Mercurial, timeless Smyth in the mix for six

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He’s been making it look so easy to win global medals for so long now that we make the worst of all errors …taking Jason Smyth for granted.

e turned 34 last month so the clock has started ticking more loudly for the fastest man in Paralympic history. He knows someone will catch him eventually in T13 100m and runs a lot slower now than his fastest time of 10:22 seconds from 10 years ago which only Paul Hession’s 10:18 has ever bettered in Irish sprinting.

But don’t mistake his trademark laconic demeanour for resignation. Smyth is not ready to go quietly into the night yet.

For years the Derry sprinter lived the peripatetic lifestyle of an elite, single athlete, competing and training around the world with sprint groups from Florida to Britain.

Now he is settled in Belfast, living in Dunmurry with his wife and young daughters and is on the boards of Netball Northern Ireland and Vision Sport Ireland, a sporting eminence happy now to share his insights. Life has almost come full circle since he first ran for Ireland 16 years ago.

He doesn’t have a coach as such anymore, just cherry-picks advice, particularly from Tom Reynolds and Stephen Maguire, the man who first coached him to glory who is now back in Strabane from UK Athletics and leading Sport Ireland’s high performance coaching programme.

Heat and stillness grease a sprinter’s wheels so Smyth still depends on foreign training camps and races to tune up and they largely went out the window in the past 18 months due to Covid.

But his time of 10:63 at the recent Northern Ireland Championships indicates he’s in the shape to retain his title in Tokyo and add a sixth Paralympic gold to his eight World and six European titles. Stargardt Disease means Smyth has no central vision and depends on very blurry peripheral perception but his disadvantage is so invisible that it’s
underestimated.

What other elite Irish athlete depends on lifts or taxis to get to the track and, from there, takes the train to the Northern Ireland Institute of Sport to continue his work-outs? He’s no longer the only one making sacrifices.

“My family might want to walk around a zoo or go up and down hills. If I decide to do that for a day that messes me up for my next training session or can lead to an injury so it’s a huge amount you give up and not just by me. My wife Elise bears the burden at home, I really couldn’t do it without her.”

Do little Evie (5) and Lottie (3) realise their daddy is the Usain Bolt of the Paralympics? “The oldest gets it more than the younger,” he says, explaining that they’re on holidays in the States at the moment with Elise’s family.

By the time he gets back from the Paralympics he won’t have seen them for two months. That’s just another sacrifice he’s willing to make but how does he keep it up, this unceasing, endless grind?

Providing financially for his family now is part of it. Paralympic golds earn nothing like the public adulation or earning power of equivalent Olympic metal. He has heavyweight sponsors in Allianz and Toyota but still relies on government funding which is based on medals won.

Yet it’s about more than just making a living.

“You go from wanting it to be over when you’re younger to, all of a sudden, not wanting it to end,” he admits.

“The other part for me is being driven by setting the standard so high.

“I’ve always wanted to do things that no one one else has done or maybe might not do again. That requires not just winning once but having longevity.

“If I’m honest, in the earlier parts of your career, you don’t appreciate this whole journey and when you think ‘this could be over soon’ you get to appreciate more how incredible this opportunity is.”

Paralympic success is still viewed through the comparative prism of the Olympics and he spoke recently, with no bitterness, of his hope that Ireland’s achievements in Tokyo over the next fortnight (August 24-September 5) will engender the same support and acclaim as that of Kellie Harrington and Co.

If anyone can demonstrate that Paralympians sweat and strain and train the exact same it is him who has also contested a European able-bodied semi-final.

“Every time I rock out to race now I’ve more to lose than gain,” he admits wryly.

Covid-19 means measuring anyone’s form ahead of Tokyo is impossible. Johannes Nambala and Chad Ferris are the two who’ve always got closest to him but he’s noticed a new Colombian circling the shark tank. You sense, after two frustrating years, that he’s ready to run a quick one on a track already proven to be pacey and the discussion turns to times.

His Paralympic record of 10:46 dates to London 2012 and the last time he ran a 10.5 was winning the World Championship in Dubai (10:54) in 2019. Could he pull out a 10.5 again when it’s most needed? “Well I only need to run fast once this year, in August,” he quips, his one-liners always as swift and true as his feet.