August 24, 2013

Para-athlete born to run

Norway's Josh Kennison won a medal in a world championship event and aims to qualify for the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil.

By Steve Craig scraig@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

NORWAY - It took Josh Kennison of Norway only a second or so to realize what he had accomplished.

click image to enlarge

Josh Kennison of Norway, who was born without feet, arms, tongue and part of his jaw, attaches his prosthetic running legs before a run at Oxford Hills High School.

Photos by John Ewing/Staff Photographer

click image to enlarge

Maine para-athlete Josh Kennison, 23, recently medaled in the International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships in Lyon, France.

Additional Photos Below

He wasn't expected to win a medal in the 100-meter dash, yet he finished third to win a bronze in a world championship event.

"I was actually jumping up and down," said Kennison, a 23-year-old graduate of Oxford Hills High School. "I ran up to our media person and she had a USA flag and I grabbed it and ran around with it, sort of a victory lap."

Kennison was born with no feet, so he uses prosthetics that wrap around his lower legs. His arms end around elbow length, with his right arm a little shorter. He was also born without a tongue, and is missing a portion of his jaw.

And he's now the third-fastest para-athlete in the world in the T43 category -- for competitors who are missing both legs -- after winning his bronze medal July 23 at the International Paralympic Committee Athletics World Championships in Lyon, France.

Because Kennison doesn't use prosthetics for his arms, he uses paint cans as supporting structures in the starting blocks.

One other runner in the six-man race used similar supports. The other four, including world-record holder and race winner Alan Fonteles Oliveira of Brazil, are bilateral amputees.

"The official term is, I am a congenital quadrilateral amputee," Kennison said.

BLADES LIKE PISTORIOUS

Kennison began to find competitive outlets when he was in middle school, playing soccer and running track, and continued through high school at Oxford Hills. He was stronger at soccer.

"I didn't have nice running legs yet," he said of his prosthetics. "I had to play sports in my walking legs."

As a para-athlete, Kennison uses curved carbon-fiber blades like those that Oscar "Blade Runner" Pistorious brought to the world's attention when he competed for South Africa in the 2012 Summer Olympics. Pistorious, since charged with murdering his girlfriend, was the first person to transition from the Paralympics to Olympic competition.

The world records that Pistorious set in the T43 division have since been broken by Oliveira, who won the 100- and 200-meter dashes in France in a championship record time of 10.80 seconds (0.03 off his world record) and a world-record time of 20.66 seconds, respectively.

Kennison's time in the 100 was 11.93 seconds, slightly off his personal best of 11.78. He was fifth in the 200, in 24.12 seconds. His personal best in that race is 23.67.

Because Kennison has a portion of his legs below the knees, he attaches the carbon-fiber blades behind his knees. He notes that the blades make him slightly taller than the 5-foot-9 he is in his "walking legs."

The other athletes in France attached the blades at the knee joint, giving them a more streamlined extension of their upper legs.

Kennison said some competitors use outsized blades to increase their height.

"I could go into a whole lot of politics," he said. "I ran the race the best I can."

Asked to elaborate, Kennison said, "when (Oliveira) has his walking legs on, he's my height. With his running legs, he's like 6-foot-4. You're taking a guy from 5-8, 5-9 to 6-4. Of course you're going to have a longer stride."

But he isn't griping. He was pleased with his first world championship effort, even though his times didn't match his personal bests.

He said he believes he can cut a half-second off his 100-meter time and expects he'll have to do that over the next two-plus years if he is to reach his goal of qualifying for the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil.

'RAISED LIKE ANY OTHER CHILD'

Kennison said he always loved to run around the playground and play sports. His mother, Louanne Rainey, and his father, Jeff Kennison, decided early on not to put limits on their son.

"The easiest way to sum it up is, he was raised like any other child," said Rainey, who also lives in Norway. Jeff Kennison lives in nearby Sumner, where Josh lived until he was 12.

