Nick Rogers, middle, competes against Ronald Hertog (Netherlands), left and David Behre (Germany) during the 100-meter race at the 15th Summer Paralympic Games 2016 in Rio de Janeiro. AP file photo

Nick Rogers knows there’s a price to pay to reach his goal, standing on the top of the podium at the Paralympics, a gold medal around his neck.  That’s why, for the last three years, he’s worked with coach Joaquim Cruz, who pushes Rogers harder than the young athlete from Bingham ever felt he could be pushed.

“There’s no feeling bad for you from (Cruz),” Rogers, 23, said. “He’s the definition of, ‘I ran three miles to school every day.'”

Any time Rogers does stumble or pause in his training, he remembers Cruz’s bona fides. At the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, the Brazilian Cruz won the gold medal in the 800 meters. He added a silver medal in the 800 in Seoul in 1988. Cruz knows what it takes to be great, because he did it.

If standing on a podium later means leaning over a trash can on the side of the track now, offering the contents of your stomach as tribute to the gods of speed, Rogers will pay that fee.

“Early, when I first started training (Rogers), he was still inconsistent. He had the softest stomach I’d ever seen. But I could relate to it. When I first started training, I would have an upset stomach,” Cruz, who has coached Paralympic sprinters for 15 years, said.

At the World Championships last November in Dubai, Rogers earned the bronze medal with a time of 52.13 seconds in the 400 meters in his T62 division, for athletes with double amputation below the knee running using prostheses. Rogers was born without fully formed fibula on both legs. He grew up using prostheses, and was an active kid, but self-conscious too.

When he was 14-years old, Rogers was running around at Camp No Limits in Rome when he caught the eye of representatives from Never Say Never, an organization which helps coach and encourage disabled athletes. Help from Never Say Never set Rogers on his Paralympic path. Rogers left Bingham, moving in with his grandmother, Linda Rogers, in Lisbon, where he could train and focus on school at Lisbon High School. He graduated in 2015.

At the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Rogers placed fifth in the 400 and eighth in the 100. The experience gave Rogers a taste of the hard work necessary to compete at the highest level.

The 2020 games in Tokyo were postponed until next year due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Under quarantine rules, Rogers has to get creative about his workouts. He’ll take long runs, for example, where he can work on 100 meter accelerations. He uses resistance bands in lieu of the closed weight room. The big thing, he said, is staying focused. In early April, one of Rogers’ roommates at the Center was diagnosed with Covid-19, forcing Rogers into two weeks of self-isolation. He remained healthy and was able to resume training.

The delay is disappointing, Rogers, said but it’s also an opportunity.

“It’s definitely frustrating. I saw the signs coming, so I wasn’t surprised. It was a bummer. I believe it was for the right reasons. I didn’t feel safe, honestly, going to Tokyo,” Rogers, who lives and trains at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center outside San Diego. “I’m still training. I’m still focused. Now I have an extra year to be in better shape than I would be this August.”

“We had three years. We don’t want to waste those three years by doing nothing now. Now we have four years to get to the podium,” Cruz said.

Rogers ascension into elite sprinting comes at a time of change for parasports. In 2018, the International Paralympic Committee placed height restrictions on blade runners, as athletes competing on prosthetic legs are known. When he began training, Rogers ran on blades that made him stand 6-foot-3. Now his blades are 12 centimeters shorter, and Rogers competes at 5-10.

“I had hamstring problems getting used to it,” Rogers said. “Since then my body has adapted.”

With the new rules, many blade runners saw their times increase. Where Rogers was running the 400 in 46, 47 seconds before the rule change, on his new blades he was running in 52, 53 seconds. Rogers also had Cruz’s no-pity approach pushing him to adjust quickly,

“I have to allow time for adaptation. I was not too nice to Nick when he switched to shorter legs. I threw him in the fire. I know him now. I know his body now. Because he has a better base, I trust his body can handle whatever change we make,” Cruz said. “We’re finding a way for him to be shorter and faster and stronger.”

There’s also the issue of equipment. Johannes Floors, the German sprinter who won the 400 in Rogers’ division in Dubai last year with a time of 45.78 seconds, also designs prostheses, Rogers said. Give a top flight athlete the best in equipment, and the gap between gold, silver, and bronze widens. In this case, five seconds to silver, where Olivier Hendricks of the Netherlands placed with a time of 50.79, and just over six seconds, the time Rogers finished behind Floors for bronze.

Rogers is working with prosthetic engineers to come up with a softer blade, one that provides more compression and can help make up the difference seen in Dubai. Still, technology enhances training. It will never replace it.

“I’m still waiting for him to really explode. Over the last three months, on new legs, I’ve just been seeing him training, and he was a different kid,” Cruz said.

That’s why Cruz pushes Rogers. That’s why Rogers allows himself to be pushed.

“I tell athletes, I need you to bring a game that you don’t even know yet. If you want to be unique, you have to do unique things. That uniqueness is your share of the work,” Cruz said. “Everyone wants to win, but how much do you want to win? Yeah, the training hurts. There’s a point in the workout you want to quit. What keeps you going? Find that.”

The postponement of the Tokyo games gives Rogers another year to train. Another year to get comfortable with new blades. Another year to look within himself, and give what Cruz is drawing out a push.

 

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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