Olympic Dreams: Peter Tainer ’16
From the Roanoke College Magazine, Issue Three, 2012. View the entire Roanoke Magazine online.
What defines a champion? A split-second tap on the swimming pool wall? A victorious lean into the tape? Or is it overcoming odds to pursue a lifelong quest? Or how well one rises after the fall? Dick Emberger '60, Shelley Olds '03, and Peter Tainer '16 are three Maroons who embody "champion." Their stories are as different as day and night, sun and moon. But woven throughout is a common thread: an Olympic dream.
12 minutes, 12 seconds.
That was the time Peter Tainer '16 clocked in his first mile as a 6-year-old first-grader. And he'll never forget it.
He was the last student to finish four laps on the track. His classmates cheered for him. Some circled back to run with him. Tainer was frustrated.
"I want my left foot amputated," he told his mother after school that day.
That may sound like a drastic request after a one-time slow running performance.
Not for Tainer, an 18-year-old Roanoke College freshman whose success as a runner with two amputations is growing.
Tainer - who Tom and Meg Tainer of Botetourt County, Va. adopted in South Korea as an infant - was born with severely deformed feet. He had three toes on one foot and two toes on the other. When he was 17 months old, doctors removed his right foot at the ankle joint.
Amputating his left foot would give Tainer the freedom to move faster and symmetrically. And it did.
Tainer was an active, rambunctious child. He tried to release his energy by joining a youth soccer team. But kicking the ball was a challenge.
"My leg always came off," Tainer said.
As a teenager, Tainer attended an event sponsored by Virginia Prosthetics, a Roanoke-based company that has fit Tainer with prosthetics. There, he met Brian Frasure, a Paralympian sprinter. Frasure told Tainer that he reminded him of Oscar Pistorius, a double amputee from South Africa and one of the fastest para-athlete runners in the world. Pistorius competed against able-bodied runners in the 400-meter race in the 2012 Summer Olympics.
Fascinated, Tainer - then 14 years old - began following Pistorius, who has the same amputations as Tainer.
Inspired, Tainer entered an all-comers track meet that summer at Roanoke College, where he ran the 100-meter dash. He finished last.
But that didn't deter him. Tainer emailed Peter Walton, the cross country and track coach at Lord Botetourt High School, asking to join the school's track team.
"At first I thought it was a joke, since I never knew we had a double amputee at our school," Walton said. "Pete always wore jeans, and his flawless gait when he walked around the hallways hid the fact that he was walking on prosthetic legs. It wasn't until I met him and his family after school one day that I understood that he and his desire to compete were for real."
That winter, Tainer started running indoor track. He also received his first pair of Cheetah blades, high-performance carbon fiber feet designed for sprinting.
Running with his new Cheetahs was a test in control. Tainer had trouble stopping at the finish line.
Walton often stood at the race finish line to catch Tainer. The two would collide and spin around, as if they were dancing, said Tainer, describing the image to some Roanoke students who gathered on campus Oct. 26 to hear his story.
Also, "the concern was him taking turns [on the track] because he didn't have any stability turning," Walton said. "I had to get coaches to get on the [track's] corners in case he fell off the track."
The same willpower that helped Tainer adjust to his Cheetahs pushed him to keep getting faster. As a high school junior, he won his first track race.
Tainer remembers the victory vividly. He was behind a pack of runners during the first lap of the 800- meter race. On the second lap, "something hit me," he recalled. He took off, passing everyone.
Since then, Tainer has racked up considerable track success in Paralympic races throughout the country. Tainer and Walton even visited the national Paralympic training center in Chula Vista, Calif., one summer.
Walton tried to learn as much as he could about how to train Peter, though it is much the same as coaching able-bodied athletes, he said. One difference is that injuries often are not the same. For example, Tainer is prone to back and hip troubles. His running strength comes from his core midsection muscles.
Tainer keeps climbing the para-athlete ladder. This past summer, he suited up for the U.S. Paralympic trials, with hopes of qualifying for the U.S. team and the Paralympic Games in London.
Tainer placed seventh in the 400 meters, and he also entered the 200- and 100-meter races. But he didn't qualify for the Games.
"I wasn't upset at all," Tainer said. "I was extremely proud of myself."
Now he is more motivated than ever. His new focus is advancing to the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.
That training will happen while Tainer is a student at Roanoke, where he is studying math and education.
Bridget Tainer-Parkins'06, Tainer's sister, was a standout cross country and track runner for the Maroons. Tainer grew up cheering her on in races. Ultimately, he said she shaped his desire to come to Roanoke.
Now that indoor track season is in full swing at Roanoke, Carl Blickle, assistant track coach, is working with Tainer to increase his speed.
If Tainer, one of 15 to 20 freshmen on the team, can carve a few seconds off his 400-meter time, he can be competitive at Roanoke, Blickle said. Tainer's best 400 times are between 58 and 59 seconds.
Longer Cheetah blades that match Tainer's height are a key to helping him run faster, and he expects to receive his new blades soon.
"He is the highest-level athlete on the team," Blickle said of Tainer's Paralympic experiences.
Tainer will train primarily for the 400-meter race, because it is the longest track distance at the Paralympic Games.
Ultimately, he wants to encourage people with disabilities. He said he'd like to start a non-profit organization to help people with disabilities discover their athletic potential.
"A lot of other disabled people I know, they just give up," Tainer said. "Part of my mission statement is to reach out to these people. There's nothing stopping you. You can achieve anything you want."
- Jenny Kincaid Boone '01