“When you’re the reigning champion, everyone on the starting line is aiming for one thing - to beat you” – Jason Smyth
With just 15 days to go to the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio, Irish sprinter Jason Smyth is focused firmly on defending his T13 100m title this September.
For Smyth, it has been a rollercoaster of a ride since London 2012 that has seen highs such as the birth of his baby daughter and a gold medal at World Championships in 2015 to name but a few, but it hasn’t always been an easy ride for the talented runner.
We caught up with him this week to look back on where it all began and look ahead to Rio, and ask if the pressure is really on now that he’s been crowned the Fastest Paralympian on the Planet?
“I first got involved in athletics thanks to my PE teacher Liz Maguire,” he began, looking back on where it all started. “It was back when I was 16, we spent a number of weeks being assessed in athletics and she saw some potential in me and recommended that I go to the local athletics club. That evening I met the guy who coached me all the way up to my success at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
“Getting to those Games was a journey though. My coach Stephen Maguire asked me back in 2005 would I have any desire to get involved in Paralympic sport and that’s how it all began. He told me that the times I was running would be times that could win the IPC European Athletics Championships later that year. What I didn’t know or understand was how incredible a win like that could be."
“I had already thought about competing at a high level though, as in 2004, I won the Irish Schools’ Championships in both the 100m and 200m. I was competing against the best for my age and even though I had less than 10% vision – I was still beating them. As a result of running fast times, I qualified for the Under 18 Commonwealth Games (able bodied), which were in Australia. From there, I thought, “Hey, I could get used to this!” and the rest is history!
“On reflection, I am lucky that I have built a career in sport - I think any guy would jump at the chance to do sport rather than sit behind a desk all day. But at the end of the day it is my job, and many days, it is hard work. You have to push your mind and body to the limit, and like most people and their jobs, there are days I wish I didn't have to do it. Then there are moments like hearing a crowd of 80,000 roar when my name is announced, crossing the finish line first, and standing on the podium hearing our national anthem that make it all worth it.
“I would say that what has moulded me into the athlete I am today is having to deal with the challenges of having less than 10% vision since I was diagnosed with the disease from the age of eight. It affected everything I did in life. Things as simple as a friend could walk past me in the corridor and I wouldn’t see them well enough to know who it was. I couldn’t see anything on blackboards or projectors, I even struggled with books. In a lot of things I had to rely on some kind of assistance.
“Through all my experiences I eventually started to learn to be mentally very strong, to believe that anything is possible and to not let any situations get the better of me. I believe these things are some of my biggest strengths and have allowed me to have the success I have had so far. A barrier I continue to face is that my disability is not visible to those around me. While other Paralympic athletes run on blades, need guides, or use a wheelchair, my visual impairment is not obvious to those around me.
“It causes others to take it less seriously. There has been comments like, “there isn’t even anything wrong with him”. I try hard to overcome this by bringing attention to and raising awareness of understanding about visual impairment as I achieve success on the track,” he added.
“Sport means a lot to me. I grew up being a huge fan of sport, so the fact that I have the opportunity to do it at a high level is unbelievable. I have been very fortunate to get to do what so many dream of and put on that Irish vest and win gold. I think there are a lot of things that make a champion. My coach used to describe it to me like a jigsaw - you need to put all the pieces together to see the full picture or be the best.
“There are many things that make up that jigsaw from having the best support through coaching, physio, strength & conditioning, nutritionist etc., to having the desire, determination and work ethic in training. The discipline in your life to make decisions on what is best preparation for training and recover. To have that singled minded approach to everything you do, having the right mental attitude brings success.
“Now all roads lead to Rio - training has been going very well and this year I have ran the quickest time I have in three years which is a great place to be. Sport is full of ups and downs. As difficult as the downs can be, it is all forgotten and worth the difficult time when the incredible highs come around.
“I do feel pressure to perform at Rio. When you are the reigning champion everyone lined up at the starting line is aiming for one thing - to beat you. Now I have not only proven that I am the fastest Paralympian in my category, but the fastest Paralympian on the planet. It feels great to have achieved that, and I have worked hard to get to this point, but it also means there are other athletes out there who want to take that title away from me. All I can hope for now is to successfully defend my 100m title in Rio,” he continued.
“This year’s More Than Sport campaign has raised awareness for Paralympic sport in Ireland. For me, more than sport means that regardless of how many gold medals I have won, world records I have broken there is something more important: that is the opportunity to inspire and to tell a story that makes someone want to do better or be more.
“The highlight for me so far would have to be becoming a father in 2015. Family is very important to me and the people who inspired me the most are my parents – they taught me the importance of hard work and doing the best I can.
If I could relive one moment in my sporting career though, I would go back to London 2012 to the Paralympic Games. The Games were unbelievable from start to finish. It helped that I had a very successful Games with winning gold in the 100m and 200m both in world record times, and hopefully that success will continue," he concluded.