Jason Smyth’s journey from a life altering eye disease to becoming the fastest paralympian in the world may be the stuff of a Hollywood screenplay but the Northern Ireland speedster is still rooted in reality...
IT was only the heats and as the fastest man in his world, it was supposed to be little more than a warm-up for Jason Smyth. He heard the blast of the gun and the thud of his feet pounding the London track.
In finals, the great conundrum for a sprinter is you try and force yourself to go faster when in fact you need to be relaxed to achieve just that, but in the first round of the 2012 Paralympics, the Derry man felt no pressure and knew this was quick.
Then, suddenly, he considered maybe not quick enough. “Who the fuck is that?” he thought as a flash passed him on his left. Only after breaking the world record did he realise the blur was in fact the camera that runs alongside on a rail. He was still the fastest man in his world. His world. It’s a place that can be hard for us to comprehend, the easy perception being it’s a dark and lonely and angry existence where the simplest task known to us is an ordeal, the simplest pleasure known to us an impossibility. Do you feel sorry for him? Should you feel sorry for him? Should you know better?
At home he got a second TV because for him to watch “means nobody else can” as he has to pull his chair to within inches of the screen. He can’t read books. Cutting his nails is a two man job where he’s just the subject. If he’s in a new area he can’t go anywhere alone. If he’s in a new restaurant he can’t eat alone unless he takes a photo of the menu, texts it and then takes a phone call about what’s on offer. But he’s smiling when he says it means his wife has to do all the shopping because it would take him hours although she might get him back some day as she must shave him as he can’t see his sideburns. “She could do anything and I’d never know.”
Besides, it’s not that which makes him angry at all. This is why we don’t get him and maybe we don’t want to get him for while we freely offer up cheap and easy pity for something he had no say in, no one has offered up a whole lot of recognition for something he’s dedicated his life to against all odds. Over all the years we’ve seen the disability, but rarely the long list of remarkable achievements showing the massive ability.
He’s sitting in a lobby in a Rio de Janeiro hotel now, a city he hopes to light up in 2016, and while no one recognises him here, no one tends to at home either. Ireland has the fastest Paralympian there’s ever been, a double gold medallist in 2008 and 2012 yet he’s largely been ignored. Worse still, in this Paralympian we’ve one of the great and uplifting stories but still nobody’s taken much notice. Consider that for a minute. “I’ll be honest, the money has been annoying,” he sighs about it. “If you want to look at what I’ve achieved over the last 10 years, I couldn’t have done anything more. I’ve won everything in Paralympic sport. Coming off the back of London, sitting here three years on and no sponsorship? I can’t do more but I’m not seeing rewards.
“I guess before everything that happened people looked at someone like Oscar Pistorius and saw him making it big. To be fair he made the Olympics and I didn’t. That’s a huge difference in what he achieved. Getting more sponsors came with that. Maybe people’s perception is that I’m making money and living as a successful sports person’s lifestyle. I can’t speak for every country but definitely at home the rewards in Ireland, well it’s all over the world, the rewards for me versus an Olympic gold medallist are not even in the same league. But there definitely is an aspect of the more visually striking person too. If you put a picture of me up, I don’t look any different from the man on the street. But a picture of someone with no legs, there is that image of Paralympic sport. That visual aspect does benefit the athletes trying to get more sponsorship and things of that nature. Definitely.”
Of course he could have made the last Olympics having run a wind-assisted A standard and two B standards but Irish selectors decided against secondary times. “But the flip-side is I learned a lot from not making it,” he adds. “You come off the back of it and learn to fight, get back up, work hard, keep going. I remember my coach saying by not making it, I grew more as an athlete than if I had. But for me I want to achieve that now as I reflect back on London. So going forward to Rio, it’s what I want to do. I need 10.16, my best is 10.22 a few years ago. I’ve had a few years of injury niggles and problems that haven’t allowed me to build but I feel I’ve been able to knock that on the head and work towards the next few months. There’s no reason since I was capable in 2012 that I can’t be capable in 2016.”
With a beach volleyball tournament taking place across the road on the Copacabana beach, the lobby is filled with female players and ogling men trying to be subtle but Smyth is oblivious. They say there’s none so blind as those who don’t listen in which case he has the best vision in the place. It’s called Stargardt’s disease. He can’t look straight at you though for the middle of his eyes failed to function. Instead, if he catches you out of the corner he can make out your shape.
“The question is probably what way it affects me,” he says before you can ask, having fielded this over and over, “and it’s always a hard one to describe. Basically the central vision is what’s affected, that’s the part that gives you the distance and quality. I use the periphery of my eye so it looks like I’m not looking at you. So for me to look at you clearly, I’m looking over here. Then the detail and quality of what I see is far less. If I’m to see anything it has to be up close. This room key for instance, I can see colour but no information.
