Jason Lester ESPY upset winner

Going into Tuesday’s filming of the 2009 ESPY Awards (to be broadcast July 19 on ESPN), the heavy favorite in the category of Best Male Athlete with a Disability was South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius. After all, the double below-the-knee amputee who competes on J-shaped carbon fiber prosthetic legs came just 1.12 second short of the qualifying time for the able bodied Olympics with an astounding 47.05 time in the 400 meter dash. Pistorius took his bad luck in stride, then went and earned gold medals in the 100, 200 and 400 meter dash at the Beijing Paralympics.

“To be honest, I thought he had won and I wanted him to win,” Lester told West Hawaii Today. Lester was among four nominees for this particular ESPY award.

Lester, a 35-year-old Kailua-Kona resident, renowned artist and founder and head of the Never Stop Foundation to promote opportunities for physically challenged athletes, was nominated for finishing four Ironman Triathlons and two Ultraman World Championships with a paralyzed right arm.

When his name was called, Lester was in shock, but recognized his debt to loyal Hawaiian supporters who voted heavily for him in online balloting. “I didn’t come to Hollywood expecting to win,” he told West Hawaii Today. “The thing about the ESPYs is that fans vote and Hawaii got behind me 5,000 percent.”

Long shot Lester thus became the first male triathlete to win one of the famed ESPY Awards presented by ESPN. (Sarah Reinertsen received the 2006 ESPY award as Best Female Athlete with a Disability) The most prestigious among the 41 categories honored were 8-gold-medal Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps for Best Male Athlete and Gymnastics all-around women’s Olympic gold medalist Nastia Liukin.

Lester emerged with courage from tragic childhood circumstances. At age 3, Jason and his 10-year-old brother were abandoned by his abusive, alcoholic mother and had to fend for themselves without electricity or food for days. They were sent to foster homes, and then sent to their biological fathers. By age 12, Jason followed his father’s inclinations and became obsessed with sports. But his a swiftly improving athletic career was interrupted when he was hit by a car and suffering 21 broken bones, a collapsed lung and a paralyzed right arm. Soon after, his father, a talented artist who nurtured Jason’s love of sports, died at age 39, closely followed by the death of his mother.

By 2004, Jason’s art career was blossoming and he opened the JPL Gallery in Manhattan Beach, California. After attending the 2004 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, Lester became inspired to become a triathlete. In April 2007, he finished Ironman Arizona. His most recent athletic accomplishments were finishing Ironman Hawaii last October in 13:07:21 and the three-day, 320-mile Ultraman Hawaii the following month in 24th place with a time of 34 hours 1 minute and 43 seconds.