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On the Fast Track

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Track and field star and Coca-Cola athlete Roderick Townsend has been winning medals and setting records for more than six years.

Roderick, 29, who has impaired muscle power, was introduced to Para athletics by 2008 U.S. Paralympic high jump champion Jeff Skiba and made his international debut at the Arizona Grand Prix in 2015. Four months later, at the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games, he set a new world record in the high jump (2.12m) on his way to the first of two gold medals. Two months after that, he won high jump T47 gold as well as silver in the triple jump T47, long jump T47 and 4x100m T42-47 relay at the World Championships in Doha, Qatar. Then, at the Rio 2016 Games, Townsend clinched double gold, winning both the long jump (7.41m) and high jump (2.09m) T47, with Paralympic records in both. In fact, he was the only competitor to clear the two-meter mark in the high jump.

And Townsend was just getting started. In April 2017, the former decathlete, who works as a jumps coach at Northern Arizona University, added one centimeter to his world record when he cleared 2.13m at the Mt SAC Relays in California. Three months later, he leapt to gold at the London 2017 World Championships, winning with a championship record clearance of 2.10m before bowing out at a new world record attempt of 2.15m.

Family caught up with the talented multi-eventer to talk about his athletic career and what keeps him inspired on and off the field.

Much has been written about your illustrious track and field career. Can you describe what you do to motivate yourself before an event?

Sometimes my motivation stems from all of the hard work I have put in. Other days, my family is what pushes me. I think that it’s important to not get too caught up into routines. We all know how random life can be, let alone the randomness of sports, travel and everything that goes into a competition. I try to appreciate each moment for what it is, and that has allowed me to become so much more in tune with myself in all aspects of my life.

What is the single most important thing your family taught you when you first started training and has stuck with you?

I grew up with just my mom and my uncle in my life. I didn’t live with my uncle though, so most of my upbringing was just my mom, my brother, and me. And I think that growing up that way did me a lot of good by being in touch with my feelings and being able to express myself in a healthy way. When I was mad, frustrated or would just throw a tantrum, my mom would force me to express what I was feeling and try to identify the cause of it. It translates very well into being an athlete and dealing with frustrations and roadblocks in a realistic perspective.

Overcoming adversity seems to be a theme in your story. What steps would you recommend to someone dealing with either a physical disability or mental illness to help them become their best self?

I love this question. Adversity is something that every person must deal with regardless of disability. I am fortunate enough to be able to view life through a lens of a person with a disability who has also overcome poverty and many other societal disadvantages. I say that I’m fortunate because it has given me such a humbled and diverse perception on life. How we deal with adversity is a skill that transitions into all aspects of our lives. If you are able to find an aspect of your life that you are successful in or that you find joy in, find out how you can translate those similarities and skills into other areas that you may be struggling in.

What’s the next event you plan to participate in? Are you more interested in coaching now?

The next competition for me is in Chula Vista. I spend most of my time competing at “able bodied” competitions, and it is very humbling to be able to jump with the best athletes in the world and hold my own despite having a disability. I plan on competing through 2028 when the games will be on my home turf! It’s an opportunity that, at the very least, I have to attempt. Coaching is awesome. However, my passion outside of the track has been real estate, which will continue to become more of my focus as I become “one of the old guys.”

What are your future goals both on and off the track?

My goals on the track are to make an Olympic Trials final or to finish fairly high in a USATF Championship meet. I’m capable of it. I just need the stars to align for a moment! However, as a Paralympian I want to continue to establish my legacy. Off the track, I look forward to starting a family.

Was there any one incident in your life that made you feel you could be successful?

Crazily enough, I always knew I would be successful. I didn’t know how, didn’t know when, didn’t know in what sport/walk of life, but my mother spoke so much faith into me that I knew I would make something happen. My mom was a teenager when she gave birth to an 11-pound baby with a big head.

Many see you as a role model. In what ways do you give back to the organizations and community that you’re involved with?

Giving back is something that I take seriously. I love donating clothes and buying suits and clothing for young men in the community who otherwise wouldn’t be able to have them. I’m a huge “pay it forward” fan. I love buying food for the person behind me in the drive-through or even filling up someone’s gas tank. I remember the days when I could only put three dollars and a prayer into my gas tank, and if I can alleviate that stress for someone, it definitely feels rewarding. Although I’d like to be a part of some big charitable organization, I am content with just helping one person. I think that it’s important to remember that sometimes even a little bit of help can go a long way.

Some feel a disability limits them or stifles their future. How has being disabled proven to be a gift and not a hinderance for you?

I’d like to believe that I would still be successful if I didn’t have this disability. However, I’m here today having this conversation because my disability has allowed me to pursue an avenue that I otherwise would not have. I’ve dealt with adversity in all aspects of my life, and my superpower has become finding a silver lining. We can only play the hand that we are dealt. Some people have it tougher than me and are perfectly “able bodied.” I’ve been able to become an influencer, a role model, and a leader in my community thanks to my disability—and I couldn’t be more thankful for this gift.

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