side with them. It allows me to feel free,” Digby said.
“It was something I wanted to do. I wanted to achieve dreams.”
He was just an infant when the decision was made to have his feet amputated, but he has taken it all in stride. He played sports as a youngster with the aid of prosthetic legs and eventually excelled in everything from football to hockey. But the track is where Digby found his niche.
D.J. Michel, who is a track coach and sprinting specialist at Eastwood High School, has been working with Digby since July, 2015.
“I saw him at some meets, and I always knew of him and his story,” Michel said. “But the best thing about this has been getting to know him as a person. We’ve grown pretty close. He’s a great kid. I’ve always been amazed at how positive he is. He has a will that will carry him. He will be successful in life. His future is limitless.”
At 14, the Tontogany resident had already set his sights on winning a Paralympic medal and quickly earned All-American status. He was named the male track athlete of the year by the U.S. Paralympics, a division of the United States Olympic Committee, in 2014.
Yet Digby reached an even higher plateau at the Paralympic Trials in Charlotte in late June to qualify. He set new personal records in both the 200 and 400.
In the 200, he clocked in at 21.99 seconds. That time is currently the third fastest in the world. In the 400, Digby ran a time of 47.98, which ranks second in the world and is only 0.35 off the top time held by fellow American runner Hunter Woodhall.
“If we go to Rio and run our best, we should medal,” said Michel, using a team term both he and his prodigy prefer to use. “If we PR (set personal records), it would take something special from someone else to beat us.”
Digby, who attributed his recent improvements to the new blades he is using, said his goal is simply to perform up to his abilities.
“We can only control how we run,” Digby said. “Our main goal is to run our best race. If we do that, we will walk away satisfied.”
A.J.’s father, Gordon Digby, said that four years ago, picturing his son make the Paralympics seemed improbable.
“I thought it was a long shot. So it’s a little surreal,” Gordon Digby said. “Four years ago it was a dream. But I have seen all the work he has done and the progress he has made that have gotten him to this point. It’s amazing to see where he has come in the last year.”
The Paralympics use the same venues being used in the Summer Olympics.
“I’m looking forward to seeing him run on that big stage,” Michel said. “The stadium holds 60,000 people. It will be broadcast on NBC Sports. It will be an unbelievable experience.”
Along with his coach, A.J. Digby’s entire family will travel to Brazil, including his grandparents.
“It’s going to be weird watching the Olympics and realize I’ll be competing in those places,” Digby said. “There’s a week break between the end of the Olympics and the start of the Paralympics. It’s the exact same venues and everything.”
Digby competed for the last two seasons on the Otsego football team on prosthetics called Cheetah Xtreme blades.
Digby has played quarterback, linebacker, wide receiver, safety, and special teams for the Knights. As a junior, the Ohio High School Athletic Association granted Digby permission to play football with his prosthetic legs.
Information from: The Blade, http://www.toledoblade.com/