- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 24, 2006

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Kortney Clemons always has liked a challenge, whether playing junior college football as a 5-foot-10, 145-pound cornerback or joining the Army and serving in Iraq.

Now he is training to compete in the 100-meter dash on a high-tech prosthetic leg.

“My thing is, do what people think you can’t do,” Mr. Clemons said. “Even if I fail, it can’t do anything but build character.”

A former Army medic, Mr. Clemons was a couple of weeks from returning home in February 2005 when his patrol came across an overturned vehicle in Baghdad. While the team was trying to transport a wounded soldier into a helicopter, a roadside bomb exploded, killing three other medics and peppering Mr. Clemons’ legs with shrapnel.

“I crawled to the other side of the road where my friends were, and they covered me up,” said the 26-year-old from Little Rock, Miss. “I was sitting, talking to them, and they were trying to keep me alert.”

Doctors removed Mr. Clemons’ right leg from midthigh down. He was transported to an Army rehabilitation center in San Antonio and fitted with a flesh-tone prosthetic that allows him to walk on his own with a limp.

“It was like starting all over. It was like a new beginning for me,” Mr. Clemons said. “I can do what anyone else does, it just takes a little more time.”

Kind of like on the track, though he didn’t start training for sprinting until last October and didn’t get his first coach in the sport until he arrived at Penn State in January. Now, Mr. Clemons is preparing for the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships in Atlanta, which start Friday.

Mr. Clemons already has excelled, having set a U.S. Paralympic record by lifting 340 pounds in the 155-pound senior division at the IPC World Powerlifting Championships in Busan, South Korea, on May 14. Mr. Clemons finished 11th internationally and qualified for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.

Mr. Clemons, though, prefers track and the rush of competing against athletes running right next to him.

“Kortney has a passion for running,” said his coach, Teri Jordan, a former women’s track coach for the university who now runs the school’s disability recreation programs.

Mr. Clemons flashed the synchronized form of a veteran runner during one recent training session, pumping his arms and staring intently at the finish line as he darted past joggers around a red outdoor track.

A clicking sound reverberated across the infield each time he took a step with the prosthetic leg he uses to run. At the knee, the leg features a small hydraulic system. Below the knee, a shiny, slim metallic shaft serves as his lower leg and curves at the bottom to serve as a foot.

Mr. Clemons said running on the leg feels like he’s riding on a pogo stick.

“It’s like hopping over and hopping back,” he said.

Adjustments constantly are made to the prosthetic, just as able-bodied sprinters refocus their exercises to improve their time.

“Right arm, right arm!” Miss Jordan shouted across the infield during the training session. Because Mr. Clemons’ prosthetic leg tends to swing a little farther out to the side than his left leg, his right arm tries to compensate by swinging out as well.

Miss Jordan said she wants Mr. Clemons’ arm “to be as close as possible to be as symmetrical as possible.”

He says his best 100-meter time is around 16 seconds. He is aiming to compete in track in Beijing, too, though he would have to run a lot faster than that to win a medal.

Perfecting technique is a main concern.

“I haven’t come to the point where I can leave this thing on and take off without thinking,” he said.

Rohan Murphy, a double amputee since birth who is on the Penn State wrestling team, trains with Mr. Clemons during powerlifting sessions under Miss Jordan’s watch. Mr. Murphy, a senior, also traveled to the South Korea meet and qualified for Beijing 2008 by lifting 281.5 pounds, a U.S. record in the 125-pound weight class.

“Physically, he’s still learning how to use it,” Mr. Murphy said of Mr. Clemons’ prosthetic. “This is the first time that he’s running competitively. He’s making adjustments.”

For Mr. Clemons, his football background helped. He played mainly cornerback in high school and junior college in Mississippi, where a coach once told him he was too small to play. Mr. Clemons’ interest in the 100-meter dash stems in part from the qualities needed in a cornerback — a position that can require a lot of sprinting.

Mr. Clemons had been working out while in Iraq, hoping to return to school when he got home and possibly play football again. After his injury, powerlifting initially drew his interest because it’s something he had been doing.

Mr. Clemons, who wants to work with the disabled one day, is studying therapeutic recreation and family studies at Penn State. He hopes his story will motivate other injured veterans.

“The more I can help someone else, it gives me more energy to keep going,” he said. “I’m not the smartest guy around or anything like that, but I really have a strong willpower to keep moving.”

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