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Catholic High athlete gets new outlook on life from LSU School of Engineering

Updated: Dec. 28, 2020 at 10:05 PM CST
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BATON ROUGE, La. (WAFB) - James Robert III grinds his spikes into the starting blocks, takes a deep breath, then explodes down the track at Catholic High School.

“When I step into those blocks,” the high school senior said, “all I’m thinking about is explosion.”

James Robert III was a star athlete before the LSU School of Engineering began making a...
James Robert III was a star athlete before the LSU School of Engineering began making a prosthetic hand for him. Now he says it's changed his outlook on life.(WAFB)

Even as a baby, James was fast. In 2003, he won the first-ever Diaper Derby put on by Parent’s Magazine. His mom Deidre said from there, he was a natural athlete. Football, basketball, soccer, James excelled at them all. Injuries two years ago turned him toward the track.

“I got a lot of bangs and bruises on my left hand,” James said, “because I didn’t have all my fingers.”

James was born with only the palm of his left hand.

At three years old, doctors grafted on of James’ toes to his palm so that he might be able to grip small objects. That was enough to keep up with other athletes his age, at least until he got to high school where kids were just bigger and stronger.

“There were many days he came home frustrated,” James’ mother Deidre remembered. “He came home angry. He came home feeling defeated. But every day he got back up and went back out.”

“Outside of just being on the track running, there’s a lot of weightlifting, and a lot of preparation,” James said. It is something he struggles with. Missing four fingers, on one hand, makes it almost impossible for him to grab a barbell.

“There were a lot of things I could not do at all,” James said. “I wouldn’t even try. It was too dangerous.”

While other track athletes could dead lift, squat, and press, James had to workout with giant rubber bands. Two years ago, James was introduced to the capstone program at LSU’s School of Engineering. The program requires students to build a working prototype of a product in order to graduate. It is one of only three dozen programs in the country.

James Robert III was a star athlete before the LSU School of Engineering began making a...
James Robert III was a star athlete before the LSU School of Engineering began making a prosthetic hand for him. Now he says it's changed his outlook on life.(WAFB)

The limitations of James’ left hand seemed like the perfect project for Dr. Warren Waggenspack’s seniors. They met with James, discussed his needs, and in nine months built a working prosthetic that allows James to grip the bar with his left hand.

They gave James the device in May.

“The first day he used it, he called me,” Deidre said. “He said, ‘I did it! And I feel 100! And I feel like there’s nothing I can’t do.’ And that’s very special to see your child achieve a dream.”

The glove has made a difference in the weight room, and on the track, helping James to be more explosive out of the blocks.

James Robert III was a star athlete before the LSU School of Engineering began making a...
James Robert III was a star athlete before the LSU School of Engineering began making a prosthetic hand for him. Now he says it's changed his outlook on life.(WAFB)

“I’ve gotten a lot faster,” James said. “I’ve been able to lift more. I’ve gotten a lot bigger.”

“[I] knew it that the potential to make a difference in his attitude and approach,” Waggenspack said. “To see and hear him talk about the ability to do things really warms your heart.”

Just before Christmas, James won the Catholic High Pentathlon and broke the school record in the 30-meter dash.

And while the glove has boosted his performance on the track, it has also changed his outlook on life. James is already interning at Redstick Orthopedic and Prosthetics and hopes to study prosthetics in college.

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