Super Jason Smyth still a class apart

It was three years ago at a track meet in Lyon that Jason Smyth and his team first came across a lanky Namibian by the name of Johannes Nambala. Gangly and fast while wobbly and technically poor, it was a combination that meant room for improvement and therefore slight concern.

The addition of Frankie Fredericks as a mentor in the lead up to these Games exaggerated those thoughts to the point that more than at any time in his Paralympic career, there was a feeling the Derry man could be threatened.

You’d think by now we’d know not to doubt him.

In the final of the 100m yesterday, Smyth blew out from the blocks and never looked threatened even as the gap closed across the final strides.

His time of 10.64 may have been outside his own world best set four years ago, but the 29-year-old was a class apart, finishing a safe 0.19 seconds ahead of the man that was expected to rival him.

Now unbeaten in 12 Paralympic seasons, it meant gold medal number five, his status as the fastest Paralympian on the planet maintained, and his status in terms of Ireland’s great sportspeople enhanced ever further.

When it comes to Irish track and field we’ve built up a reputation of producing flaky athletes, prone to inconsistency, used to excuses.

But it’s that which makes Smyth’s brilliant steadiness all the more enjoyable and it’s that which mean we should enjoy and treasure him more than we already do.

“Over the moon,” he said afterwards before making his way to the now familiar surrounds of the top of the podium.

“It is like a fairytale, I keep coming to these major championships and winning. I don’t want the fairytale to end, thankfully it doesn’t and it just keeps getting better. Everything was good before the race, obviously the turnaround time between heats and the final wasn’t ideal, it was quite quick.

"But I’ve run fast this year, I feel I got through the heats well, doing enough without killing myself, and today I knew I had to step it up another notch. I felt like I was able to do that.”

Oddly enough, it was the schedule rather than the competition that ended up his biggest challenge, what with the semi-finals of the race late on Thursday and the final on yesterday just after 11am local time.

It seemed scant respect for the man who is essentially the Usain Bolt of these Games, but it left those around Smyth with another concern. “It was a quick turnaround, he wouldn’t be use to that,” smiled team manager James Nolan afterwards. “So it wasn’t ideal, he wouldn’t be a morning person.”

Not home and showered then until midnight on Thursday, up at 6.45am yesterday “in order to give the body time to wake up as running 10-second pace you need to be alert,” Nolan added.

So it was a half-asleep breakfast, a bus to the stadium, an hour and 45 minutes of a warm-up that got gradually quicker, 30 minutes of relaxation and music, and the call to the waiting room with little under an hour to go. Even the biggest history lies at the end of a series of the little and mundane things.

“Double gold in Beijing and London,” said Smyth, “the next attempt was double gold here but I’ve known for a few years it wouldn’t be here [as his 200m was scrapped from the schedule] and I’ve well let it go at this stage. It’s disappointing but the T13 category is one of the quicker events and for spectators you want to see fast times and fast people and it’s disappointing they miss that opportunity as well.

“As for the atmosphere, you reflect back on London and the atmosphere there was better in my honest opinion. We’re here, half the stadium is full. But look, it’s great to be here and every Games brings something different.”

Yet just off the track he was already talking about Tokyo, about his lack of progression since 2012, about how this was year one of a five-year cycle to bring him to the next level and he hopes an Olympics he missed out on by a fraction just four years ago.

And that’s the thing about Smyth and about all the best athletes, they’ve no time to look back when that time can be used to look ahead.

He’s been like that in life too as, after his parents noticed him squinting and getting closer to objects as a child and took him to the optician to get glasses to solve the problem, he was diagnosed with the degenerative visual disease Stargardt’s.

It means today he can’t shave, he can’t go to new areas alone, he can’t read, and he struggles in the supermarket without help finding items.

“At least it means my wife has to do the shopping,” he laughed when talking to the Irish Examiner earlier in the year, “as I can claim it would take me hours.” It’s an existence he’s met head on with a shrug of the shoulders because it’s almost all he’s known.

The same could be said for him being a Paralympic champion. But if he’s used to it, we shouldn’t be for this yet again is something truly special.

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