The Incredible Story of a Life-Long Runner Who Won Paralympic Gold After Losing a Leg: 'There's Nothing That You Can't Do'

Jarryd Wallace had his lower right leg amputated when he was 20 years old

Photo: Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP

Jarryd Wallace was just 20 years old when he made the difficult decision to have his deteriorating right leg amputated.

He was gearing up to compete with the University of Georgia’s track and field team when he was diagnosed with chronic exertional compartment syndrome – an exercise-induced muscle and nerve condition that causes, pain, swelling and sometimes disability of the ailing leg or arm, according to Minnesota’s Mayo Clinic.

The seasoned sprinter had undergone 10 reconstructive surgeries on his lower right leg in a two-and-a-half-year span, he told PEOPLE at the Team USA Media Summit in March.

“I remember sitting in a doctor’s office and he said, ‘it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when you lose your leg,’ ” he said.

“He said, ‘you have an 80-year-old’s leg on a 20-year-old’s body.’ That was sobering news in the moment, but it was also the news that I needed to hear.”

Wallace ended up having the limb amputated in June 2010, he said. Six years later, Wallace is preparing for his second Paralympic Games – and he’s ready to take Rio de Janeiro by storm.

“This next eight-week cycle is going to be the hardest cycle of my career to date,” he told PEOPLE. “I’m putting in about 25 hours a week, two-a-days three or four days a week depending on the week, about five hours straight of training, a 30-minute break in between.”

In 2011, competed in the Parapan American Games and won a gold medal in the 100-meter, securing himself a place in the 2012 Paralympics in London, according to the New York Times.

Running In His Early Years

The gold medalist has been running for almost all of his life, – “I joke with people and tell them that I ran before I walked,” he said – starting with workouts and five-mile runs with his mom as early as 6 years old.

“My mom was an All-American track athlete at the University of Georgia when she was in college,” he said of his mother.

“We’ve always had that connection on the track and once I had my injury and went from being a middle-distance, distance runner to a sprint, I was an amputee. It’s been really cool because she’s learned a lot more about the sprinting aspect of the sport as I have.”

Wallace, now 26, said his parents have always been his biggest fans “on and off the track.”

“I’ve been really blessed to have two amazing parents,” he said.

“Opportunity For a New Normal”

For a runner like Wallace, coming to terms with losing a leg was no easy task. But, he said he was not bitter about the loss, instead, he called the circumstance “newfound opportunity.”

“It was opportunity for a new normal and I hadn’t been able to run for about three years because my limb had been so deformed, and I’d been in so much pain and I had gone through so many surgeries and life as I knew it had gone away,” he said.

But Wallace said he soon saw that he could “feel normal again and do the things that I loved again.”

“I chose to look at it as a positive. Out of the 12 surgeries that I had over the entire process, the amputation was probably the easiest one, which is kind of crazy,” he said. “I had such a peace about the decision that had been made and I knew that it was the place that I was being called and the direction that I was supposed to go in.”

He said going through the transition from two legs to one was difficult for both him and his parents, “but at the end of the day, you look at the big picture and it was the easiest decision that I’ve ever made and I’m so grateful for the places that it’s taken me.”

Remembering His Story

In the years following the amputation, Wallace said he got two tattoos on both his ribcages as reminders to how far he has come.

“The one on my left side is basically a representation of my story. It’s 12 words and symbols and it’s in the shape of a cross, and it basically represents the 12 surgeries that I’ve had,” he said.

“The top word is ‘faith’ and then it goes, ‘peace, adversity, strength, endurance, hope, family, and then it says ‘James 1:2-4’ and then it’s got three nails again in the shape of a cross. All the words represent emotions that I felt in the process.”

Wallace has the USA Track and Field symbol tattooed on his right side.

“As soon as I made the team, I’ve always loved the symbol and always thought it would be cool to get a tattoo of,” he said. “As soon as I made the team, I got the tattoo and I put 1 Corinthians 9:27 in the muddle of it.”

“Life is Not Over”

Along with a sense of resilience and a successful career, Wallace’s ordeal has left him with a message for others – especially those who may be facing amputation.

“I think the first thing is, life is not over. The only limits that you’ll have are the ones that you put on yourself,” he said. “It is an interesting road, it’s a hard road, there are hard moments, but with a great team and the right support there’s nothing that you can’t do.”

Wallace added: “Embrace yourself and believe in who you are, losing a leg does not change your identity, it’s actually a great gain because your adversity is now invisible and you have an opportunity to share with the world your story.”

The 2016 Paralympic Games will kick off on Sept. 7 in Rio de Janeiro.

Reporting by NAME CAPPED

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