Blake Haxton was playing a pick-up basketball game during his senior year at Upper Arlington High outside of Columbus, Ohio, when he felt tightness in his right calf.
What seemed like a sore calf turned into something much different.
It would change Haxton’s life forever.
It even caused Haxton’s mother, Heather, to tell her son later that she planned his funeral three different times.
There were a string of times where it was clear I should have died. And I didn't.
Team USA para rower Blake Haxton
Haxton was suffering from necrotizing fasciitis, more commonly known as a flesh-eating disease.
The disease left Haxton without both of his legs, but didn’t crush his spirit.
Instead, the former Upper Arlington rowing captain adjusted to life with amputated legs, graduated from Ohio State University with undergraduate and law degrees and slowly returned to rowing.
Now he’s preparing for the 2017 World Rowing Championships, which begin with Saturday’s opening ceremony, at Benderson Park.
Haxton is representing the United States for the fourth time as a para rower. He made his Olympic debut in 2016 and finished fourth in para rowing single sculls.
“It’s still hard to believe, really,” Haxton said. “You sort of question reality every once in a while, ‘There’s no way this is happening.’ It was great. ... Dreams come true.”
Before Haxton returned to rowing in his first year of law school, he went through 20 surgeries and made it through the harrowing experience that started in 2009 despite spending a week on life support with heart, lung, kidney and liver failure.
“There were a string of times where it was clear I should have died,” Haxton said. “And I didn’t.”
Haxton said the disease has a survival rate between 25 and 50 percent.
“I really felt more lucky than anything else,” Haxton said.
Haxton’s longtime rowing coach, Patrick Kington, was at Upper Arlington High when the flesh-eating disease impacted Haxton’s world.
“I used to tell people, ‘All the things that make it suck that it’s Blake that this happened to are the same things that kind of make it good that it’s Blake that this happened to,’ ” Kington said. “Because I don’t think anyone that knew him had any question that he was going to come back and do whatever he wanted to do.”
Haxton said it took two years after getting the disease to feel comfortable again – without pain medication.
Slowly, Haxton worked his way back to the sport he performed so well in while in high school.
At first, it wasn’t what Haxton said he wanted: “I missed the old sport too much.”
Eventually, Haxton’s father and Kington convinced him para rowing wasn’t the rowing he performed when he had both legs.
“It’s an entirely new sport that you can enjoy for what it is,” Haxton recalled them saying.
So Haxton trained and won the CRASH-B World Rowing Indoor Championship in 2014. He also looked up para rowing’s elite standard time for a 1K race.
It stood at 4 minutes, 20 seconds.
Haxton was breaking 4 minutes.
“I had a good enough body of rowing knowledge to figure it out,” Haxton said.
Now he’s preparing for the World Rowing Championships, where heats for the para rowing men’s single sculls start Tuesday.
“If somebody had told us back then (in 2009), we’d be at the World Rowing Championships in Florida on the team and they let us in,” Haxton said. “That’s possible? I’d be like, ‘No way.’ I wouldn’t buy it. So can’t get luckier than that.”