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Second Place, but an Important First

Mount Union runner helps pave the way for athletes with disabilities

Brian Hendrickson
A year ago, Mount Union sprinter A.J. Digby couldn’t have dared dream about the position in which he found himself in March — two-hundredths​ of a second away from an individual NCAA indoor track championship in his freshman year. But then, just a couple of years ago, nobody would’ve seen an athlete like Digby at an NCAA championship.

Digby never won a state championship in high school. Heck, he never appeared in a state championship at Otsego High School in Tontogany, Ohio. But working with a new coach and improving his physique opened a new realm of possibilities for Digby.

That, and a new pair of prosthetic legs to replace the 3-year-old set he’d been running on. But even that part doesn’t feel quite as rare these days. Because while Digby just might be the first student-athlete to compete in an NCAA championship with the aid of a prosthesis — we can’t say for sure because the NCAA doesn’t keep such records — he’s now one of three currently competing at NCAA schools thanks to a playing rule waiver that allows the use of his running legs. And that is a very big deal.

In only the last two years, Nicky Maxwell at Harvard opened a new door for athletes with disabilities when he received a waiver to compete on Harvard’s track team against able-bodied athletes, as research showed the “blade” prosthetic legs Maxwell used provided no advantage in competition. Just a year later, Samantha Gehl joined St. John Fisher’s cross country team, though she has yet to compete.

Now there’s Digby, whose story is as inspiring as his racing is exciting. Because this is a kid who was born without a fibula in either leg, whose feet had to be amputated when he was just 10 months old. He was the oldest in a family of five, with parents who were athletes, and a brother and sister who grew up to be athletes. So naturally, competitiveness was woven into his DNA. He played basketball until middle school, and everything from cornerback to outside linebacker on his high school’s junior varsity football team. But he always felt a step slower than his peers, and his lack of fully formed knees made him prone to injury.

When Digby got his first set of running legs in seventh grade, everything changed. “Once I start running, it’s a freedom for me,” Digby says. “Being on running legs, it put me on the same level as everyone else.”

So he ran through high school, won a couple of district track titles and, knowing he wanted to run in competitions for athletes with disabilities, started working with the track coach at a rival high school to improve. He bought a new pair of running legs to replace the set he’d used for three years. (Unlike his able-bodied competition, Digby’s running legs wear out quickly.)

And Digby got fast — really fast. He dropped more than a second from his 400-meter time. He competed in the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, breathing down the necks of the podium finishers with a fourth-place finish in the 400 and fifth in the 200. And rather than compete for college programs designed for athletes with disabilities, Digby was running for Mount Union and pulling within a stride of a Division III national title.

And the people who have always watched him — the ones in the stands and along the track looking on curiously? They’re cheering him on, congratulating him after events, revering his speed.

“It was kind of awe-inspiring,” Digby says. “I don’t try to be an inspiration, but the fact that it happens is awesome.”

And the fact that this happened — Digby becoming an All-America runner — is in itself an awesome moment for college sports.