Injured soldier sprinting back to sports

Posted by Ralph | 1:19 PM

"The decision came only days after Jerrod Fields, a United States Army corporal on a 2005 reconnaissance mission in Baghdad, had his left ankle and foot mutilated by a roadside bomb. After managing to drive his four troopmates back to base — valor that earned him a Bronze Star — Fields woke up in a hospital in Germany with a choice: have surgery and be discharged, or amputate and stay a soldier."

"Librado Romero/The New York Times
Jerrod Fields became a top prospect after losing his lower left leg to an injury sustained in Iraq.

“Cut it off,” he said he told doctors. “I want to go back to Iraq.”

But the next medal Fields accepts could come in London. Four years after taking his first tentative steps on a prosthetic foot, Fields now sprints so fast that he is considered a top United States prospect for the 2012 Paralympic Games — someone who just might knock off Oscar Pistorius of South Africa.

“From the moment I started walking,” Fields said recently, “I was ready to run.”

Fields belongs to the Army’s World Class Athlete Program, which allows soldiers to train for the Olympics and the Paralympics while on active duty. Trading Army green for Paralympic red, white and blue would cap Fields’s rise from Chicago-project orphan and gang hopeful to hero soldier and elite athlete.

Fields, 27, grew up in a South Side neighborhood he recalled as “flooded with gangs and drugs” and hazed in negativity. His mother died of lung cancer when he was 5. His father was shot and killed when he was 11.

“They said he was murdered outside of our home in Chicago,” Fields said. “Six shots, I think. It was intentional — it was something planned. We never found out the killer or why it happened. Anything.”

Fields became a fringe member of the Gansta Disciples but focused enough on sports and school to attend Tennessee State University for two years. He then enlisted in the Army and was deployed to Iraq in January 2005. A month later, reports of a dead dog on a Baghdad road — animal carcasses were often booby-trapped with explosives — led his platoon to drive in to investigate.

The dog itself was harmless, but still a trap. A small bomb went off nearby. Fields laughed; he thought he had dropped a grenade. Then another explosion destroyed his lower left leg.

Fields kept his wits enough to drive his Bradley armored vehicle and fellow troops out of danger. But when he eventually came to in a hospital in Germany, he was so disoriented that he tried to choke his nurse. (“The last thing I remembered was fighting,” he said.) Doctors explained what had happened, and told Fields they could rebuild his leg by grafting muscle and fusing his ankle.

“With that type of injury, there’s nothing you can do,” Fields said, alluding to the active combat he preferred. “It would have done me more harm mentally trying to get back out there and seeing that I couldn’t do it. So I went with just getting it amputated. Everything that hurts now is gone.

“And it would have been around now that I would be just starting recovery. I would have just been getting crutches, just getting out of bed. And I’ve had an active four years since this happened.”

Indeed, Fields acclimated to a prosthetic foot so quickly that he found himself barely missing the real one. He ran swiftly and even did standing backflips. Fields had never heard of the Paralympics at that point, but a fellow soldier suggested that he apply to the World Class Athlete Program. Two days before being redeployed to Iraq in August 2007 — he had worked himself back into combat shape — Fields was accepted and immediately stunned his new coach, Al Joyner.

“He’s a baby — he’d never run any track,” said Joyner, the former Olympic gold medalist who works with Paralympic and able-bodied sprinters and jumpers at the United States Olympic training facility in Chula Vista, Calif. “He’s made leaps and bounds with his mechanics. When he learns more about his body, he’s going to explode.”

Within a year, Fields was running 100 meters in 12 seconds flat. Running that fast on a Cheetah foot, a long, carbon-fiber blade that mimics the spring and power of the human lower leg, required Fields to understand the unique demands of amputee sprinting. His hip flexors had to learn to balance legs of different weights and feet of different lengths. The nerve receptors in the stump below his knee had to figure out how to sense the track beneath his artificial foot.

“I was there the first day Jerrod ran, and he went boom, right on his face,” said Marlon Shirley, a two-time gold medalist in the Paralympic 100 meters who also trains in Chula Vista. “For him to run 12 flat in such a short amount of time, less than two years, that blows me away.

“The thing about Jerrod is his spirit and love for life. His spirit is probably bigger than anybody I’ve ever met before. It’s infectious. He’s the type of person you want to emulate because of how much he loves life.”

Decreasing his time to 11.2 or 11.3 seconds, which would get him to the Games, will be even harder than running 12 this soon, Shirley warned. But the top United States sprinter Brian Frasure has retired, and Shirley has sustained major knee and Achilles’ tendon injuries. So Fields and the Paralympic veteran Jerome Singleton could become the top United States hopes to run an 11.1 or lower, which could beat Pistorius, a double-amputee who runs so fast on two Cheetah feet that he almost qualified for the Olympic 400 meters.

Joyner said Fields could ultimately run faster than Shirley — the most decorated United States track-and-field Paralympian — in his prime. Shirley said that was possible, too, if Fields could learn the nuances of top-caliber sprinting and then perform in now-or-never competition. The indoor season begins next month.

“We don’t know what’s in us until we get the opportunity that pulls it out of us,” Fields said. What drove that vehicle out of Baghdad could drive him straight to London"

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