Posting a time of around 12 seconds for the 100-meter dash is a significant accomplishment for any 15-year-old — such a time would put the young athlete in contention for a berth in the West Virginia High School State Meet. Glen Dale native and Wheeling Central Catholic freshman Cooper Blair aims to do just that next spring, but his gaze does not end at Laidley Field in Charleston. Instead, Blair is currently training for the 2019 World Para Athletics Junior Championships in Switzerland, and even the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo.
Fueling his athletic pursuits is uncommon determination, overwhelming positivity and two (really cool) prosthetic legs.
Not only is Blair faster than a typical 15-year-old, but he has also had to overcome hurdles far beyond many of his peers on and off the track. Blair was born with amniotic band syndrome, a rare condition in which limbs or body parts are entrapped in bands in utero, often causing physical deformities. In his case, Blair’s arms and legs were caught in the bands, and though his arms were able to be healed through surgery, his legs were bound so tight he had lost crucial blood flow. At the age of 2, Cooper’s parents, Richelle and Zack Blair, were forced to make an incredibly difficult decision.
“After 27 sets of casts and seven surgeries to try to correct it, the doctors at Johns Hopkins gave us a choice,” said Richelle. “We were told if he kept his feet he would probably never play sports, that he would walk funny, if at all.”
In the hopes that Cooper would someday be able to walk, run and play like any other kid, the Blairs decide to have both of his feet and lower legs amputated. Those hopes came true a few months later when Cooper took his first steps on a special day.
“He got his first prosthetics in November after he had his legs amputated in September. Then he started walking on his own Christmas Day,” Richelle said. “And he’s run ever since.”
Blair’s running took a serious turn at the age of 9 when he competed in his first organized race, the Endeavor Games in Oklahoma City, Okla. The Blairs had no idea how well Cooper would perform, but he blew the competition away. With the aid of special “blade” legs, Cooper sped to first place in the under-14 division, and his parents realized the level at which Cooper was capable of competing.
Blair runs to a first-place finish at the 2018 Adaptive Sports USA Junior Nationals in Fort Wayne, Ind.
Cooper continued to compete at races around the country, picking up multiple national championships. In 2016, he competed in the Paralympic trials against athletes who ended up competing at the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics. Though Blair was below the age of 16 and thus unable to compete for a spot on the Paralympic team, the event helped inspire his Tokyo 2020 quest.
“That was a lot of fun,” said Cooper. “It was a great experience, just being able to run on UCLA’s track was great.”
Though still a few years away, Cooper is already preparing for the 2020 trials. In addition to increasing the aggressiveness of his training regimen, as any athlete would, he also has to make sure his prosthetic running blades are following Paralympic guidelines. As he grows — which happens frequently at his age — Cooper has to make sure his blades do not make him too tall and has to have them rebuilt every year or two.
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“We travel to Arkansas to get his legs made,” Richelle said. “The guy [Francois Van Der Watt] who made Oscar Pistorius’ legs lives there, and he makes all three of Cooper’s legs.”
The three sets of prosthetic legs include his day-to-day walking legs, running blades and a second pair of legs specifically for athletics: special basketball prosthetics. Cooper is not only an accomplished runner, but he also plays basketball competitively. Last year he made the cut for the highly selective West Virginia Elite basketball team, which is made up of top basketball players, not specifically para-athletes. Now that he is in high school, he hopes to make the team at Wheeling Central Catholic as well.
“I’ve tried just about every sport,” Cooper said. “My parents have always encouraged me to try new sports, I even played ice hockey for a little while.”
Though he enjoys playing basketball, running is still his top athletic pursuit. While in part this may be due to his natural talent for running and the opportunity to reach the pinnacle of the sport, for Cooper it’s more than just winning. When asked what his favorite aspect of running was, his response had little to do with what happens on the track, but what happens around it.
“My favorite part is getting to meet people,” Cooper said. “I’ve met a lot of really good friends at track meets. And while I love the sport itself — especially the competitiveness and how it’s all on me to do my best — I really just love being able to meet new people.”
Fortunately for Cooper, meeting new people through running is not exclusive of fellow competitors or spectators at his track meets. His athletic accomplishments, especially in light of his unmistakably difficult journey to the medal podiums, has caught the attention of the Ohio Valley community.
“This area has been super supportive,” Richelle said. “We’ve come home from nationals to police escorts before, and Cooper has been asked to be the grand marshal for the Marshall County Chamber of Commerce Christmas Parade [on Nov. 17].”
Though certainly fueled in part by hard work and talent, Cooper’s deeply seated religious faith plays a key role in his motivation to excel.
“Before every race, I recite Philippians 4:13,” Cooper said. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”
From his first steps on Christmas morning to his current athletic success, Richelle is glad of the choice she and her husband Zack made years ago.
“It has turned out to be a blessing, and through it, Cooper has been able to inspire so many people,” Richelle said. “It’s not a disability, it’s a different ability.”
• Nick Musgrave is a self-described history geek living in Wheeling, W.Va. He is a graduate of Hastings College in Hastings, Neb., where he earned his bachelor’s degrees in history and political science. When not writing for Weelunk or uncovering cool stories about the past, he can often be found reading in his hammock or trying to brew the perfect cup of coffee.