Cool Running With Jason Smyth

The double-gold winning Paralympian nicknamed 'the white rabbit' hopes to success in London

Double Paralympic world record holder Jason Smyth – who is preparing to defend his 100 and 200 metres crowns in London this week – had dreamed of being the first person from Ireland to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Alas, it was not to be, Smyth having fallen short of qualifying for the Olympics in August. His desire to succeed again at the Paralympics however, remains undiminished, and the media – as well as a host of friends and family back home in Derry~Londonderry – have high hopes for the man dubbed 'Ireland's Usain Bolt'.

'A lot of comparisons have been made,' admits Smyth. 'And to be compared to someone like Usain Bolt is quite something to be impressed about. He was quite the star of the Olympic Games,' says the man from Eglington.

23-year-old Smyth is classified as having impaired vision because of a hereditary condition known as Stargardt’s Disease. However, his rise to the top of athletics is a remarkable story of a young man who has never allowed disability to stand in his way. In the video above, shot some months before he qualified for the Paralympics, Smyth is adamant that confidence and conditioning would see him rise to heady heights.

Track and field replaced a promising football career when his sight began to decline. Smyth’s Strabane-based coach Stephen Maguire only became aware of his condition after Smyth won the Irish Schools Championships in 2003

Realising that Smyth could qualify for Paralympic competition, Maguire coached him to a double European championship in 2004. Two years later Smyth was at the top of the world with double gold and records to boot at the World Paralympic Championships in Assen, Holland.

In Beijiing in 2008, Smyth rewrote the records again as he flashed across the 100 and 200 metres lines in new Olympic times of 10.62 and 21.43 seconds.

While Smyth’s sporting prospects are not restricted to paralympic competition, he downplays the significance of becoming the first paralympian to take part in last year’s able-bodied European Championships, where he finished fourth in the semi finals of the 100 metres.

'He is a remarkable person with a remarkable talent,' says coach Maguire. 'For me it’s all about harnessing that and helping Jason be the best he can be. He is capable of making the mainstream games if he can get the qualification times of 10.18 seconds and 20.60 seconds for the 100 and 200 metres. If he does that alone he’ll become the fastest Irishman of all time.'

Smyth has from May 2011 to June 2012 to reach that mark although his preparations have been hampered by a stress fracture injury that flared up last year.  'He lost much of the summer work because of that, but we’re getting back on track,' explained Maguire as the pair prepared to fly out to training camp in Florida. 

'I got to know Lance Brauman who has been coaching sprinters like Tyson Gay, Steve Mullings and Debbie Ferguson and over the past two winters we have been training in Florida with a group of a dozen or more world class sprinters.' 

Maguire says that all those in the group have aspirations of winning an Olympic medal and that Jason is learning a great deal in that type of positive environment.

'When we went out there first we didn’t tell them that about his visual impairment. He was just another athlete. Their curiosity got the better of them and one of them looked him up on Google. They were amazed that he is visually impaired because Jason does so a good job of hiding the fact.'

Inevitability, the possibility of Jason Smyth competing in both the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics could become a major news story.

'I just focus on myself and don’t get distracted by silly things that are going on around,' he told the BBC’s John Haughey in a recent interview. However Stephen Maguire is all too conscious that any distraction could get in the way of his athlete’s preparations.

'While it’s a very positive story for disability sport, we have to concentrate on getting the best from Jason on the track. If he reaches the qualification standard for the mainstream Olympics that is another factor that we have to build into his programme because the Paralympics begin two weeks later. It’s going to be an even busier year ahead.'

2012 could show Jason Smyth’s sprinter friends that all this extra effort and support has been worth it and that the athlete from Eglington they’ve nicknamed ‘white rabbit’ does have what it takes for the bigger stage.