Paralympian Kortney Clemons Trains with Kansas Track and Field

March 4, 2011

Thirty-year-old Kortney Clemons is an outstanding and extremely decorated track and field athlete. He participates in the 100 meters, 200 meters and the long jump. He has earned numerous first place finishes in each event, qualified and competed against the world’s best in international meets, broken the American record in the 200 meters this past January and is a member of the U.S. national team. Currently he is working toward earning a spot on the U.S. Team to compete in the 2012 Olympics to be held in London, and is doing so with the help of the Kansas track and field team. However, the most incredible thing about those accomplishments is that he’s done it all on one leg.

Just five days before he was to be discharged from service in Iraq, Clemons, a combat medic in the First Cavalry Division, was on a routine patrol when he and his unit came across an overturned car. They stopped to help any injured passengers when a roadside bomb detonated, killing three medics and badly wounding Clemons. The injuries to his right leg were so severe doctors were forced to amputate above the knee. Clemons knew his life had changed forever. But instead of lying around and feeling sorry for himself, Clemons did something amazing. He quickly began rehabilitation, started the difficult process of learning to walk with a prosthetic, and found a way to make a horrible, life-altering situation into a positive.

Shortly after the start of his rehab Clemons attended a Learn to Run Clinic held by U.S. Paralympics at Brooke Army Medical Center in 2005. After attending the clinic, Clemons went on to participate in a USOC Paralympic Military Sports Camp in San Antonio. He quickly fell in love with track and field after one particular day.

“I got a chance to watch someone run just like myself, an above-the-knee amputee,” Clemons explained. “That kind of got me inspired and got me fired up, and got me wanting to run.”

Running would have to wait for Clemons though. At the time he was still learning to use with his new prosthetic and could barely walk. He still wanted to get involved with the Paralympics though, so he began to powerlift. The high-level training for powerlifting eventually got him to the point where he was ready to start his track career. And what a start he had. In one of his first meets he took first place in the 100-meters at the Paralympic National Championships, this just a year and a half after sustaining his injury. He would go on to take first in the 100-meters at the next two National Championships. He was also selected to the 2007 Parapan American Powerlifting Team for his lofty accomplishments in that event. Clemons quickly began to expand his repertoire by competing in the 200-meters and long jump, earning several high finishes in events around the country. All of those accolades earned him a spot on the U.S. Paralympic team, making him the first Iraqi War Veteran to qualify for the team.

Clemons’ outstanding athletic ability didn’t just come to the surface after his time in the Army. He was a member of the football team at East Mississippi Community College and played basketball and baseball on a regular basis. Clemons says he still tries to chase the competitive feeling he gets with sports like football and that’s why he loves track.

“Track and field emulates football and is as close as I can ever get to something like football because I’m on the track at the same time as my competitors. Whereas with something like powerlifting, you go on stage, you do a lift and you go off. Track and field gives you a chance to measure up to your competition and gives you an opportunity to beat them when they’re right there next to you.”

That competitive drive has pushed Clemons, not only through the difficult adaptation to a new way of life, but to becoming one of the fastest men in U.S. Paralympics. He is now chasing the highest of goals, a medal at the 2010 Paralympics in London, which is how he came to be here in Lawrence. However, he is not just using the track and field facilities here at KU, he’s also using the classrooms as well.

In 2010 Clemons joined the AW2 Education Initiative, a program that gives educational opportunities to army veterans who were injured during service. When he isn’t on the track, he is working on a Master’s Degree, which he plans to attain in the Spring of 2012. When Clemons saw that KU was one of the only local universities that participates in the program, he knew he had to give it a shot. Not only for the opportunity to get a great education, but for the chance to train with KU’s veteran track and field coach, Stanley Redwine.

“It’s awesome,” Clemons said of getting to work with Coach Redwine. “I actually met Coach Redwine a couple of years ago in Arkansas when I was training at the Olympic training center. It’s awesome. One, just to have someone that has competed at a high level and knows what it takes, and two, he has coached other Olympic athletes. It is outstanding.”

Clemons practices everyday with the members of KU’s track and field team, which he knows will help prepare him for the upcoming Paralympic qualifying trials. He will be competing in several meets this spring which he is hoping will prepare him for the National Championships this summer in Mynmar, Fla., the meet that could qualify him for the 2012 London games. Clemons isn’t looking too far ahead though.

“My main goal right now is for everyday just to get better. To continue to do what Coach (Redwine) tells me to do. To try and execute the race like he would like me to and to continue to just grow as an athlete.”

With Clemons’ past success, he knows that it takes the little, everyday victories that bring the big victories in the end.

“I feel like if I were to do those things the accolades will come. I will win races. I will perform well. My big goal is to make the 2012 (Paralympic) Games in London and to medal at those games. But right now, it’s just taking one day at a time and trying to get better and putting a race together when it counts.”

With Clemons’ intense training schedule and time he must devote to the classroom, it is a wonder that he has any time for a personal life. He lives in Lawrence with his wife and also has a daughter that lives in Mississippi. He has some simple plans for his life post-track as well.

“I see myself continuing to work for the army in some way, and I also want to be affiliated with sports in some way as well,” Clemons said of his plans after his career. “I just want to continue to be around sports and continue to give back. Also I just want to be around people who have a lot of life. That keeps me young.”

Who knows? A permanent home in Lawrence could be in his future as well. He plans to stay for awhile. He will graduate next Spring and plans to stay and continue training for the 2012 Games over that summer. During his time here, Clemons has fallen in love with the town and wouldn’t mind living here just a bit longer.

“It’s been an outstanding opportunity,” said Clemons. “The community here in Lawrence has been awesome. I’ve had a chance to learn some great things and also meet some outstanding people.”

Working with KU track and field has meant wonders for Clemons and certainly training with someone as experienced as Coach Redwine gives him an upper hand as he prepares to qualify for the 2012 Paralympics that take place in just 17 short months. The members of the KU team treat him as though he is one of their own, cheering for him and rooting him on every step of the training process. Just as the team motivates Clemons, seeing him pushing himself so hard is surely inspiration for the athletes. It is amazing that he can balance all the aspects of his life (family, school and track) with such success, but ‘amazing’ is a word that has almost become a cliché when describing Clemons.

It will be a difficult road to the 2012 games, but Clemons is no stranger to adversity, and he has proven that he thrives on it. If his resiliency and drive is any indication of success that is to come, medals will surely be coming his way in London.