GRAYSLAKE – Competing for Team USA in the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, Isaac Jean-Paul doesn’t just want to bring the gold home to Grayslake.
“I want to change the world, to be honest,” said Jean-Paul, a 28-year-old graduate of Warren Township High School in Gurnee. “I want to change how people think toward the marginalized.”
Training at the Olympic Training Facility in California, Jean-Paul will compete in the 100-meter dash and long jump at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo, which take place Aug. 24 through Sept. 5. He’ll compete with a T13 classification, a category for athletes with a moderate visual impairment.
Jean-Paul was born with juvenile retinoschisis, a vision impairment that affects his peripheral and central vision.
Growing up, in many ways, he tried to run from his disability.
“When I would go to school, it’s like everyone knew that’s the blind kid with the big enlarged textbooks and all that,” he said. “Sports gave me an outlet to not feel that way. I kind of blended in with my athleticism, and my vision didn’t really matter.”
Now, he’s all about standing out and up for others.
“I’m not just disabled, I’m also Black. That ties into everything I face in this world,” he said. “In a nutshell, I want to change the narrative of how people view Black folks in this country and around the world and how people view people with disabilities across the world. I’m doing that through athletics.
“I’m using my journey to shine a light on how people see people with disabilities and treat people with disabilities. I feel like my community needs someone to say, ‘Hey, we can do this despite what people say.’ "
Originally from Evanston, Jean-Paul moved to Gurnee before high school, where he carried on a family tradition of playing basketball. His mother, Rosemary Jean-Paul, was a Hall of Fame basketball player at Lewis University in Romeoville.
During Isaac Jean-Paul’s senior year in high school, a friend bet him that he couldn’t beat the fastest runner on the school’s track team.
“Little did I know that was going to be the start of my life, as you would call it,” he said.
He went on to earn a national title in the high jump at Harper College in Palatine, where he was coached by Renne Zellner. The head coach of both the men’s and women’s track and field teams for 37 years, Zellner since has retired but remains an assistant coach at the college.
Zellner was the first to suggest Jean-Paul consider Paralympics competition. She’s followed his journey closely.
“I am just so incredibly proud of Isaac,” Zellner said. “He’s had continued success because he’s just someone that has a goal, and he just really pursues it. … He just learned quickly, excelled.”
After Harper College, Jean-Paul earned a scholarship from Lewis University, where he became a five-time All-American and a Division II national champion in the high jump.
The high jump, his “first love,” was removed from the T13 classification in the Tokyo Paralympic Games.
As Zellner and others have seen, Jean-Paul tends to succeed no matter the path.
“He’s starting to coach now and getting a different side of the athletic world,” Zellner said. “He’s full of ideas, and it’s just fun to watch him. He’s just a rather remarkable young man and quite a role model for both sighted and people in the Paralympics.”
When Zellner first suggested the Paralympics, Jean-Paul said he “shrugged it off.”
Based on his success at Lewis, he had hoped to go to the Olympic Trials, but an injury his senior year of college prevented that from happening.
A random encounter with a U.S. Para athlete, Roderick Townsend, opened the door to the Paralympics.
Jean-Paul set the world record three times in the men’s high jump at the 2017 World Para Athletics championship in London.
At that time, he also was competing in the long jump and relay but didn’t advance to the Paralympics.
Whatever happens this time around, he’s already succeeded.
“I’m just out here trying to live with significance,” he said.
“I’ve been through things. I’ll keep fighting for anyone going through anything. At the end of the day, we go through these dark times. We have to understand we go through these dark times but eventually the light will come. The light is within reach.”