Paralympics 2016: US sprinter Patrick Blake Leeper vows Rio ban won't 'break him'

Story highlights

  • US sprinter Patrick Blake Leeper can't compete at 2016 Paralaympics
  • Currently serving doping ban
  • Lost CAS appeal in August

(CNN)"I hate the fact that I have to sit here today and have this conversation with you. I wish it was a conversation about the times I'm running or what time I'm going to win the gold medal in."

American star sprinter Patrick Blake Leeper wishes he were in Rio de Janiero right now, participating in the 2016 Paralympics. Instead, he's speaking to CNN from his home in Los Angeles, after losing an appeal to the Court of Arbitration (CAS) for Sport last month.
    In 2012, the American, medaled twice at the Paralympic Games in London. He earned a bronze for the 200 meters race and a silver medal for the 400m, seconds behind South Africa's Oscar Pistorius.
    He vividly remembers how he found out he would not get his chance to shine four years on.
    "I was doing relay practice, ready to take the anchor leg ... practising how I was going to break Oscar's world record in the 400m then I got a phone call to say 'sorry but you're not going,'" Leeper told CNN.
    "Oh my God that hurt. I didn't know what to do. For two days straight I can't sleep, I can't eat. It's all like a bad dream again."
    Leeper is pictured at an event in February 2015.

    Life changing

    A native of Tennessee, Leeper was born without legs because of a congenital birth defect in 1989.
    In 2010, while a student at the University of Tennessee, Leeper decided to try out for track and field running with the prosthetics.
    He instantly impressed and was persuaded to leave home to train at the Olympic Center in California. His success in London was life changing.
    He'd travelled there as the "disabled kid from Tennessee not knowing what the future holds." On his return to the US, Leeper was given the keys to his hometown of Kingsport, appeared on TV shows and played in an NBA All-Star celebrity match.
    "It came fast for me," he explains. "It came extremely fast."
    He might have been a professional athlete but he was also now very much a public figure, and learning how to deal with those new responsibilities.
    "You have to be a role model, to show up at events, to sign autographs because you never know what individual needs to hear your story to stay motivated."
    Increasingly he found it difficult to meet the demands of what was being asked of him.
    "As more good things happened in my life a lot of pressure came with that so my drinking increased. Unfortunately I didn't have the tools to be able to cope with the situation."
    Even before he went to London in 2012, Leeper had a drinking problem. In 2011, he was suspended from competition for three weeks for alcohol abuse.
    "I started drinking at an early age," he explains. "But when you're living a normal life as a college student it doesn't seem out of control."
    Fast forward to June 21, 2015, when the sprinter tested positive for benzoylecgonine, a metabolite of cocaine, during the US Paralympic Track and Field National Championships.
    "Patrick is an alcoholic," Leeper's lawyer Matthew Lewis tells CNN. "While inebriated, he took a recreational non-performance enhancing drug approximately one week before a competition."

    Wake-up call

    The failed drugs test was a Damascene moment of conversion.
    "I began my 12-month recovery program on October 14, 2015, the day that I stood up in a meeting and said: 'My name is Patrick Blake Leeper and I'm an alcoholic.' Once I did that it was like a sigh of relief," he says.
    With his life spiraling out of control, he also had to explain to his parents what had happened.
    "Having to tell my mother and father I had been suspended ... have my Mom cry on the phone. I wouldn't say I contemplated suicide but there was a point in my life where I couldn't find the will to live."
    Yet he did.
    "Once I was in that dark place it was the first time that alcohol didn't do justice. I'm getting drunk and still feeling the same way. It was a wake-up call to change my life."
    With Leeper on the road to sobriety, the USADA agreed to reduce his original two-year ban to one year in January 2016. The decision meant that he would be eligible to run in Rio.
    Leeper began to train hard and set amazing times over the summer, including a national record of 46.1 seconds over 400m. As he looked ahead to the Paralympics, the American felt he was on the cusp of beating Pistorius' T43 -- a classification for disabled sports -- world record of 45.39s.

    Zero tolerance

    His sense of optimism didn't last very long.
    The IPC disagreed with the USADA's reduced one-year ban and in August CAS ruled: "The IPC has no obligation to recognize the subsequent settlement agreement that was agreed upon by the athlete and USADA."
    The IPC explained in a statement to CNN: "The IPC considered that the agreement between USADA and Mr Leeper was not consistent with the World Anti-Doping Code.
    "The IPC considered that USADA and Mr Leeper could not simply set aside the AAA (American Arbitration Association) hearing panel by private agreement, and the private agreement did not therefore fall to be recognized by the IPC under Article 15.1 of the IPC Code (meaning the IPC was instead required to recognize the AAA decision that was still in force)."
    The US Olympic committee did not immediately respond to CNN's request for comment.
    Disappointed with the decision, Leeper's lawyer questions why the IPC had taken such a hard line stance with his client, when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) allowed Russian swimmer Yulia Efimova to compete in Rio last month.
    "It was especially disheartening to see athletes who had tested positive for performance enhancing drugs, sometimes multiple times, competing in the able-bodied Olympics, while Patrick, who took a non-performance enhancing drug was prohibited by the IPC from competing," said Lewis.
    CAS also turned down an appeal from the Russian paralympic team, who were uniformly banned from competing in Rio because of alleged state-sponsored doping.
    Asked by CNN if the IPC intends to take a hard line on doping in Rio the IPC responded: "As the governing body of the Paralympic Movement we want to ensure fair competition and a level playing field for all athletes.
    "Therefore we have a zero tolerance approach to doping and drugs in sport."

    'Life isn't fair'

    For Leeper the message is simple, he must now watch the Games at home in Los Angeles.
    "I will support my teammates in spirit," he says. "I wish them the best performances they can ever have."
    Still, he wonders whether offering redemption to one of Para-Sports biggest names might have exemplified what the Paralympics are about.
    "Isn't the main goal to change lives and inspire people? Isn't that why we're in the business?" Leeper asks.
    As he reflects on his exclusion from the Paralympics -- "one thing I learned at an early age being born with no legs is that life isn't fair" -- Leeper is determined to use his story and his ongoing fight with alcoholism in a positive way.
    "There are a lot of kids who need to hear that story because they might make one mistake and think their life is over.
    "That's why I did it. I changed it around. I wanted to show the USADA, the IPC that I wanted this ... To go through the journey and come out stronger, faster, sober.
    Leeper's ban ends in 2017, in time for him to return for the IPC World Championships in London, where he first earned Olympic glory as a para-athlete.
    Can there be a happy ending?
    "Of course! Of course!" says the 27-year-old athlete. "Imagine what I'll be able to do next year, two years clean.
    "This stings, this hurts but it does me no good to sit around and mope."
    One of the mantras of Alcoholics Anonymous is to aim for abstinence one day at a time. As he continues to embrace sobriety, Leeper is determined to use his sporting exclusion as a motivational tool to keep him on the straight and narrow.
    "I made a decision that this is not going to break me, because if this breaks me, then they really win. If this sends me out to drink, then they really win. I refuse to let that happen."