Five months ago, Nick Slade was merely a sophomore economics major at the University of New Mexico.
He wondered if his athletic days might be behind him. And he was completely oblivious to the existence of the Paralympics.
But this weekend, Slade is one of thousands of residents occupying the Olympic Village in Rio de Janeiro, now a member of the United States track and field squad for those same Paralympics.
“It’s pretty overwhelming,” said the 19-year-old Slade, a 2015 graduate of Albuquerque Academy. “I’m so grateful for this.”
Slade, a standout soccer player for the Chargers who also was a terrific hurdler and jumper for the Academy, qualified for the U.S. Paralympic team in the long jump, and he will compete inside Rio’s Olympic Stadium on Sept. 14.
“I’m just hoping I don’t mess up,” he said with a chuckle.
The road from UNM’s south campus to South America was surely an unexpected one for Slade.
Through a friend at a college in San Antonio, Slade first discovered the Paralympics only a few months ago. When this summer began, Slade received a call from Kathy Sellers of the U.S. track program, who told him he’d have a fair chance to get to Rio.
But, there was a problem. He had to earn a berth into the Paralympic trials first.
So, Slade and his parents found a qualifying meet in Lake Forest, a posh Chicago suburb, and it was there, at the Great Lakes Regional Games the second week of June when he punched his ticket to the trials in Charlotte, N.C., which were held in early July. His best jump in Chicago – 6.9 meters, or 22 feet, 7½ inches – won him the competition.
“It says a lot about his ability, and it says a lot about his potential,” said Adam Kedge, Slade’s track and field coach at Academy. “He might just be hitting his stride.”
Slade later won the silver medal at the Paralympic trials, which earned him a flight to Rio, and he also won a bronze in the 100-meter dash.
“He hadn’t been training, and he just did this on natural ability,” said Grant Slade, Nick’s father, with admiration. “And it was just incredible.”
Slade is classified as a T47, which is roughly defined as upper limb deficiency, impaired muscle power or impaired range of movement. Slade was born without a right hand.
Still, Slade said he didn’t know his Paralympic fate until the day after he jumped in Charlotte. All the athletes were on a conference call, he said, and Sellers read aloud the names of the athletes who’d be going. Very near the end of that list, Slade heard his name.
“I did not believe it,” Slade said. “I was really excited.”
And it gives Albuquerque another link to Rio de Janeiro.
“It really kind of caps off everything I know and love about Nick,” Kedge said. “It’s nice to see one of our homegrown kids do so well and be so humble about it.”
The umbilical cord inside his mother Hope was wrapped around Slade somehow, cutting off circulation to his right arm during the development stages. That’s why his right arm is incomplete.
“As a little kid,” he said, “I’d say until I was about 10 years old, I really didn’t think about it at all. It was bliss. I was always happy, and never considered myself disabled.”
As he got older, and by the time he starting being interested in the fairer sex, the paradigm had shifted.
“I wanted to look good,” Slade said. “I wanted to look like the other kids. But I started realizing that I was getting stared at. It definitely made me unhappy and sad, and there were times I couldn’t even talk to my parents about it, because I didn’t want to burden them about how I was feeling. And that made it worse for me. There was a lot of added stress.”
Until he was about high school age, Slade said, he was unsure how to work his way through those emotional land mines.
He admitted to bouts of self pity – even once he reached high school – but gradually, he adapted. Every so often in Nick’s youth, his father said, he’d ask his son if he wanted to wear a prosthesis. He tried it briefly as a young boy, but it didn’t last.
“He wore that for about a week and decided he didn’t want that,” Grant Slade said. “We put it in the closet and we never saw it again. Every once in a while, I would ask him, ‘Would you like to try it again?’ And he’d say ‘No.’ ”
Several years ago, Slade finally did consent, and now wears a prosthesis.
During his varsity years at the Academy, Slade was one of the metro’s elite athletes. If there was any emotional duress because of his disability, he apparently never let it show.
“He really has the coolest, calmest disposition,” said Laney Kolek, Slade’s head coach with the Academy boys soccer team, where Slade played forward. “He’s just such a relaxed guy. But when it comes time to perform, he’s able to turn it up to a whole different level.”
One of the more surreal aspects to the Paralympic process, Slade said, was being outfitted – including a fitting with Ralph Lauren gear.
“I got a watch from Omega that’s worth more than any amount of money I’ve ever had in my life,” he said with awe.
As he enjoys his first weekend in Brazil, he’s got nearly a week and a half before he competes, and hopes to reach the medals podium in Rio.
“I’ll be unhappy if I don’t beat my PR,” he said, even as he admitted to already battling some nerves. “But I’m also very excited and anxious. I wish (I didn’t have to wait) that long. I’m dying to get it over with.”
Kedge said given that Slade produced a huge jump in Chicago with minimal advance training, Slade is capable of adding anywhere between 8 inches to a foot to that mark. And who knows, Slade might even get a shot to compete with the Lobos somewhere down the road. He served as Academy’s hurdles coach last season.
“I’m totally expecting his best jump that I’ve ever seen out of him,” Kedge said.
Against the carnival backdrop of Rio, Slade said he has no plans to stray too far from the village. He is, after all, still a UNM student with classroom obligations. This is, for practical purposes, a working vacation.
“We’ve been told to just focus on our competition,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll do a lot of sightseeing. I’m still in college. I’ll be doing my homework.”
He might change his outlook based on this report from his father on Friday: “He said it was hot and sticky,” Grant Slade said. He added with a laugh, “And that the Olympic Village smells.”
But considering where he was just a few months ago, Slade is filled with all manners of gratitude.
“This has been such an uplifting experience,” he said. “And I feel so much better about my self image and my future and where I’m at right now.”