There’s no telling where life will lead. Just ask San Diego native Roderick Sewell Jackson. As a young boy, he was homeless, walking around on prosthetic legs and terrified of water. Today, he’s training alongside world-class Olympic athletes.
His mission: Compete in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo and take home hardware in the 100-meter breaststroke.
So, how did this 25-year-old go from being homeless on and off for four years to living at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs so he can fulfill his lifelong dream?
Pure determination and some help from the Challenged Athletes Foundation (CAF), which provides people with physical disabilities the equipment and opportunities to find success in life through sports, community and mentorship.
Shelter to Shelter
Jackson was born with deformities in his legs that prevented him from walking. So, at two years old, he had them amputated above-the-knees.
His mother had a modest income, but in order to afford expensive prosthetic walking legs for her son, she quit her job and filed for unemployment so California Children’s services would cover them in full.
That put them in a tough financial bind, and by the time Jackson was seven years old, he and his mom were on the streets.
“We went from shelter to shelter for a while and had family and friends who helped when they could,” he said. “My mom would get herself to a stable point and then something would happen, and we would have to move after a couple of months. We were in shelters a lot.”
When things for the pair stabilized financially, Jackson’s mom enrolled him in adaptive sports at 10 years old with the help of the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
Until then, Jackson was getting around on his walking legs or skateboard. So, when he got his first pair of running legs from CAF, he was ecstatic.
“I was just ready to be active at that point,” he said. “I didn’t know there were actually sports out there for people with disabilities.”
He started handcycling, running track and playing basketball. Then, he met swimmer Rudy Garcia-Tolson, another bilateral above-the-knee amputee.
“I’m very competitive in everything, so once Rudy started doing well, that kind of woke me up, and I said, ‘Well, I have to compete with my good friend in this situation.'”
And, it was that competitive drive that overrode his fear of the water.
“I didn’t want to swim at first because I struggled with holding myself up on top of the water,” Jackson said.
He enrolled in lessons, where it became less about beating his friend, and more about learning how to be safe in the water.
Then, he took his newfound swimming skills to Alabama, where he completed high school and became the first person in his family to earn a college degree when he graduated with a bachelors in Public Communications from the University of Alabama. And, as he was studying, he was training hard in the water, too.
Eating and Breathing the Water
Jackson didn’t qualify for the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, so last October, he applied to the Resident Athlete Program at the Olympic Training Center, and was accepted to begin training under USA Resident Swim Team and USA Para Swimming head coach Nathan Manley.
“Once I got here, my training took off, and I immediately dropped five seconds off my breaststroke. I really improved on my technique overall,” he said.
Training for the big stage is a full-time job. He swims nine times per week, incorporating weight training into his regimen, and gets one day off a week. But, he also has to earn a living, so he works part-time at the YMCA, the place where he learned how to swim.
And, on occasion, he gives swimming lessons to others with disabilities as well. In fact, Jackson believes swimming is great for people who are missing limbs.
“Being in the water, you’re doing a sport that doesn’t require a lot of weight on your body or your joints,” he said. “And, it’s pretty relaxing, honestly. I know swimming can be kind of taxing sometimes, but the physical and mental benefits are so worth it.”
So, Jackson will continue helping others in the water and carry forward with training, with his sights set on a gold medal in 2020. It helps he’s already been accepted to the residency program for 2018.
As for his perspective on life and how he’s making it work?
“I’m just doing the things I love with what I have,” he said.
Who can argue with that strategy?