Kortney Clemons balances himself against the chain link fence that separates the Memorial Stadium track from the bleachers.
He slips out of his prosthetic right leg that starts above the knee and puts his thigh into a new one that includes a mechanical knee and an L-shaped sprinting foot, called a Cheetah.
Now the Iraq war veteran, who lost most of his right leg in a 2005 explosion, is ready to run. And he is fast. Clemons, who earned his master’s degree in education from Kansas University in May, is training this summer with other KU track and field athletes. He has his sights on trials in Indianapolis with hopes of qualifying for the London Paralympics in the 100- and 200-meter sprints.
“He’s a great inspiration for everyone around. He’s a really good guy,” said KU coach Stanley Redwine, who has trained Clemons since he came to KU as part of Fort Leavenworth’s Wounded Warrior program. “Because of his willpower and his desire to achieve, that’s why he’s so accomplished.”
At the trials July 29-30, Clemons hopes to beat his career best times of 13.8 seconds in the 100 and 28.09 seconds in the 200 meters.
“For me to qualify and go to London would be awesome,” Clemons said before a recent workout. “I just think about looking back on everything, where I came from and everything. It’s going to be huge.”
Clemons, 31, is positive, calm and collected as he talks about the dramatic events that have led him here. He carries with him a reminder of that day — Feb. 21, 2005. A bracelet on his left wrist includes names of the three men who died.
As an Army medic, Clemons was five days from getting out of the country. While on a routine patrol he was showing his replacements different routes to hospitals when they saw an overturned Humvee in the road.
As he and members of his unit jumped out to help, they were caught in a trap. Insurgents, who had been watching them, detonated an improvised explosive device.
“They set the IED off once the Black Hawk (helicopter) landed and once everybody was inside the circle so they could try to kill as many people as they can,” Clemons said.
He’s thankful for the soldiers and medics who got to him quickly, and Clemons, who grew up in Mississippi and played college football before joining the Army in 2001, eventually recovered after six surgeries. In Minnesota, he later met with family members of the three soldiers who died in the attack.
“It was probably one of the hardest things to do, but I’m just fortunate to have my life because we were so close,” he said. “We were less than three feet apart from each other when the IED went off.”
After his right leg was amputated above the knee, he walked again for the first time about a year later. Later he saw someone running on a prosthetic leg.
“It got me all excited,” he said. “I began to try to do things to get back into athletics.”
Now he had international experience as a competitor. He also earned a bachelor’s degree from Penn State University and later came to KU as part of the Fort Leavenworth program. He works a couple days a week at Fort Leavenworth in addition to his training on the track. He also was awarded a Purple Heart and retired as an Army sergeant.
Clemons lives in Lawrence with his wife, Candy. His daughter, Daytriona Clemons, 15, joins them here in the summers. He is a member of Team Ossur, a group of international athletes who work to raise awareness about the potential of people who live with limb loss. Ossur manufactures his prosthetic leg as well.
His coach at KU learns from Clemons daily basis.
“He’s taught me to be a better coach,” Redwine said. “Because the first thing people want to do is to give sympathy to him, and that’s not how he works. When I learned that, I became a better coach.”
Clemons’ goal for now is to be able to represent his country in London, but he also has a broader perspective in mind.
“This journey that I’ve been on is what I’m going to look back on and hang my hat on the most,” he said. “In life, things may not always go the way that you want or would like them to, but it’s the way that you handle those situations that determines what type of person that you are.
“I just hope that I have given someone, influenced someone to never give up. Never quit no matter what the situation is.”