By Alexis Porter, Contributing Writer
I was walking back from the cafeteria at the Colorado Springs Olympic Training Center in the summer of 2017, carrying a to-go box of leftovers to enjoy later, when I first met Jacob Waters. He sped past me on his bike like a NASCAR driver and popped the longest wheelie I have ever witnessed in my life. My mouth dropped open in disbelief. I was instantly impressed and intrigued.
“Hey, wait!” I called out after him.
He circled back around and pulled up next to me. I glanced over his face quickly and then took a long look at his bike. It was bright green, rugged, with large treaded tires. I figured it had to be special if this kid could ride it on one wheel for so long.
“Sorry didn’t mean to fly past you like that,” he said hopping off his bike, “My name’s Jake.”
I told him my name and shook his hand. I watched him bend down to retie his shoe and that was when I noticed he was missing a few things—a helmet and his left leg. It dawned on me that the only extraordinary thing about the bike was the person riding it.
Jake was one of only 700 people in the world born with Jackson Weiss Syndrome, an extremely rare disease that causes bone and joint deformities in the legs and feet. For the better part of his childhood, Jake was well acquainted with pain. As he grew, his leg developed at a much slower rate than the rest of his body. It left him in a constant state of pain and discomfort. He had trouble walking and despite his wish to be active like the other kids his age he could not. But that didn’t stop him from trying.
“I was fitted for a leg brace. Kind of like the one Forrest Gump had,” he recalled with a chuckle.
Doctors hoped that the brace would help facilitate proper growth and give him more mobility, but Jake’s leg continued to give him trouble. He had reconstructive surgery during which his fibula and tibia were cut off at the ankle. His bones were then reshaped with plates and screws to hold them together.
While the plates did give Jake’s ankle more strength, the bones continued to grow incorrectly. He started biking from an early age because it was an easier and less painful way to get around. But by the time Jake reached age eleven he said enough was enough.
“I was sick of the brace, the surgeries, the constant pain, all of it. I told my mom I just wanted to get it cut off.”
In January of 2011, Jake woke up in a hospital bed at Shriners Hospital for Children in Shreveport, Louisiana.
“I didn’t feel the loss. All I felt was relief,”.
It was a new year and Jake was going to put his best foot forward—literally.
“I remember the feeling I had when I was handed my first prosthetic. It was mainly excitement with a little bit of nervousness. I was thinking, “This thing is really ugly.”
Prosthetics can come in a variety of different shapes, sizes, and colors to fit the wearer’s physical needs and personal preferences.
“My first one was skin color and kind of creepy to me,” he said.
Despite the creepiness, Jake was super excited to try walking for the first time, but it hurt to put pressure on his leg. He realized learning how to ride a bike was one thing but learning how to walk again was going to be another. With the help of physical therapy Jake was able to learn how to trust and maneuver the prosthetic in just a week.
“I was finally not in pain and I could run and jump. It changed my whole life.”
In the years following his amputation, Jake participated in track and field, cross country, swimming, and triathlons as soon as he could.
“I realized running was uncomfortable for me and much slower than cycling. I also realized swimming was boring, so I stuck to cycling.”
He found his sanctuary seated between two handlebars, traversing the open road. In this one small space of the world, he could let loose.
“The first time I tried racing, it did not go so well. I was really slow, and I didn’t have a clue what I was doing.” He refused to be discouraged by this and instead, Jake dedicated himself to an extraordinary goal of riding for Team USA at the 2020 Paralympics.
Only the most elite athletes of their respective countries can attend the Olympics each year. This seemingly far-fetched dream was one Jake had repeatedly when he was both asleep and awake. He knew it was a dream he wouldn’t achieve overnight. It would take many sacrifices, countless hours, and many miles to get to that podium.
By 2014, he was averaging over 150 miles of riding per week. He competed in more than 50 races, finishing in the top 10 in all of them. To be competitive in the sport of cycling you need strength, endurance, and speed. When Jake competed in his first race he didn’t have a single one of these elements. Now he had all three—and people were noticing.
In 2015, he was selected to attend two development camps at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, one of which was specifically for the development of para-cyclists for the 2020 Tokyo games. This opportunity gave him the chance to meet amazing athletes and forge life-long friendships. In the USA Para Cycling Road Nationals, Jake finished 4th.
Each year, adversity shadowed him and presented new challenges. Each year, Jake demonstrated his unwavering dedication and courage. Each year, he pedaled closer to his dream.
He reflected on his experiences in the sport and how it had not only shaped him as an athlete but as a person.
“I thought about how lucky I was just to get to compete in this awesome sport and I wanted to find a way to raise money so that other children with disabilities could enjoy the cycling experience as well.”
Jake’s vision would lead to the birth of Acts in Motion, a non-profit charity organization with a mission: to provide cycling opportunities and equipment to children with disabilities in Louisiana. He worked together with local bike stores to help give children in his home town a chance to gain the confidence and courage to pursue their dreams. As founder of Acts in Motion, Jake has been able to make a profound impact on and off the racetrack.
In January of 2017, he packed up his life and headed out to Colorado Springs where he is now a resident athlete at the Olympic Training Center (OTC). Jake is one of just 500 elite athletes who can call the OTC home. Here, against a breathtaking backdrop of mountains, he has begun to make history.
This year he became the first para-cyclist to win an able-bodied national title, nabbing gold in the 4K Trivial Pursuit. His other recent accomplishments include qualifying for the 2018 Para-Cycling Track World championships, earning him the honor to race for Team USA in Brazil this summer.
“One thing I have learned is that if you can find a positive spin on your life, there are no limits.”
More importantly than his success, his character on and off the track has made him a role model among his peers and the younger generations of riders.