University of Oregon runner Justin Gallego made history by becoming the first professional athlete with cerebral palsy to sign with Nike, serving as an inspiration to people around the world.
Amaze. Inspire. Surprise. You’ll be hearing those words a lot in the coming weeks—together, they cut to the heart of why we love sports in the first place. So in the days leading up to the naming of SI’s Sportsperson we’ll be looking back and shining a light on the athletes, moments and teams (and one horse) who did one—or all—of those things in 2018. There can be only one Sportsperson. But it has been a year full of deserving candidates.
About 150 meters into his very first cross-country race for the University of Oregon’s running club, Justin Gallegos fell. It wasn’t anything new to him. Since 2012, Gallegos has been running cross-country but he also has cerebral palsy, which limits some of his body movement and muscle control.
Because of his condition, Gallegos’ feet sometimes drag and he ends up on the ground. During that first cross country race for Oregon, his shoes came off. John Truax, a close friend of Gallegos and Nike’s footwear marketing manager, hopped onto the course to help Gallegos up and help put his shoes back on.
Falling does not mean quitting for the Oregon junior. Gallegos runs in a variety of track races—meet directors are informed ahead of time that he may get lapped but people have been accommodating. While he finishes last on many occasions, his story serves as an example of good things happening to people who work hard and don’t give up.
On Cerebral Palsy Awareness Day, Gallegos made history as the first athlete with cerebral palsy to sign a professional athlete contract with Nike. Truax surprised Gallegos with the contract after he ran at a club cross-country meet.
Gallegos was brought to his knees in tears and a video of the day, which was produced by Elevation 0m, has garnered more than 5.5 million views on Twitter and 42 million views on Facebook since it was shared by Sports Illustrated’s social media pages.
Last spring at the Prefontaine Classic, there was a commercial on the scoreboard at Hayward Field where Gallegos spoke about his own running career and his personal story was juxtaposed with Eliud Kipchoge, the current world record holder. In May 2017, Kipchoge participated in Nike’s experiment to try and break the two-hour barrier in the marathon. He fell 26 seconds shy of the goal but said afterwards that he hoped his run proved that, “No human is limited.”
A year later, Gallegos took after Kipchoge and completed his first half marathon in two hours and three minutes. While Kipchoge was decked out in special apparel to optimize his run, Nike and Gallegos worked together to develop a specialty running shoe for people with disabilities. Gallegos finished just three minutes off the sub-two goal but told reporters afterward, “We are only limited by our minds and not our bodies.”
Reading through the comments section of any of Gallegos’ Instagram posts since the video was shared on social media, you’ll quickly learn that it’s not about the shoes or how fast he runs. For many parents or those with loved ones who have cerebral palsy, the most admirable part of Gallegos' story is his determination and ability to push forward, even when life is challenging.