"I didn't do anything different than I did with my other children," Rainey said. "I truly take no credit for where he's at. I did nothing more than be an everyday mom and love him."

Rainey said her son got great support through the Oxford Hills school district. Only once or twice did she have to remind school officials to give Josh the same opportunities to fail and succeed as other students.

"There are very few things that he cannot do. There are some things that are harder for him," Rainey said.

Josh Kennison said people are often surprised when they learn that he drives a car. Since his 18th birthday, he has lived on his own, without parents or a caretaker.

He lives with his girlfriend, Michelle Page, 21, who's originally from Jacksonville, Fla. The two met at a track meet in Oklahoma City. Page, who is an above-knee bilateral amputee, is also a sprinter.

This fall will be Kennison's fourth season as head coach of the Oxford Hills Middle School girls' soccer team.

"There's nothing that this young man can't do," said Jeff Benson, athletic director in the Oxford Hills school district, who first met Kennison when he tried out for the soccer team in seventh grade.

"Keeping in mind that middle school is the first time a lot of these kids are trying a team sport, or playing for a school team instead of their small town team, this is the guy I want them to talk to," Benson said.

LOOKING AHEAD

Through high school, Kennison competed in track and soccer "as just a normal kid." Using his heavier walking legs, he developed strength through his thighs.

"My legs are massive," he said with pride, and accuracy.

When he went to his first competition for para-athletes, in 2009, and used the carbon-fiber blades for the first time, he found it exhilarating.

Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics, a national company that has several clinics in Maine, provided the carbon-fiber prosthetics.

"Putting on the running legs -- I was already really fast -- so I was outrunning tons of guys who were already in the Paralympics for two or three years," Kennison said.

Kennison is now the second-ranked American in the 100 and 200 meters, behind World Championship silver medalist Blake Leeper. He is the top-ranked T43 long jumper in the nation, with a personal best of 6.05 meters (just over 19 feet, 10 inches).

He has reached the world championship level without a personal trainer or coach. "I'm looking for one," he said.

He has received financial support from groups such as Norway Savings Bank, the Florida-based Never Say Never Foundation and U.S. Paralympics. He has worked as a counselor at Camp No Limits, an organization he has been involved with since 2005. And he received the 2010 Amway Hero Award.

Kennison said he has never bothered to seek the answer to why he was born without feet or arms. He prefers to look forward -- to the 2015 World Championships and hopefully the Paralympics, becoming the fastest U.S. sprinter in his class, continuing to build a relationship with Page, and one other critical task.

"I'm here to provide inspiration," Kennison said. "That's my number one key to my life, is inspiring people."

So is there anything Kennison can't do?

"Tie my shoes," he said matter-of-factly.

He points out that his shoes are tied onto his prosthetic walking legs, which he can nimbly and quickly slide over his lower legs.

Tying the shoes "really isn't something I have to worry about," he said, "because I never take my shoes off."

Steve Craig can be contacted at 792-6413 or at:

scraig@mainetoday.com

Twitter: @StevenCCraig

 

Were you interviewed for this story? If so, please fill out our accuracy form

Send question/comment to the editors


Additional Photos

click image to enlarge

Josh Kennison gets in a little running on the Oxford Hills High School track earlier this month.

  


Further Discussion

Here at PressHerald.com we value our readers and are committed to growing our community by encouraging you to add to the discussion. To ensure conscientious dialogue we have implemented a strict no-bullying policy. To participate, you must follow our Terms of Use.

Questions about the article? Add them below and we’ll try to answer them or do a follow-up post as soon as we can. Technical problems? Email them to us with an exact description of the problem. Make sure to include:
  • Type of computer or mobile device your are using
  • Exact operating system and browser you are viewing the site on (TIP: You can easily determine your operating system here.)


 

Blogs

More PPH Blogs

2014 Boston Marathon

 

High School Football 2013

Fall sports photos