Smyth's Olympic quest won't curb his Paralympic career

 

PARALYMPICSSPRINTER JASON Smyth doesn't really recall the details of the 200 metres race he won to clinch his second gold medal at the Beijing Paralympics this week. But he remembers standing on the podium wearing the tricolour very well indeed.

"I don't think it's sunk in yet. I felt relief. I was glad everything worked out as we wanted. The whole year that we put in so much time and effort had paid off. Yes!" he said.

The 21-year-old Derry sprinter won the 100 metres in the category for visually impaired athletes, in 10.62 seconds, beating the world record he set in the qualifying heat of 10.81. In the 200 metres, Smyth won in 21.43, a hefty 0.38 of a second ahead of the world mark he set in qualifying.

Smyth is relaxed after his big performances, but he is a laid-back kind of guy. Even when his hamstring was bad enough that he might have had to pull out of the 200 metres final, he was calm, said his coach, Stephen Maguire from Strabane.

We meet at Silk Alley, a shopping highlight in Beijing, and do the interview, fittingly enough, in a branch of Irish sandwich chain, O'Brien's. The two men are tickled when a shop assistant in the market asked them "Conas atá tú?" as they walked through the stalls.

Smyth is second only to Paul Hession in the mainstream Irish rankings and the next phase in his career will be trying to qualify for the Olympics in London in 2012.

"He lets me do the planning, and he does the running," says Maguire. "For this to evolve, we have to have the Olympics in mind without losing sight of the Paralympics, because that's where Jason is getting his fame. That's the bread and butter and the Olympics will be lovely when they happen, but the whole Paralympic experience has blown us away.

"The focus of preparation has to be both really, but it would be very arrogant of us were we not to focus on the Paralympics, because that's where we're winning the medals. It's unlikely he'll be an Olympic gold medallist. The target will be to qualify for the Olympics and maybe get through a round. And that won't be in the 100 metres, it will be either 400 metres or 4x400 relay."

Smyth has Stargardt's Disease, a hereditary degenerative visual impairment that affects central vision but does not affect peripheral vision. This means he can watch TV if sitting right up close, but can't read subtitles. On the track, he has difficulty seeing the track lines in wet conditions, for example.

"I don't know if my condition really does affect my performance, but then I don't know if that's because that's the only way I've ever known to run. I don't feel it affects me," said Smyth.

Maguire said it mostly affects the way Smyth prepares for events, things like special awareness in the gym, lifting weights, or doing hurdles.

"Judging distance is a problem. Jason never dips for the line because he can't see it, it comes up that quick. We had to just forget about that end and say he runs the 110 metres or 210 metres, and he loses bits and bobs there. He's been beaten in races where people have outdipped him," said Maguire.

Another Paralympian with Stargardt's Disease is US distance runner Marla Runyan, who became the first legally blind track athlete to take part in the Olympics in 2000, in the 1,500 metres. She set 10 Paralympic world records in track and field events.

Smyth is wary of role models.

"Not many people would really inspire me, to be honest. I enjoy watching it and like the story, and I respect what they do," said Smyth, who got involved in running in 2003. Until then he played soccer and that remains his sport of choice.

"The one thing I wanted to as a kid, as a dream, I always wanted to play for Liverpool. But as I got older, you know it ain't going to work," said Smyth.

Smyth could have opted for either Ireland or Britain, but the British didn't seem to have the same seriousness of approach and didn't do their homework on the kind of times he was running.

He opted for Ireland because the Irish efforts to win him over were more serious, and Finbar Kirwan from the Irish Sports Council offered the best deal in terms of independence and flexibility. And there was a generous stipend as well, though that was not a primary consideration.

"The money was important and will continue to be important because it's his career, but at the beginning we didn't even work it out," said Maguire.

A text message from Ricky Sims, the Donegal-born manager of world 100 and 200 metre champion Usain Bolt hailed Smyth as "the Bolt of the Paralympics".

"It's nice to be compared to Bolt. But I haven't thought it about too much. It's just me."