UNM sophomore Nick Slade was born without a right hand. Luckily, he didn’t need one to make it to one of the biggest sporting events on the planet.
Slade will be representing the U.S. at the Summer Paralympics in Rio, where he will be competing in the long jump.
Slade said he competed in track and soccer while in high school at Albuquerque Academy, but so far has only played intramural soccer at UNM.
Regardless, Slade said he was put in contact with Cathy Sellers, an organizer for the Paralympics who recruited him to try out for the games.
“I get a call from Cathy out of the blue. I was playing Xbox or something at my girlfriend’s house, and Cathy convinced me to try out,” he said.
After passing the tryouts in Forrest Lake, Illinois, Slade said he traveled to North Carolina, where he qualified for the games in Rio.
The first five days he was in Rio, Slade had to take an hour bus ride to a naval base in order to train, he said. After the opening ceremony he was able to use the practice track for the games, cutting down his commute time.
There are 20 athletes competing in Slade’s classification, and only three U.S. athletes.
All 20 will be allowed three jumps, Slade said, with the top nine going on to finals to jump three more times.
Slade is currently seated fourth, he said.
Although he is still preparing to compete, the opening ceremony has already made being in Rio an incredible experience, he said.
“It was definitely a happy day. One of the happiest days I’ve had in a long time,” he said.
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The opening ceremony was also better attended than Slade expected, he said.
“Coming into this Paralympic thing, I was wondering if the stadium was just going to be empty. I didn’t know if people went to these games. I was assuming they wouldn’t. I’m kind of a pessimist,” Slade said. “The crowd was absolutely packed. It was so loud. It was not what I was expecting. It was so much more.”
He was also surprised by his fellow athletes and how well they have adapted to their handicaps to do things most people wouldn’t.
“I’ve gotten to meet people with all kinds of disabilities. It’s pretty inspiring here. I don’t want to always say ‘inspiring,’ because I feel like inspired isn’t the right word. I’m more just amazed sometimes and proud to be with all these athletes,” Slade said. “Just going to the weight room every day and seeing how they use these weights. Some guy with no arms, no legs basically, and he manages to use a cross table. It’s really just incredible to see.”
While he’s is preparing for one of the world’s grandest stages, Slade still has to make sure to squeeze in study time while preparing to compete.
An economics major at UNM, he said finishing homework while training for the games has been extremely hard.
“I’m in calculus — I don’t know what’s going on in the class, I have a friend sending me notes and it’s like I have to teach myself,” he said. “Some days I only have about an hour and a half or two hours to do homework.”
Although there is not enough time to manage homework and training, most of his teachers have given him extensions on assignments, he said.
Slade said he hopes he is able to manage the transition back to school after the games are over.
“I just want to say thank you to the teachers who have been helpful and cooperative with me, giving me extra time to complete assignments and things like that because I would have hated to have been penalized for taking this opportunity,” he said.
But Rio is not all training and homework — he’s also met people from all over the world, he said.
“There’s a lot of pretty girls,” Slade said. “I kind of wish I spoke every language, or at least Portuguese, so I could talk to the workers here. Because some of them are extremely good looking.”
UNM President Bob Frank said there’s a lot to admire about what Slade has done.
“The fact that he’s in Rio competing, it’s phenomenal that he’s representing our University at the highest level and that he’s been able to move to that high level of competition,” Frank said. “I admire him and wish him the best.”
Slade said that making the podium would also help him financially.
“I get a stipend right now…if I get the medal I’ll basically double my monthly salary and get a medal bonus, which is huge for me. Not huge for somebody that has a career, but for a college student it would be really helpful.”
Slade competes in the long jump on Wednesday at 3 p.m. MT.