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Blind long jumper from Raleigh aims for gold in Tokyo

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Athletes across the country are preparing for the Olympic and Paralympic trials in a few months in hopes of earning their tickets to Tokyo this summer -- including former Athens Drive track and field star Lex Gillette who's showing the world the difference between sight and vision.

Video Transcript

BRIDGET CONDON: Athletes across the country are preparing for the Olympic and Paralympic trials in a few months, in hopes of earning their tickets to Tokyo this summer, including former Athens Drive track and field star Lex Gillette, who's showing the world the difference between sight and vision.

LEX GILLETTE: I could not allow that to happen.

BRIDGET CONDON: 36-year-old Lex Gillette grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina and at the age of eight, lost his vision.

LEX GILLETTE: Just imagine yourself coming home from school one day, second grade, and going through your normal routine. That night as I was getting ready for bed, I started noticing that things were looking blurred and looking faint.

BRIDGET CONDON: The next day, Lex went to the doctor and discovered he was having retinal detachments. After 10 surgeries that year, the doctor said there was nothing else they could do and he'd spend the rest of his life blind.

LEX GILLETTE: Once it actually happened, that's when reality hits, and now you're literally thrust into this world where you're not able to see your neighborhood, or you're not able to see your mom or family or friends. And from there, it was just trying to figure out how to transition successfully.

BRIDGET CONDON: Lex says there were a few people who helped with that transition, including his mom and a former teacher of his, Brian Whitmer, who's visually impaired himself and introduced him to something that would eventually change his life.

- Gillette's last jump his best.

BRIAN WHITMER: We started out on the football field. And then as he got comfortable running towards me, we moved on to the six-lane track. As he felt more comfortable running towards me, we moved to the runway, which is only a meter wide.

LEX GILLETTE: The first thought was, "This dude, he's lost his mind." It was a different experience. And you can imagine yourself running down the stretch of track, you can't see anything, you're running toward the sound of someone's voice and them clapping. They're giving you that. That audible reference. And from there, this person is asking you to jump. It's definitely challenging, it's frightening.

BRIDGET CONDON: Whitmer says the hardest part was getting Lex to run straight. But after working together all summer long, Lex was ready to compete with the Athens Drive track and field team. He finished the season with his longest jump of 19 feet, 4 inches.

Since graduating, he's won four Paralympic medals, three world champion titles, and holds the record for completely blind long jumpers with a distance of 22 feet, 1 inch.

BRIAN WHITMER: It was a long road and it took a lot of trust, and now to see him what he's doing nowadays, I'm just amazed that I worked with one person and I helped one person reach their goal. But now I look at how many tens of thousands of people has Lex inspired through what he's done.

LEX GILLETTE: Keep pushing forward.

BRIDGET CONDON: Even when Lex is not on the track, he continues to inspire those around him as a motivational speaker and even wrote a book called "Fly."

BRIAN WHITMER: He's showing other people that, hey, listen, just because you have a disability doesn't mean you can't do things.

LEX GILLETTE: It's not the sight that determines our success. It's our ability to see things before they exist and to be able to see beyond the horizon.

BRIDGET CONDON: Lex in California right now preparing for the Paralympic trials in June and hopes to win gold this summer in Tokyo. When I asked him what he missed most about Raleigh, besides of course, his mom, he replied, "Bojangles," and hopes to get some once he finishes competing. Reporting in Raleigh, Bridget Condon, ABC11 Eyewitness News.