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100-meter showdown: Team USA vs. Pistorius

Team USA sprinters Jerome Singleton and Blake Leeper will take on South African Oscar Pistorius in the 100-meter final at the Paralympics on Thursday. "I feel like I was meant for this moment," Leeper told NBC News. "Oscar, you'd better be ready because me and my teammates are coming for you."

Although all Olympic and Paralympic sports are exciting to watch, there’s nothing quite like the men’s 100-meter sprint -- blink and you might miss it.

And Thursday's 100-meter final promises to be an especially dramatic showdown, all played out in front of a sold-out 80,000-seat crowd.

Oscar Pistorius is the defending Olympic champion, having won in Beijing in 2008.  His recent outburst after losing the 200-meter race by 0.07 to Brazil’s Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira has been the talk of the Games this week.  Tonight, they’ll face -- and race -- each other again.

But the Brazilian isn’t the only rival that Pistorius has to worry about.

Among the South African’s stiffest competition will be Team USA’s Jerome Singleton and Blake Leeper. Singleton is the current world champion in the 100 meters, beating Pistorius to that title last year. Leeper recently tied Pistorius’ world record 100-meter time of 10.91 seconds.

Singleton characterized his rivalry with Pistorius as epic.

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“Mohammed Ali had Joe Frasier. Larry Bird had Magic Johnson,” he told NBC News. “We’re going to see a phenomenal race. It’s going to be the Paralympic champion, Oscar Pistorius, versus the current world champion, Jerome Singleton,” he said flashing a showman’s smile.

“He’s been one of the only athletes to beat me in six years in the hundred.  He’s definitely a guy who stands up when it matters,” Pistorius said of Singleton.

Brotherhood of rivals
Despite their serious rivalry, these athletes respect and admire each other.

Singleton, 26, told NBC that Pistorius was both “a best friend and a brother” to him.

Julian Stratenschulte / EPA

Alan Fonteles Cardoso Oliveira (L) of Brazil and Oscar Pistorius (R) of South Africa compete in the Men's 200-meter on Sunday. Oliveira won the gold medal and Pistorius the silver.

Leeper said he was inspired to run after watching Singleton and Pistorius race each other in the 100-meter final of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

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“At that point, I’d never run track in my life. To be here now -- four years later in the same race -- is mind-blowing,” he said.  

Michael Steele / Getty Images

Blake Leeper competes in a men's 200-meter race on Saturday, the third day of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

For 23-year-old Leeper, it has been a long road to the Olympics. Born with a congenital birth defect, the Tennessee native was fitted with his first pair of prosthetics at just nine months of age.

“Growing up, I can remember there were times I would come home and ask my mom and dad, ‘Why me? Why does this have to be me?’ The older I got, I realized it’s not 'why me,' it’s … 'why not me?' I feel like I’m meant for this moment. I’m meant for this to happen to me. Oscar, you’d better be ready because me and my teammates, we’re coming for you!” he said.

Sideline scientists 
Singleton and Leeper’s lives off the track are inspiring.

Singleton, now a full-time athlete, was a student when he competed in the Beijing Paralympics.

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Lefteris Pitarakis / AP

Jerome Singleton competes in a men's 200-meter round race at the 2012 Paralympics in London on Saturday.

Although he was proud to win a silver medal in Beijing, he felt it could have been a gold had he been focused on running full-time. So he put his career as a scientist on hold. 

Singleton wasn’t stepping back from just any career. The physics-mathematics double major studied industrial engineering and plans to pursue a doctorate in biomechanics.

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“I’ve actually interned at NASA's Glenn Research Center ... working on a machinery program that was used for the Mars landing,” he said. “I went on to research at CERN in Geneva, Switzerland, where I got to learn about different dimensions in smaller space.” 

For his part, Leeper remembers the moment he decided to fully commit himself to running. He was studying applied physics at the University of Tennessee with plans to develop racing prosthetics.

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Nineteen at the time, Leeper sat his parents down and broke the news that he’d decided to move to Chula Vista, Calif., to train full-time at a specialized facility.

His mother burst into tears.

“Seeing that, it really hurt me, but at the end of the conversation, I still felt the same way,” he said.  “I had to do this. When I realized that even though I could see my mom cry and I still want to do it, I realized this is something I really want in life.”

The men they’re ‘supposed to be’
Leaper and Singleton are aware of their place in history, and the example they are setting for others.  

“Life can be viewed in two ways: As a warning or an example,” Singleton said. “Each day we watch the news and we see warnings of what we shouldn’t do. So we need to provide examples for our communities of what we should do, and be the man we were supposed to be, not one day meet the man we could have been.”

Retired U.S. Marine Angela Madsen once lived out of a locker at Disneyland. But the 52-year-old paraplegic turned her life around and has rowed across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. She's now competing for Team USA at the Paralympic Games in London. Madsen told her story to NBC's Jamieson Lesko.

For Leeper, the whole point of being at the Olympics is to inspire.

“Whether it’s one kid, two kids, three kids that see me, and if I inspire them ... show them that, yeah, I’m different, I have a disability, but as long as you keep a strong mindset and stay focused you can accomplish anything," he said.

“When I was little the doctors told my parents I would never walk. Now I’m here running for my country. If that is not a testimony, I do not know what is,” Leeper added with a huge grin.

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