Sixteen-year-old Ezra Frech has a busier summer than most kids his age. He’s going to the Tokyo Paralympic Games, where he’ll represent the United States as the youngest member of the track and field team. Although making a team stacked with full-grown men is a remarkable feat, for Frech, it’s all part of the plan: He’s dreamed of going to Tokyo since he was 11 watching the 2016 Paralympic Games on TV. Frech made a promise to himself that he’d make it—and he’s working to keep it.
Frech was born missing his left knee and fibula, and competes using a prosthetic running blade in the 100-meter sprint, long jump, and high jump. From two-a-day workouts to his work with Angel City Sports, the adaptive sports organization he founded, he has a packed agenda. But the Los Angeles-based Paralympian squeezed in a call with Men’s Journal in between to talk about how he’s preparing for Tokyo, his ultimate goals, and how he wants to become the Conor McGregor of adaptive sports. Yep, you read that right. Check out the conversation below.
Men’s Journal: You’re the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic Track & Field team. What’s that like? Do you feel any extra pressure?
Ezra Naughty: It’s interesting. I do enjoy when I have a lot of pressure on me. But in this scenario, I’m the underdog. I came in last place in all my events in 2019 at the World Championships. I know I’m going to do significantly better now, maybe even contend for medal spots in all my events. The cool thing is I’m 16 and I’m going up against these guys who are 25 and 26, and this is their job. This is what they do every day. I train really hard to be here, but I’m in school. I don’t feel more pressure; if anything, I feel like I’m coming in with nothing to lose. These other guys are grown men. They don’t want to get beat by a 16-year-old.
What do you want to prove in Tokyo?
I know I’ll have more Paralympics in me after Japan, but I do want to prove I can be a medal contender in all three of my events. I think I’m capable of doing so. At the same time, I’m coming into each of these events ranked near the back. I’m definitely not ranked for medal contention. But my coach, team, and family know what I’m capable of. For the high jump, I’m in a pretty good medal spot right now. I actually think I have a chance to win it if all goes well. But in the 100 meter and long jump, I’m in a position where I’ve got to put together something truly special. I want to prove that age doesn’t make that much of a difference; it’s really about how hard you work and how smart you are with the time you have.
What does a typical training day look like for you?
Training’s pretty chaotic because we’re balancing three events that are extremely different. They have very little in common, and all require different forms and different thought processes. I think I’m the only athlete on the entire U.S. team that does those three events. We’re balancing our time and bouncing between different events throughout the whole day. I’ll give you what yesterday’s training session was.
We did a long jump session from 8 a.m. to about 10:30-ish. I came back home, rested and recovered, then came back at 4 p.m. and did sprints, a little bit of high jump, and lifted weights. I went home, stretched, recovered a little bit, then went to bed. An average day would have about two of those two-and-a-half to three-hour sessions, with recovery in the middle.
Obviously during the school year I wouldn’t be able to spend as much time on the track with school from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. with homework and all that stuff, but in summer we’re able to hit these two-a-days where I don’t really have much going on except for training, eating, sleeping, and recovering.
How do you recover?
Recovery is such a huge part of the training right now, because we’re so close to Tokyo and I can’t afford an injury. I can’t even afford being sore coming into a training session. I use a Therabody RecoveryAir. It’s a compression sleeve to help flush out lactic acid. Then I use the Theragun to release muscles. I take active ice baths before I have a training session if I know I’m a little sore and going to need a bit of freshness in my legs. I’m constantly stretching. When I get home, I just take some food, put on the RecoveryAir, and sit in my bed for a few hours—maybe take a nap or write about the training session. I sit there and decompress. I get off my leg, give it time to rejuvenate.
How do you prepare mentally to be on the world’s greatest stage?
I’ve competed at the World Championships before; nothing like the Paralympics though. There’s a different energy, a different feeling. As far as preparing myself mentally, I have a sports psychologist I work with. I do lots of meditation with my mom. She’s heavy on the mental stuff. She makes sure I’m doing lots of visualization. There are many athletes who get in their heads and get super quiet before they compete—just put on headphones and don’t talk to anyone. That’s not me. I’m laughing, I’m cracking jokes seconds before I’m about to take the biggest jump of my life. At trials, I was making a joke with the official about how I didn’t have a girlfriend or something like that. I was messing around literally seconds before I was about to take a jump that I’d spent five years of my life training for. When I ground myself in these big moments, it’s just being myself, having a good time, laughing. That’s me. I know how I’m going to combat the nerves and anxiety. I’m just going to be myself.
What was it like getting your first running blade?
I got it when I was about 4 years old. My family went to the park and we ran around for a little bit, figured it out, played around with it. It’s very interesting because I still do the same thing when we make an adjustment. We go to the park, we go to the track, we go to an open area and I run around and figure things out the same way I did before. Not much has changed about the process.
How did you choose a prosthetic leg for competition? What goes into that decision?
