For years, Dartanyon Crockett was told it was Leber’s disease that rendered him legally blind. But recently, he learned that’s not the real cause of the disability he likens to severe nearsightedness. He knows of some confirmed congenital conditions that limit his focus to about 4 feet. There may be more.
“I’m waiting on a diagnosis from an ophthalmologist to confirm what condition I actually have,” the 25-year-old judo Paralympian said recently. “I was actually wrongly diagnosed.”
That’s happened to Crockett before. According to his friend and sometimes de facto manager Lisa Fenn, Crockett’s school records from back in inner-city Cleveland are full of statements suggesting his athletic and academic potential were limited. A better read of the situation would have determined that his potential was being blunted—and not just by whatever condition affected his eyesight.
When Crockett was 8, his mother died of an aneurysm. Over the next 10 years, he lived with various family members and friends in some of Cleveland’s rougher neighborhoods. At the high school he attended, Lincoln-West, 75 percent of students qualify for the federal free lunch program, and as few as 40 percent earn a diploma. Crockett would carry his best friend, Leroy Sutton, down the hallways on his back because the school had no elevator—Sutton had lost his legs when hit by a train at age 11.
Despite their hardships, both young men thrived on the school’s wrestling team, and their story caught the attention of ESPN, where Fenn was a producer. A documentary on their friendship, Carry On, came out in 2009; when USA Judo coach Ed Liddie saw it, he invited them to Colorado Springs. After testing and spending time with the coaching staff, Crockett was offered a spot at the Olympic Training Center in 2010.
Fenn, who by then had decided she wouldn’t walk away from her film subjects (see “Carrying On” below), says she and Crockett talked at length about the opportunity presented through judo. The sport was still something of a mystery to him, but Fenn says, “He knew this was his path out of poverty.”
Soon he fell in love with the sport, despite all the ways it differs from wrestling. (Those differences range from the use of footwear to how a match is scored.) No one expected Crockett to compete for a Paralympic berth until 2016, but even after losing six months of training to a broken ankle right out of the gate, he qualified for London in 2012. Then he won bronze in the 90-kg (198-pound) class.
His pace has hardly slowed. Crockett earned the 2014 world title, but more importantly, he has become “self-sufficient,” in Fenn’s words. Among other achievements, he has given inspirational speeches all over the world; organized coat drives for locals in need; and even taught himself to play saxophone by watching YouTube videos. Fenn says about six weeks after receiving the instrument as a gift, Crockett called and stunned her with a rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely.”
Crockett has also been studying at Pikes Peak Community College, moving toward a degree in social work. He says he wants to work on the clinical side, perhaps helping drug addicts. “I want to be right there, watching someone heal,” he says. “Or trying to be the living difference to help them find that path.”
That may take place in Colorado Springs. Crockett says he loves it here, that he’s found a “great group of people” and could imagine putting down roots.
But first, Rio. When asked what he’s most looking forward to about this summer’s trip, he says: “It’s not going to be the beaches; I’m not a fan of the beaches. It’s not going to be the women; I have myself a wonderful woman. It’s not going to be the experience of being in Rio. It’s going to be competing.”
Dartanyon Crockett sometimes calls Lisa Fenn his “momager.” On the manager side, she handles his scheduling and some of his interview requests. On the mom side, she gives him advice, guides him in learning life skills and still cries when she talks about him winning bronze at the 2012 Paralympic Games.
But no single word can aptly describe the relationship between this muscle-bound black wrestler from the Cleveland ghettos and the slender white female film producer from the other side of the same city. To do that, you’d need thousands of words—enough to fill a HarperCollins hardcover.
Fenn’s memoir, Carry On: A Story of Resilience, Redemption and an Unlikely Family, releases Tuesday, Aug. 16. At 6 p.m. that day, Crockett, Fenn and third “family” member Leroy Sutton will appear at the Tattered Cover Bookstore in Littleton to celebrate the book’s release. That’s just about three weeks before Crockett competes in the 2016 Paralympics.
Looking further down the road, Los Angeles-based Walden Media has acquired screen rights to Fenn’s book, along with the “life rights” to Crockett and Sutton. The script reportedly will be written by Nate Parker, the director, producer and star of The Birth of a Nation, a story of slave revolt that swept the top awards at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.