Featured image source: CBS News
Justin Gallegos’s life mantra might as well be “Just Do It”, and that phrase means a lot of things to a lot of people—from a kid with a dream to a professional athlete with a goal. This brand idea transformed from a simple marketing tagline to a mantra for a lot of athletes, for most of them, it meant “winning”, “believing in your own capabilities” and for Justin, it was “overcoming”.
He was once a kid in Oregon who walked with leg braces and could barely take a step. After hours as a high school freshman, he fell in love with running, which was impossible for someone diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy—a disability that gave him minimal control over his muscles and body coordination. But it was a challenge he was willing to take to prove no disability can hinder anyone who has a dream. One glorious Thursday, October 11th of 2018, Justin became Nike’s first professional athlete with cerebral palsy.
Walk before you run
“I wanted to take part in an after-school activity just like everyone else,” Justin says. “And eventually, by repeating the running motion over and over, I trained my body to run.” For people diagnosed with his condition, the idea of being able to run would be too ambitious and an attempt to do so would have required a demanding degree of commitment. Clearly, Justin took this risk. His love for running and his accomplishment shattered the illusion that his disability could hinder him from feeding his passion. But it was without the price of falling two to three times a week, he says, then picking himself up and scraping his knees and falling again in the process.
Runner’s World asked him on how he never stopped running, “…the reason I never quit or expressed interest in quitting is simply because I saw that it was doing more good in my life than it was doing bad”. He was 14 at the time and he was already breaking his own barriers and pushing past known limits.
He joins his high-school cross country team with the mindset that he’ll keep running to improve. He found his body falling less and eventually, he overcame the challenge others have doubted he’ll be able to succeed at. After a few years, he became a student at the University of Oregon and true enough, he joined the university running club and has since then achieved longer and longer distances on the school’s track.
Catching Nike’s Eye
Before he was contracted to a 3-year stint as a pro athlete sponsored by Nike, he was already being closely noted by the footwear giant. John Truax, who has part of the Nike Running community in Eugene, Oregon, knew about his goals and connected him to a team of scientists at the Nike Sports Lab, which was not too far away from the Nike Headquarters in Beaverton. The lab is where researchers aim to better understand and ultimately help develop sports gear fit for every type of athlete. Soon after, these scientists were bent on developing shoes for Justin to help him run better, and with that success alone, they knew that the product they were going to make could help hundreds more with a condition relative to his.
Nike used body scanning technology on Justin, gave him a watch to monitor his heart rate as he runs and used other technology to identify his baseline biometrics. This examination also meant they would keep a close eye to how his foot falls with every step. These give the scientists data they need to figure out the mechanics of the shoes that would be best reinforced to help Justin with his balance and stability as he runs.
Justin uses the Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 35. Nike News explains “The Nike FlyEase system features a lightweight zipper-and-strap technology, letting the runner open and close the shoe in one fluid motion. The mechanism allowed him to get the shoe on and off without assistance, and it eliminated the potential problem of struggling to tie undone laces during a race.”
The shoes Justin now uses in his marathons and runs were only after dozens of prototypes he tested first. The shoes he settled with gave him the ease of getting in and out of it quickly, this was because he found himself struggling with tying up his laces every time it came undone.
“Even leaning over was a struggle,” he says. As the team of scientists addressed this issue with the shoes, he says that the “new system means I don’t have to worry about this problem.”
“There are other athletes that have special needs who will benefit from them [the shoes] too,”he tells Fast Company in an interview.
Racing past limits, winning at life
Before that victorious day of contract signing with Nike, he was already commended for finishing the Eugene half marathon despite the difficulty of his condition. Then sophomore of the University of Oregon set out a goal to break the two-hour half marathon barrier. And though he didn’t finish the race in time, and instead crossed the Hayward Field finish line in two hours, three minutes and 49 seconds, what mattered to him, to his peers, the Nike pacers who ran with him to support him and to the people of his condition he represents, was that he finished the race. He ran with his heart in a good place on a good Sunday morning to prove he can “just do it” and succeed.
After the half-marathon, he wrote a heartfelt post on Instagram, “Today I ran and finished my very first half marathon in a time of 2:03:49. While I did not break two hours, I’m still very proud of my performance today especially for my first half marathon! I had a tremendous support team especially from my pacers who pushed me the entire way! This will be something that I will remember forever, not only setting a record, but showing everyone that it is possible to be limitless! It doesn’t matter what others say or do, your only limit is your mind! Thank you everyone for the continuous support! I hope that this race can show others regardless of if we have a disability or not, there are truly no limits!”
Besides completing races and breaking personal records, Gallegos is grateful for the opportunity to let people know that Nike has developed a shoe technology that not only excels in performance, but for people like him and for aspiring and professional runners, improves the quality of life for the ease and experience of running.
Over the years, he has never won a race, but he has reached incredible milestones, broken personal records and proved that limits are illusions to those who are committed to overcoming the challenge a “disability” presents. “Hardwork pays off,” he says.
The start of his pro career
On October 11th, Elevation Om, a film company, had their cameras flocked over to Gallegos to cover another of his cross-country races as it was also World Cerebral Palsy Day. What Justin didn’t know was that waiting for him at the finish line were Nike representatives with a pro contract ready for his signature. The rest is history.
Sharing his emotional thoughts on Instagram, he says, “Today on world Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day, I reached a milestone in my running journey! Today I made Nike history and became the very first athlete with Cerebral Palsy to sign a contract with Nike! You don’t realize how realistic and emotional your dreams are until they play out before your very eyes!”
At this point in his life, in the seven years of his running, after 5k races, 8k cross country races, and several half marathons, he’s interpretation of Nike’s “Just do it” meant he can overcome any limits.
He continues his post: “Thank you everyone for helping show the world that there is no such thing as a disability!”