"Pure determination." These two words have come to define AJ Digby's athletic career from the time he started running in seventh grade until now, his junior year at the University of Mount Union. Born with fibula hemophilia, Digby had both of his feet amputated at just ten months old and learned to walk with prosthetics as a young child. Despite missing his feet, Digby took to sports early, playing hockey, baseball and swimming with the enthusiasm of any kid finding passion in athletics and competition.
Now, a four-time NCAA champion and 2016 Paralympian, Digby reflects on the journey he's taken in sports and is proving how grit and persistence can be the difference-maker for any athlete, regardless of their physical challenges.
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“I always felt that I could do everything that everybody else could," Digby said in an NCAA.com video feature. "I didn't want to feel pitied or left behind. For me, being able to go out and do things for myself was kind of my way to prove that I don't need your sorrow.”
Digby and his parents, Robin and Gordon, refused to let his disability stop him in his quest for athletic success, and the Mount Union junior said he adapted a mantra to always "do it," no matter how big or daunting the goal.
"The orthopedic surgeon said with prosthetics, he would be able to do anything any other kid can do," Gordon Digby said. "If he wants to climb a tree, he's going to climb a tree. The biggest thing he told us was don't limit AJ on what he can do. Let him decide what he can and cannot do. There were times when people would forget actually that he was an amputee."
Seventh grade marked the start of Digby’s running career, and he found his place on the track the minute he received his first pair of running blades. Robin, Digby’s mother, describes watching Digby run as seeing someone finding a natural gift, racing around outside with joy and happiness. That first race brought an emotional wave over his father as well, and the elder Digby shared the amazement he felt seeing his son not only race against his peers in that initial run, but also beat one of his friends.
“Watching him compete at an equal level, with able-bodied athletes was something I never thought I would see. He just took off in terms of track and field,” Gordon Digby said. “He's gotten to do and see so many things, not only because of disability but because of his drive and his determination to compete against the best.”
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Digby’s desire to always push himself to his limits led him to Mount Union, a program where he is coached by Kevin Lucas and surrounded by teammates who remain inspired by his work ethic.
“When I first saw him run, it was eye-opening,” Lucas said. “I was just kind of blown away, at just you know, how good he was at running. His teammates were very surprised, I mean here’s a guy out there, kicking their butts. I don’t think they realized how fast he actually was.”
Digby’s illustrious career as a Purple Raider became particularly historic last spring when, as the anchor of the men’s 4x400 relay at NCAAs, he came back from nearly a 20-meter deficit to run down the leader to bring his team another event title and ultimately the team trophy.
The win put an exclamation point on a record-breaking meet for the then-sophomore, and his run left a mark on his relay teammates and his university.
“I couldn’t believe it,” relay teammate Sam Printy said. “I couldn’t imagine someone, you know, without ankle mobility and a sole of a foot running that fast.
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As an athlete, a student and a leader, Digby continues to defy expectations, and, with one year of eligibility remaining after this season, he’s on pace to accomplish even more.
"Every day that I see him doing things, I'm in awe," Robin Digby said. "From Day One, when we wanted the best for AJ, little did we know that it would turn out to be something like this."