When four-time Paralympic medalist Lex Gillette lost his sight at the age of eight, it was his mother, Verdina Gillette-Simms, who taught him how to thrive in darkness.
As a single parent, dealing with the beginnings of glaucoma, Verdina focused on raising her son to be active, curious and independent. When he lost his eyesight suddenly, it was even more important to Verdina that Lex grow up to know he could have and be anything his sighted peers could.
“My mom has a no excuses mentality,” Gillette told USABA over the phone. “She has that mentality that’s like you just got to get it done – no matter the circumstances.”
Verdina’s drive and tenacity are two of the things Lex admires most about his mother.
“She taught me that you figure out a method and way that works best for you [to achieve your goals]. That may be seeking out ways that other individuals have previously used but also, as an individual, figuring out methods that work for you. She would say things like “it may take you a little longer and it may be harder but this is what you have to do to achieve your goal and get a similar solution to what other people have – just using a different equation to get there.”
Academically, Verdina never allowed her son to cower to difficulty and made sure he had everything he needed for his method to success. In addition to providing constant encouragement and support, she was always seeking resources that would help her son navigate and understand life in a sighted world better.
“She was always very involved, helping me get through my homework – math, spelling, writing. Through her ability to seek out resources, tools and pieces of accessible technology, she showed me she wanted me to be successful academically. In order for me to achieve that goal, I needed someone to teach me Braille, needed textbooks in braille, screen reader technology; she made all of that happen.”
The fact that Verdina was dealing with deteriorating eyesight allowed her to identify with her son and help Lex navigate the world in a new way after losing his eyesight completely.
“She could still see really well when I was growing up though. She couldn’t drive but could see clearly enough to help me. She knew different methods and how to make things accessible. She had a lot of influence in teaching me how to see the world differently so I could navigate the world successfully. She was always adding accessibility to our lives. When walking, she’d give me verbal reinforcement – ‘you may feel a groove in the sidewalk.’ She was very cognizant of things a person without sight would need to know to navigate the world.”
Her no excuses mentality, make it happen attitude and focus on accessibility helped Lex succeed academically and athletically.
“My mom always encouraged me to get out there and try anything and everything. That has helped me through the years because I wasn’t really fearful of stepping into different situations.”
From a young age, Lex’s mother instilled a priority of activity and sports. One of the earliest memories Lex has of his mother is being outside and active.
“I remember us going outside and playing with a green bouncy ball and playing catch together,” Gillette said. “We’d go outside and play catch with that. I remember my mom walking me to the park to play on the monkey bars. She was a single parent so it was tough to find time during the week but whenever we had time, we were active and outside.”
Verdina Gillette-Sims may not have specifically known that Lex would break world records, earn world titles and collect Paralympic medals – but she knew and believed he would be successful at whatever he decided to do in life. “She has the ability to see things before they are in existence. It’s not that she necessarily saw where I would be today – I don’t think anyone would have guessed I’d be doing what I am today – but I think my mom saw that I’d be out on my own one day and would need to be independent, fend for myself and not rely on the assistance of others. She helped me realize that early on. Everything I’ve learned from her I’ve brought to my athletic career.”
Lex and his mother worked with P&G on a commercial before the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games that highlighted the impact a mother can have on the life of a child who chooses to pursue athletics at an elite level.
“[The commercial] showed the world my mom, honored her. It also showed other moms that this is what is possible if you continue to persevere and work through a situation.”
Though the two live thousands of miles apart now with Lex training full-time at the Chula Vista Elite Athlete Training Center in California they talk nearly every week and text frequently.