Lex Gillette
Wings Are Just a Detail
TEDxSanDiego 2016

When I was a kid, I purchased a basketball rim designed for the top of a closet door. I took a safety pin and tied the bottom of the net together so that a successful basket would mean the ball would stay inside of the net, and not fall through to the ground. In the beginning, I was absolutely terrible at making baskets, especially since I had no eyesight. As I began to envision where the rim was, the ball began to go in. It eventually got to the point where I could stand anywhere in my room and drain the shot.

What I realized is that, sometimes in life, we’re afraid to take that shot in the dark. Envisioning where that rim was helped me sharpen my focus tremendously. A razor-sharp focus is what helped propel me to gold on the global stage at the 2015 World Championships in Doha, Qatar.

On the morning of October 28th, I stood on the longjump runway, patiently awaiting the audible cues of my guide. He began to clap. He yelled, “Fly, fly, fly.” I honed in on the sound of his voice and took off in his direction. On my 16th stride, I leapt and soared through the air. Thousands and thousands of cheers echoed throughout the stadium, and soon after, I realized my flight would be making a successful landing in the gold medal position on the medal stand.

Triumphs like the one you just heard result from taking shots in the dark. Let me ask you this. Are people born with this raging determination to succeed? Does this attitude come from facing hardships? Do we have to lose our sight in order to see a better version of ourselves, the best view of ourselves?

If I had sight, would I still have this relentless attitude? Or is this just a classic case of blind determination? What I have in my hand right here is a blindfold that I’m required to wear in Paralympic competition. This is actually the blindfold that Nike designed specifically for me a few months ago in the lead up to the 2016 Paralympics.

If you’re wondering, all athletes in my classification are required to wear a blindfold to ensure there’s a level playing field. I wore this one while competing in longjump last month in Rio. As a sidebar, whenever I wear this, people say I look like Frozone from The Incredibles. If that’s so, “Honey, where’s my super suit?” I can’t see anything through these. Although it hasn’t always been this way, this is how I live my life every single day.

Would you mind living in my skin for just a minute? I want you to close your eyes and imagine your highest potential. What does that look like? What would you be doing? Your true potential.

For me, it doesn’t really matter if I have my eyes open or closed. I imagine myself running, jumping, flying. I imagine myself competing in front of thousands and thousands of spectators around the world. Standing on top of the medal stand with the American flag raised high. Winning gold, silver and bronze medals. I imagine myself flying as far as my mind would carry me.

My high school teacher saw this vision, and he helped me see it within myself. Imagine a blank slate. Now paint a picture of you at your absolute best. Months ago, I saw 2,000 people walking into Symphony Hall. I saw 2,000 people leaving as new artists in the world, ready to paint the pictures that they want to see.

Now open your eyes. One thing that I figured out is that some people are unable to distinguish between sight and vision. Sight shows us what is, and vision shows us what can be. Sight reveals to us our current reality. Vision allows us to see past our reality. Vision gives us the ability to see where we want to go and who we want to be. There are a lot of people out there who have perfect sight, but they don’t have 20/20 vision.

Let me give you an example of when I refused to allow sight to overpower my vision. I refused to accept the current reality because I had a different vision for the future. Last month in Rio, I was on the brink of elimination. At one point, I had one jump remaining. If I didn’t land in the top eight, I wouldn’t be allowed to move on to the final round.

I stood on the track in front of thousands and thousands of rowdy spectators, knowing that I had a ridiculously difficult task in front of me. But I did not travel all that way to come back to San Diego empty handed. I could not allow that to happen. I didn’t see it that way. I slid my blindfold down. I focused and locked in on the one thing that mattered most. I ran. I jumped and flew through the air. When I landed, I realized that I would be making another appearance on the podium, as I had secured my fourth Paralympic silver medal.

Once I lost my sight, I saw the possibilities. When I was eight, my sight began to vanish before my very eyes. It was the absolute biggest blessing. Now I wasn’t imprisoned by what is. I gained freedom in seeing a vision of what could be. Had I accepted at eight years old that blindness would be the end of my story, I would never had achieved four Paralympic medals, two world championships, a world record and 17 national championships. Vision has allowed me to be the only totally blind athlete to this day to ever soar over 22 feet in the long jump.

When I was eight years old, I could see very well but I began to have retina detachments. I’ve had 13 operations on my eyes, 10 of which occurred in one year. After the last one, doctors said there was nothing else they could do to help. They said I would eventually lose my sight. From that day forward, I would go home, fall asleep and wake up the next morning only to see a little less than what I did the day before. Until the day arrived when I woke up, and I couldn’t see anything.

I was faced with a choice. I could either accept the current reality or I could take a shot in the dark. It didn’t take me long to see that you’re all in the dark also. But enough with the blind jokes. Even in the blackest of blackest nights—and enough with the black jokes—never be afraid to take a shot in the dark.

When I think of having courage, this quote comes to mind. “For those determined to fly, having no wings is just a little detail.” I’m asking you to take a shot in the dark, to fly.

This song by the Beatles illustrates my shot, my flight. “Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take these broken wings and learn to fly. All this time you were only waiting for this moment to arise. Blackbird singing in the dead of night. Take these sunken eyes and learn to see. All this time you were only waiting for this moment to be free. Blackbird fly. Blackbird fly into the light of the dark black night.”