'I know where I'm going, who I am - that makes me strong'
ATHLETICS:If Jason Smyth’s ambitions run true, the humble Derry man will become the first athlete to compete in an Olympics and Paralympics in the same summer, writes JOHNNY WATTERSON
THE MORTON Stadium running track is red with mottled pools of clear grey water. Inside Jason Smyth is hunched up in a warm coat looking sheepish. Cold is not a sprinter’s thing.
In his head there is an ever-present light bulb with the number 10.18 inside. It will not go away. It is the London 2012 qualifying time. It sits there all the time and is Smyth’s life’s project over the next eight months. At 10.22 over 100 metres he is four hundredths of a second off the figure in the light. Only 10.18 seconds will switch it off.
Unfussed by the parameters that define his disability, Smyth is the 100m and 200m Beijing Paralympian Champion and world record holder, the first Paralympic athlete to run in the European Championships, where he made the semi-finals and, if his ambitions run true, he will become the first athlete to compete in an Olympics and Paralympics in the same summer. He is . . . famous, celebrated, feted. Don’t ask.
Today, though, is cause for reflection, or perhaps a day of reinforcement. As he stares out the door, rain hammering on the thin roof and drowning out conversation, he knows his decision to take flight to Florida for six months and into the arms of Tyson Gay may have been the best he has ever made. The months ahead are all about Paul Hession’s 2007 Irish record set in Vaala, four one hundredths of a second.
“It’s about time to get out of this place, huh? That,” he says glancing up at the wall of noise, “is one of the reasons to be out of here.”
Smyth believes he can trim the time. He believes in a work ethic that can only be achieved in Florida, where in the warmth his muscles lend themselves to more stress, greater work loads. But his vapour trail has dimmed. His first World Championships in Daegu during the summer for the double Paralympic champion was a knockback. He failed to progress from his heat finishing fifth in 10.57, albeit into a -1.7 headwind. It was well short of his 10.22 personal best.
“What I need is 10.18,” he states with a hint of hunger in his voice. “Last season I started off really well. That 10.22 was my second race out. From there I picked up a few issues. Camps and things didn’t work out during the summer. I don’t like to make excuses but I don’t think after we came back from Florida in June this year we got a good run in to the World Championships because I never kicked on.
“I know if I can run 10.22 early season there is no reason why I can’t go into the 10.1s. You’re supposed to kick on a wee bit. The others, they will tell you what they think you will run just by training with you. They would definitely have said that I’d run 10.18. They are the best people to know.”
“They” are the training group at the National Training Centre in Clermont, Florida, where the 24-year-old from Eglinton, just outside Derry City, has now found himself. Gay, a world champion at 100m and 200m and the only man other than Usain Bolt to run under 9.70 is the figurehead. Four of the others, Keston Bledman, Travis Padgett, Steve Mullings and Nickel Ashmeade, a mix of Caribbean and American athletes, have all run sub-10 seconds.
Smyth moved to Florida full-time over winter in 2010, along with his coach Stephen Maguire, who knew Gay’s coach Lance Brauman. But Gay and Smyth have another common interest other than the nerdy world of sprint technique and weights. The American is a Christian who believes it, wears it, and preaches it since his early years at St John Missionary Baptist Church. A modest and respectful athlete, Gay is a counterpoint to the previous US sprinter stereotype – world-class and mouthy.
There, similar worlds collide. Smyth is understated and unwilling to glorify any of his medals or world records, although he does concede to an inner feeling of “satisfaction” when he stands on the podium. He is not demonstrable and “not the sort of person who shows emotion”. The guiding light is his family and the Church of Christ and the Latter Day Saints. The word faith falls into the conversation like an apostrophe.
“It might sound harsh but I don’t really care what people think,” he says. “My drive comes from . . . my family . . . I’d be religious so I’d see that I have been blessed with a talent and an opportunity to excel at something. I feel I’ve to give everything, finish knowing I have achieved everything I could and not look back with regrets.
“I think it is a God-given talent but I don’t think I’m going to be the best man in the world. To me it’s about being the best you can be. My religious beliefs, they give me a real strength in knowing who I am, what I believe. In a way, in the grand scheme of things sometimes things are not about you or in your control. There’s just a greater being guiding you.”
