A half-hour after learning that he won’t be allowed to compete in next month’s RIO 2016 Paralympic Games, Blake Leeper – a 26-year-old double amputee who had been predicted to win up to four gold medals at the Games – sits in a LA hotel, staring gloomily at a nearby television screen.
“I refuse to let this beat me,” says a shell-shocked Leeper, who became known as the “American Blade Runner” after finishing second to Oscar Pistorius in the 400 meters at the 2012 London Paralympics. “But it really hurts knowing that I won’t get the chance to break Oscar’s record.”
Leeper, who was born without lower legs, tested positive for a metabolite of cocaine that he reportedly used at a party and was suspended in June 2015 from competition for two years. In January 2016, the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency reduced the sanction to one year after Leeper agreed to, among other things, stay clean, attend daily 12-step meetings and undergo random drug testing.
The affable young athlete from Kingsport, Tennessee, who had struggled with an addiction to alcohol for years, believed he’d been given a second chance and immersed himself in his training.
It paid off. At the Paralympic trials he set a new American record in the 200 meter and the 400 meter. In the 100 meter, he took a silver medal, despite losing his prosthetic leg and flying airborne across the finish line before crashing to the track.
“I trained like I never had before over the past year,” says Leeper, whose performance at the trials won him a spot on the U.S. team. “I knew I’d made a mistake, but owned up to it and put my blood, sweat and tears into showing everyone how serious I was.”
The International Paralympic Committee [IPC], however, wasn’t impressed and appealed Leeper’s January settlement agreement. On Aug. 12, the international Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that the IPC had “no obligation to recognize” the decision reached last January.
Three days later, the IPC released a statement on their website, saying that Leeper was now “ineligible to compete” at the upcoming Paralympics and that his original two-year suspension was still in effect.
Leeper’s coach Willie Gault, a former Olympic sprinter and NFL wide receiver, was perplexed by the IPC’s decision to prevent Blake from running in Rio.
“It’s unjust and unwarranted,” he tells PEOPLE. “It’s not right to keep the best runner in the world from competing after he’s done everything that was required of him. We all make mistakes. He did something that was recreational. He had a disease. He wasn’t trying to cheat.”
The IPC, which earlier this month issued a blanket ban against Russian athletes competing at the Paralympics, did not respond to PEOPLE’s request for a comment about their decision.
“It just makes no sense,” says L.A. entrepreneur Bob Lorsch, Leeper’s advisor, who – together with the Victorino Noval Foundation – stepped forward to cover Blake’s living expenses, counseling fees and helped arranged for a top L.A. law firm to handle his legal case pro bono. “Whoever wins in Rio will not be the fastest person in the world.”