It’s an awe-inspiring thing, to win a gold medal; something most athletes only dream of and only a few ever even come close to achieving. It’s breathtaking to have that much-coveted medal hung around your neck and to hear your country’s anthem play across the speakers.
For small towns, it’s a very proud moment when one of “our own” becomes an Olympic champion. For Fairfax, that moment came this past year when a former resident, John Gilbert, won a gold medal in Rio’s Paralympic Games playing on the U.S. Men’s Wheelchair Basketball Team. For John, it was a dream come true, something he had spent most of his life working toward.
John was invited to speak at an assembly at Fairfax R-3 on Friday, January 13, 2017, and was presented a plaque that night and had some fun with lucky participants in a free-throw contest during the basketball games. At the assembly, he talked about his years spent working hard at achieving his goals.
Though John was born in Kansas, he grew up in Fairfax and said, with pride, that he calls Fairfax his hometown. He graduated from Fairfax High School in 2005, received two degrees from the University of Missouri, and is currently a high school chemistry and physics teacher.
When John was six, he jumped off a swing, which caused a tumor on his spine to swell, cutting off blood supply to his spinal cord and eventually paralyzing him. Though the change to his lifestyle was dramatic and he said he had some early moments of self-pity, he said his want to play basketball and his mother’s drive to push him and keep him active, built him up and gave him purpose to continue striving for achievement.
It wasn’t an easy road laid out for him. He’s faced many challenges over the years, but through every challenge was a sign that he was on the right path. As a young man growing up in a small town, he was selected to travel to a foreign country to play basketball. Though funds were limited, he worked hard at fundraising and with the support of Fairfax’s citizens, was able to raise enough money to go. His first year at MU was the first year the college had a wheelchair basketball team. Though he was able to play on the team, the team did not have a successful run that season. He said that though the not-so-great season was disappointing, he used that disappointment to continue to push himself. Over the years, the challenges piled up: his mother got sick and passed away, he worked hard at making the national team only to be cut, and even required shoulder surgery that severely hampered his game time. But, each time something negative happened, he used that to continue to push himself, just like his mother – his biggest fan – had. One of those times that he was cut from the national team, instead of going home and moping around, he kept working out and practicing and when a player broke his thumb just a few days out from the big event, he was called up and able to participate. When at a world championship the U.S. men placed 2nd instead of first, behind the Australian team, the loss was rubbed in their faces by the opposing team. As motivation, he put the Australians’ championship team photo – with gold-medal-winning smiles – in two different locations in his home to keep him striving for gold. And strive he did.
Once again, he made the national team, after working extremely hard to get back into shape, and headed to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, to compete in the Paralympic Games. By then, the team members were like brothers who had only one goal in mind, to win gold. Though the U.S. team members made a side trip to see the Christ the Redeemer statue, they did nothing else but concentrate on what they were there to do. When they weren’t playing games, they were practicing or holding team dinners and meetings. Their goal was to be the best they could be and obtain that gold, which they did. John said listening to the Star Spangled Banner play over the loud speakers while the gold medal hung around his neck is a moment that is forever emblazoned on his mind. Even to this day, listening to our national anthem takes him back to that moment and gives him chills. His life was forever changed in that moment, changed for the better. His many, many years of hard work had finally paid off.