Perhaps a too obvious parallel is Eric Liddell, the devout Scottish missionary and rugby international, who won a gold medal in the 1924 Paris Olympic Games and whose story is depicted in the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. Liddell would not run in the 100-yards heats because they were scheduled for a Sunday and instead ran in the 400-yards, where he won the gold medal. Fifty-six years later, Scotsman Allan Wells won the 100m in the 1980 Moscow Olympics and dedicated his victory to Liddell.
Smyth does not train on a Sunday and will not do “random” races on the Sabbath, although in modern athletics there is no way around it from the national championships up to major meetings.
“I believe that God made me for a purpose. But He also made me fast, and when I run, I feel His pleasure,” says Liddell in the film.
“Yeah,” nods Smyth.
Thoughtful and earnest, he knows the begging question is the mystery of the God that gave him the ability to run so fast and also Stargardt’s Disease, from which he suffers. A genetic disorder that has slowly and irrevocably reduced his vision to the point where he has less than 10 per cent of perfect eyesight, Smyth is legally blind.
“I understand,” he says of what some might view as an anomaly. “Funnily I look at my eyesight (problem) being nearly a blessing in what I’m able to do. In a weird way if I did have my eyesight I probably wouldn’t be in athletics, maybe me and my eyesight was for a reason. I very much believe that with my eyesight a door might close but another will open somewhere else.
“I was eight years old when I was diagnosed with it. I didn’t find it hard because I was so young and didn’t understand. I know my mum would have found it hard. That’s pretty much the way it was. From there I grew to live with it.
“It can be very difficult at times. I mean simple things like not being able to drive. I’m very much dependent on someone else all the time. I can’t look someone straight in the eye, or, somebody could be three metres away and I’m not sure who it is. I’m always relying on people to come to me.
“A lot of times you could walk past me and think ‘jeez he’s wild ignorant’ or ‘wild arrogant’. The reality is I don’t see you. A lot of people wouldn’t know that just by looking at me. Again you learn. That’s just the way it is. What’s the point of beating yourself up?”
When Smyth runs in a straight line sight is not an insurmountable issue. But if a track is wet it can give off a glare, and make it hard to see lines going round bends over 200m.
In training it has a marked effect. Technically, he can’t see what he is doing in a mirror, or what others are doing, their body positions, posture, balance, start, finish. He is not good at spatial awareness and still has the scar from last year when he hit a box hopping over hurdles in training.
But the months and the life ahead in boot camp Florida, where his skin and eyesight is different but of little consequence, is one in which he revels. Hard work and an almost Spartan regime in which he has to prove himself daily to considerably better athletes does not daunt him. More than that.
It’s “priceless”, he says. If there is any sense of yearning pleasure from Smyth it is in his willingness to run the extra lap, add another kilo to the bench press, convert pain into success.
“You push on and on and on and on,” he says before adding with disarming humility. “For me with my talent if I didn’t achieve as good as I can be I think that’s disrespectful. If you have talent you should use it for good. I can use my talent to let other people see what I believe.
“There is more to life than just sport. People are wandering around life lost. They don’t know where they are going. I know where I’m going, who I am. As a person that makes me strong.”
On the day of the 400-yards final in 1924, Liddell went to the starting blocks, where an American Olympic Team masseur slipped a piece of paper into his hand. On it was a quotation from 1 Samuel 2:30 – “Those who honor me I will honor.”
Although Smyth’s Mormon adherence, similar to that of boxer Katie Taylor and rugby international Andrew Trimble, draw on a basic Christian ethic and may seem unfashionable, the attitude runs close to the original Olympic spirit of Baron Pierre De Coubertin’s muscular Christianity of 1896. The first modern Games were a classical aspiration to combine “the body, will and mind”.
Maybe they are still. But few have done that better than Smyth in, as he sees it, honouring his natural speed, honouring the gifts he has been given with grunt and grind and the soaring ambition of side-by-side Paralympics and Olympics.
Now, far away from prying eyes and the Irish winter all that remains is eight months, and four one hundredths of a second.