"Family over everything."
These are the words inked on the right bicep of UNC track and field star Madias Loper. The fifth-year thrower has lived by these words throughout his entire career, honoring his family through his work in the community and in social justice initiatives.
When he was growing up, his mom made him write papers about historical Black figures and his family often traveled to civil rights landmarks. He was driven to make an impact after learning the history of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, which triggered his passion for diversity, equity and inclusion.
“Being separated and being talked down to and oppressed just because of the way that they looked was something I never grasped the concept of,” Loper said. “It has always motivated me to stand up for people and what is right. I never want to promote any narrative other than that I think everyone deserves an equal opportunity to be the best that they can be.”
Loper's childhood experiences motivated him throughout his time at UNC, where he has made an impact on the campus community.
He has developed his speaking voice, something he said he did not always possess, by leading his teammates on the field and speaking at social justice panels. He leans on his vulnerability, retelling personal anecdotes to move his audience.
Following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police brutality, Loper used his voice to lead Black Lives Matter protests on Franklin Street in the summer of 2020. He also held meetings to distribute BLM t-shirts among the track and field team.
“While I was the one with the microphone and the speaker in my hand, the thing that is so special about those kinds of things is the community,” Loper said. “That impact would not have been as prevalent if we didn’t have everyone in the community wanting to fight for what is right.”
Two years later, Loper was nationally recognized for his work when he was invited on a trip to Selma and Montgomery, Alabama with 47 other athletes in the ACC. He characterized the experience as one of his most life-changing moments, as he talked with people who once marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and visited the Equal Justice Initiative Legacy Museum in Montgomery, where he learned more about the history of racism in the United States.
Through his work, Loper was honored with the 2022 RAMMY Diversity and Inclusion Award. He held on to the award for about three weeks before giving it to his mom, calling it a testament to her.
“I don’t do the work that I do for any type of recognition,” he said. “I want everyone that comes to Carolina to feel like they can be themself. That’s more important than any award I can get.”
Learning to be true to himself has been an important part of Loper’s life. With his father in the army, he moved around a lot as a child, which helped him explore different cultures and ways of living. As a student at the Air Force Academy Preparatory School in Colorado, he understood the importance of teamwork and learned to lean on those around him through his military upbringing.
“It’s played a tremendous role in my life,” Loper said. “It taught me a lot about work ethic and the concept of servant leadership. If I have a team around me, I'm only as good as my weakest link.”
As a thrower, he struggled with self-doubt his entire career. He started throwing in middle school, but he said he was always the worst on the team. He mainly used track and field to develop his football skills and only began prioritizing throwing in his sophomore year of high school.
This doubt reached its peak when his shins began hurting during training. He was diagnosed with chronic shin splints and he broke his leg one month later. Entering UNC with this injury, he learned to enjoy life away from the track, going on walks and jogs as he recovered.
“Within myself, it really showed me what it meant to be resilient, to be patient, to actually trust the process,” he said. “It really helped me believe in myself to achieve things that I couldn't achieve. It made me understand that I shouldn’t take any opportunity for granted.”
Amin Nikfar, Loper’s throwing coach at UNC, was inspired most by his unrelenting positivity. Even while facing these injuries, he kept looking forward and worked to overcome them. He believes Loper leaves a legacy on the program with his leadership and community work.
“The biggest inspiration with him is that it's about more than sport,” Nikfar said. “This is about life.”
In January, Loper joined a group of UNC athletes to create the Student-Athletes Facilitating Equity program, which aims to create hard conversations about social issues and encourage students to be themselves. Loper hopes to build a more inclusive University by offering space and resources to anyone who desires to learn what it is like to be African American at a predominantly white university.
“As student-athletes, we are often perceived or we often measure ourselves as to what we can do on the field or on the court,” Loper said. “I think, more importantly, we need to accept every athlete or every person for who they are, not for what they can do.”
Michael Spragley, Loper's track and field teammate and co-founder of SAFE, described Loper as one of the "best examples" of Black excellence both on and off the field, bringing unmatched energy and passion for his work.
“He really brings, just honestly, the courage to say what needs to be said,” Spragley said. “We always need somebody who's a great leader and not afraid to say what's on his mind, even talk about the important things that people are afraid to talk about.”
Due to the injuries that he battled his entire career, Loper recently decided to medically retire from throwing to give his body a rest and prepare for the future. He will graduate from UNC in May and begin his Master’s of Accounting at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School in June.
Even as he moves away from the sport, Loper said he is in a great head space and is excited to continue making an impact in the future.
“I never attached how far I threw or what I was able to accomplish to my identity,” Loper said. “I have so much work that I'm able to do and I have so much more work to do. And I'm really excited to step into that next chapter.”
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