For above-the-knee amputees, the leg basically consists of three parts. The socket—where the stump or nub goes—is what holds it, and that’s where you have control. You can move it around. Then there’s the knee. There are tons of different knees, but the majority of the top athletes use the same one. And then there are lots of different blade manufacturers. The blade is the place where most of the adjustments are made—the angle, steepness. Some people customize theirs. There are certain ones for long jumping and sprinting—ones that are split down the middle so you can run the curve better. You want to find what you feel most comfortable and fastest on, that’s the big thing. Once you’ve chosen a blade, then it’s about optimizing, maximizing, and dialing in that setup.
For us, we moved the blade back a little bit so I could get the most compression out of it, then we adjusted the alignment of the knee. My femur turns a little bit when I run, so we adjusted that a few degrees to the left so we knew when the blade was coming back down on the ground, it was hitting perfectly straight. Those are just a few basics. We were making adjustments all the way up until three weeks before trials, which I don’t recommend any other athlete do, but somehow it worked out. I was able to adapt pretty quickly.
Why did you pick your three events?
The Paralympics is interesting because there are so many different classifications, or people with different disability types. As far as my classification for people missing their legs, I have the 100-meter, long jump, high jump, and javelin. I competed in track since I was 8, and when I was younger, my dad and I would fly across the country for these big national track meets. He would sign me up for every single event. I did the 60-, 100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter, long jump, high jump, discus, javelin, shot put. Everything.
He’s like, “If we’re coming all the way out to Madison, Wisconsin, we’re doing every single event.”
So we did every event for a while, then I settled down and focused strictly on the high jump for a few years there. But just this year, I started to focus on all three. That was a cool little transition we made through the pandemic.
A lot of the athletes I compete against only do the 100-meter or only do the long jump and 100-meter. The high jump is vastly different. None of the top guys have danced over to the high jump side. It definitely makes for difficult days and difficult competition schedule, but I think that’s what adds this cool complexity to the story. I love these three events so much.
Looking beyond the Paralympics, what are your athletic goals?
I want to be a gold medalist and a world record holder in all three of those events, and I want to do it in L.A. at the Paralympic games in my hometown in 2028. I think it works perfectly and it’s a beautiful storyline. I’ll be 23. I’ll be in my prime, and I’ll have taken over the sport where I once was the 16-year-old underdog going up against these top guys. My goal is, after Tokyo and heading into Paris, to continue to climb my way up in rankings. then eventually begin to dominate this whole sport. By 2028, I’ll come out and take three gold medals and three world records with me, and then maybe I retire after that. Who knows what’s next?
How did you start Angel City Sports?
It goes back to those track meets where we were flying all around the country. There were no adaptive sports in Los Angeles. That’s why we were flying everywhere. My dad was at my first trial competition, and he looked around and he was like, “Why the hell are we coming to Tornado Alley in tornado season to run, jump, and throw stuff?” So that was where the idea began. It sparked a fire in my dad and my family.
Fast forward a few years, and we had our first games. We called it the Angel City Games; Angel City as in Los Angeles. And then from then on, we’ve built this community of clinics, competition, support groups, this beautiful community of adaptive athletes. Now we’re helping thousands of athletes, providing sports for so many people, and giving out blades and prosthetic legs.
We’re just helping a community that really needs it. It’s important to me because I know that, yes, I was very lucky that I was able to travel around to all these competitions, but that’s not the case for many of these athletes. So we provide sports equipment, training, and competition year-round for athletes with physical disabilities in Southern California.
But it’s much larger than sports. Living with a disability isn’t easy at all. You constantly feel like an outsider. There are people staring at you 24/7 everywhere you go in public. You can feel really alone, and so to have this community where people in wheelchairs, people missing a leg or arms, can go and they’re not outsiders, that’s huge. This is a community they belong in.
Who inspires you?
There are a lot of people who inspire me. This is a very unconventional answer, but someone who I will attempt to emulate is Conor McGregor. He put UFC on the map and brought so many eyeballs to the sport. The Paralympics is at this point where it’s starting to get mainstream media attention. I feel I’m capable of bringing lots of eyes to the movement. The Paralympics are not as big as they could be, but the Games are so inspiring to watch. It’s so interesting to see these half-cyborg dudes running as fast as they can, you know? That’s if we’re dumbing it down to the most basic explanation, but it’s a beautiful movement. He also inspires me because he was the underdog. No one really expected him to do what he did, then he went out and became a sports icon. Me and him have very different personalities, of course. I don’t want to do it by talking trash. But for me, it’s the eyeballs. It’s the legacy. It’s the impact.
If you had to give one piece of advice to aspiring athletes, what would it be?
Anything is possible with hard work and dedication. I mean, at 11 years old I told my parents I was going to make the 2020 Tokyo team. I told everyone, in fact. And some of them believed me, while some of them thought I was just a cute 11-year-old kid saying his dreams out loud. Little did they know I was completely serious about that dream. I’ve sacrificed so much to get to this point, and I’ll only continue to do that as the years go on, but it just goes to show anything is possible. The odds of that 11-year-old making the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic team were slim. The odds were not in my favor. But the odds haven’t been in my favor my entire life.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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