“I describe it sometimes as if you take a photo with a camera but it’s badly out of focus, everything is blurry. I often see outlines of things with the colour contrast and that’s how I learn from the outline and colour rather than details. But the disease is genetic. I was diagnosed when I was about eight. My granddad had the eye condition. My Mom was a carrier of the gene, so was my Dad, and I got it. They generally talk about two age brackets if it’ll come out that are most likely. For me I was young and they talk about seven to early teenage years and the opposite is 60, 65, that range. My Granddad didn’t get it until then, he always had it but it didn’t come out. Me, I didn’t have to wait.” So how does an eight-year-old boy deal with going blind? His parents initially noticed he was moving closer to objects to see them so they went to an opticians presuming a pair of glasses would solve the problem. Little did they know as a simple day turned into a hospital trip. “I was aware to a certain extent but I don’t think you appreciate what it fully means and maybe my parents found it harder because they knew what life’s about and the challenges this would bring.
“At that age you just get on with it. I can remember plenty of times thinking ‘why me’ or what did I do at eight to have to deal with such a life-changing experience. But I think that’s normal. I think it’s worse having had vision too but when I look back I don’t remember seeing anyway. Had I gone to 20, experienced life and then had to adapt it would have been harder. At eight life was still changing, you’re happy-go-lucky. But the older you get, it would be difficult to deal with. But from my experience the hardest part is learning to accept it.” “Have you?” you ask him.
“Oh yeah, but it took me a while. At this stage I can talk about it and you can make a joke and it won’t bother me in the slightest. It is what it is, although they can’t say what it’ll do next. I was told when I was diagnosed I could end up going completely blind or it could stay stable.
“Over that time I would say it has got a little worse but not hugely. But as I’ve said many times, everyone deals with different challenges and it’s just about trying to do the best you can. But those teenage years, when you’re trying to fit in but being involved in Paralympic sport helped me a lot because that highlighted the issue, if I wanted to be in it I had to be comfortable with what it is, the disabilities, the reality. The other side, because you’ve to overcome and go beyond something, it teaches you things you wouldn’t learn any other way. I always find with struggles and challenges and having to really overcome something, you become a stronger person for that. That’s held me in good stead on all other things I’ve faced.”
Another part of what’s helped him has been his religion. When interviewing Northern Irish athletes, a journalist is usually drawn to the two sides of the tracks. But Smyth is a Mormon, indeed about 60 years ago his grandparents were among the first converts to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Derry. “I don’t look at people differently over what they believe and maybe that’s opened my mind to consider life differently too,” he says of it. But across the early years of his living with his disability he was determined to hide the truth from everyone as if to hide it from himself.
Smyth only took up athletics at 16, and trained twice a week without anyone noticing he had an issue. “I can get away with walking past and interacting and people just think he doesn’t look at me that much, maybe he’s shy.”
Despite the late start and the vision issues and the repression of the truth, he soon reached the standard for the U18 Commonwealth games, won Irish schools titles and learned he was quick. Really quick.
When eventually the idea of Paralympic sport came about, he questioned it. “My perception back then was special Olympics, Paraylmpics, it all seemed not cool to me as a teenage boy, not what I wanted to be seen in. It was just a perception in my mind rather than the reality but it took me a while to understand it and to think yes actually, I would be interested. That was a bit down to accepting my eye condition and I didn’t want people saying he’s over there because he’s different. I was desperate to be the same. That’s how I thought but I think the perception has changed, especially after London. But you also learn it’s always going to be there, I have to live my life with this or if I don’t, I let it stunt my life. You make that choice and deal with things. Even with athletics it makes things very different and you find a way or quit.
“It has to affect everything I do. You can see blurs racing, different colours. Coming to the finish line, a lot of times you’ll find athletes dip but for me it’s hard, it could be too early or too late. Another thing, if the track is wet, the glare on the water from the lights is difficult to deal with.”
But more than the actual race it’s the day to day, the training, the analysis, the video work. Most coaches film sessions and then go through the technique on a screen afterwards but with Smyth that’s not possible. In the gym athletes will work in front of a mirror to see what they’re doing right and wrong but that can’t happen with him. In fact a big part of sprinting is plyometrics which involves power work through jumping on blocks and over hurdles. When Smyth has done it, he’s had more than a few accidents when gashing his legs on metal corners as he doesn’t have the perception of height or a proper sense of the relationship between where he is in relation to another object.
“I tend to have to learn to do something different. When you don’t know the other side, it’s hard to have a full appreciation of being able to compare. I feel like it’s normal and I don’t know another way. At times I think wouldn’t it be great, to be able to see and do things normally? But then I realise that I don’t know if my eyesight has ever made me think I want to throw in the towel. The silly thing is I can sit here and say my eyesight has been a lesson in my life. That’s the place I’ve been able to go to, from dealing with it to the extent I sit here now and can genuinely say if I had the choice I wouldn’t change it. I feel that’s quite a long way to come from such a life-changing experience.”
Much more than a mere 100 metres although it’s been all those 10-and-a-half seconds that have made him different rather than any vision issues. Away from the track, he just wakes up and lives his life. Don’t you do the same?
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