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Patient's courage propels him to Olympic victory

Blake Haxton fell in love with rowing as a teenager after his mom insisted that he participate in the sport to see if it was a good fit for him.

"My mom made me go to practice before high school started. I gave it a try," Haxton said. "And then, once I did, I just began to understand what it entailed and what it required. Then I really found out how much I enjoyed it."

When Haxton reached his senior year of high school, the rowing season had just started when he noticed soreness in his lower right leg. The next morning was an ordinary Monday, but the pain in his leg was anything but.

"I woke up... and it was much worse. I couldn't walk on it," Haxton said. "I was really in pain. It was starting to swell and get red. Knew I needed to go to the doctor."

His doctors were baffled by a healthy teenager with severe pain in one leg, according to his mom, Heather Haxton. So, after getting no answers, the doctors chose exploratory surgery. And what they found was necrotizing fasciitis, or flesh-eating disease.

A quickly deteriorating condition

Necrotizing fasciitis is a serious bacterial infection that can lead to tissue death. The bacteria that cause the condition are often found in soil and water, and can infect the body through a tiny cut or scrape. The infection usually starts as a red, painful area of skin, that swiftly develops into deeper tissue damage.

"It spread pretty rapidly through my leg and actually had gotten up into my arm as well. So, my condition was deteriorating rapidly from there," Haxton said.

The infection can spread throughout the body and lead to organ failure or death if left untreated. Haxton came close to dying during one of his many operations to stop the bacteria from spreading.

"When they went to operate on my arm, my heart stopped on the table," Haxton said.

His mom said she knew then it was time to gather the family to say goodbye. Haxton was close to his older brother, a college freshman in New Jersey. His mom hoped her son would live long enough for his older brother to say goodbye to him.

"And then he kept living. And he kept living. And our hope rose, and that lasted 100 days and 21 surgeries," Heather said.

Waking up without legs

When Haxton woke up after about a month in a coma, both of his legs had been amputated. His left leg at the hip, his right leg high above the knee. Plus, Haxton's right arm was bandaged.

"It was abundantly clear from being told everything that had gone on and just looking at myself, you know, I'm in rough shape," Haxton said. "It's bad. Obviously, I've lost all my capacity. Both legs are gone. Right arm's compromised. All this, all these problems. But you're very clearly supposed to be dead, and you're not. And that's something to be grateful for."

Setting high goals for rowing

Haxton's gratitude for being alive soon turned into a desire to resume rowing. According to his then coach, he set his sights high, as he always had, and wanted to be a part of the United States Rowing Association Paralympic team.

"We saw in him the ability to go very fast and to compete at a very high level. And he has proved that," Christopher Swarz said.

Haxton rowed at the World Championships and the Paralympic Games for several years, qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

"It doesn't get any better than representing Team USA," Haxton said. "I mean, I think the first race I was ever at, you know, in rowing at the start, they don't say your name, they say the country you're from, and they got to me, and I started busting out, laughing. I couldn't believe it. It's a dream come true."

Realizing his Olympic dreams

Haxton participated in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, winning a silver medal.

"Being out in the water, just in the boat alone. Once you're out there, it is a very freeing experience, and you kind of leave the disability on the dock, so to speak," he said. "You know, hard work feels good and hard work when you're improving at something feels even better."

"And I get to do that, and I get to do it for, you know, day in, day out. And there's just nothing better than that," Haxton said.

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