Suburban paralympian with visual impairment reaches record heights

By Ema Sasic
Posted8/16/2017 5:13 AM
  • High jumper Isaac Jean-Paul broke his event's world record three times in one night at the World Para Athletics Championships in July.

    High jumper Isaac Jean-Paul broke his event's world record three times in one night at the World Para Athletics Championships in July. courtesy of Isaac Jean-Paul

  • Warren Township High School's Isaac Jean-Paul qualified for state in both the high and long jumps in 2011.

      Warren Township High School's Isaac Jean-Paul qualified for state in both the high and long jumps in 2011. Steve Lundy | Staff Photographer

Breaking a world record three times in one night is an extraordinary feat for any athlete. Accomplishing it with a vision impairment when the sport heavily relies on the sense, however, makes the task seemingly impossible.

Nonetheless, as he has done throughout his career, high jumper Isaac Jean-Paul, 24, proves there is more than meets the eye.

"I have really bad sight, but I have great vision," he said, laughing. "I can see things in my head and I can picture myself there, which helps me out a lot."

Jean-Paul, who attended Warren Township High School in Gurnee and Harper College in Palatine, was diagnosed at a young age with macular degeneration, a condition that slowly deteriorates the central portion of the retina in the back of the eye. During the day, his left eye is strong centrally, but he does not have peripheral vision. At night, he cannot see anything out of his left eye, and his right eye has only peripheral vision.

A vision impairment limits people in many ways, but Jean-Paul said his support system, consisting of doctors and family, makes life easier.

"My parents were concerned about how they should go about treating me with this condition, but my eye doctor told them to just let me be a kid," he explained. "The doctor said the worst thing is to try to limit all the things I can and cannot do."

One aspect where he did not want to limit himself was in sports. He grew up playing basketball and later discovered track and field in high school through a bet with friends. He became a high jumper, competing in the 2011 state championships, which he says opened up many doors.

He continued the sport at Harper College, where he was a member of a 2013 team that competed for the national championship, and Lewis University. Renee Zellner, men's and women's track and field coach at Harper, introduced him to the paralympics.

"At first I wasn't thinking about going the paralympic route because I was one of those people that didn't know too much about it," the Evanston resident said. "But people told me I have something other people don't have, and I have the ability to do a lot of things and I can show others that even with an impairment, I can still do this."

Though he has just begun competing in paralympics, he has already made a name for himself. During the U.S. Paralympics Track and Field National Championships June 1-4 at the University of California in Los Angeles, he broke a 14-year-old world record in the high jump by seven centimeters when he jumped 2.10 meters.

Breaking the world record three times in one night in London, where the World Para Athletics Championships were hosted July 14-23, is another testament to his "nothing will stop me" attitude.

"To be able to compete in London at an Olympic track, where the Olympics were hosted, to see the crowd and know they're cheering for you, it all played a factor in me breaking the world record," Jean-Paul said.

In his best jump, he cleared 2.17 meters and won gold in the July 18 competition. His personal best is 2.21 meters.

While being a high jumper with a lack of sight might seem not an ideal combination, Jean-Paul believes it is an advantage.

"A lot of the high jump is a mental aspect. When you have to see something you have to jump over or run through, it psychs you out," he said. "I don't know how high the bar is until my last few steps, and by then I'm already committed to the jump and I'm over the bar."

He will be moving to the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center for Olympic and Paralympic athletes in October, where he hopes to compete in indoor championships with able-bodied high jumpers, which his former coach believes will happen as well.

"I knew he would do great at the Paralympics. He has been competing with able-bodied athletes and competed at the highest levels of track and field for the last few years," said Lewis coach Dana Schwarting. "Going forward, I think he can compete at the Para events as well as the USA Track and Field Championships levels."

Jean-Paul also wants to go into public speaking to inspire others.

"I know there's a lot of people out there in the world that have an impairment -- it doesn't have to be a physical impairment -- where they feel like they can't get out or they have no hope and can't see the bright side. I feel like my story and the people I've encountered can change lives."

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