Resilient para-runner earns Nike deal

Justin Gallegos, a junior at the University of Oregon's (UO) running club, can now consider himself in the company of sporting luminaries such as footballer Neymar, tennis star Serena Williams and basketballer Kevin Durant.

Like them, the cross-country runner is now a professional athlete sponsored by sportswear giant Nike.

However, the 20-year-old has had a tougher sporting journey than most as he was born with mild cerebral palsy. The condition permanently affects muscular coordination and balance, and causes him to run with an awkward, knock-kneed gait.

In a video by film company Elevation 0m, which has since gone viral on social media, he sobbed and fell to his knees in sheer joy after hearing about his three-year contract on World Cerebral Palsy Day.

The news was relayed by Nike's insights director John Douglass at the end of a race on Oct 6, with his teammates cheering and applauding the brand's first professional athlete with cerebral palsy.

He wrote on his Instagram account later that day: "I was once a kid in leg braces who could barely put one foot in front of the other. Now I have signed a contract with Nike Running!

"Growing up with a disability, the thought of becoming a professional athlete as I have said before (is) like the thought of climbing Mt Everest."

According to Running Magazine, Gallegos had a lot of physical therapy as a child to improve his gait, but started running at 13 and quickly fell in love with the sport.

Justin Gallegos found out about his three-year contract with Nike fittingly on World Cerebral Palsy Day on Oct 6.  PHOTO: INSTAGRAM/ZOOMMAGIC

One of his coaches went to UO - renowned for its athletics team - so Gallegos was determined to study and train in Eugene, which is known as "Track Town, USA".

At his first cross-country meet in 2016, his shoe came off just 50m into the 8km race and he came in last but he still inspired many, reported the university's student paper, the Daily Emerald.

At his first half marathon in April, he clocked 2hr 3min 49sec and Gallegos' dream is to break the two-hour mark in the 21.1km event.

He had previously also helped Nike develop a shoe for runners with disabilities.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 16, 2018, with the headline 'Resilient para-runner earns Nike deal'. Print Edition | Subscribe