Friday 21 July 2017

Sunshine State of mind fits nicely for athlete in a hurry

Paralympian Jason Smyth is ready to mix it with the big boys, writes Marie Crowe

Before the National Athletics Championships earlier this month, Jason Smyth received a tweet from Tyson Gay. The second fastest man in history told the young Derry man to execute and Smyth did, winning the 100m title in 10.52 seconds.

The two athletes train together in Florida under renowned sprint coach Lance Brauman. Smyth first went over to the famous training base after his double gold medal haul at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. He suffers from Stargardt's Disease which causes progressive vision loss. Until he was nine he had perfect vision but from then on adjustments had to be made in his life.

His winning times in Beijing of 10.61 seconds in the 100m and 21.43 in the 200m at the 2008 Games smashed his own world records, his career was definitely on an upward climb.

But at that time the facilities in Ireland were not ideal and Smyth didn't have many people to train with. Before Beijing, his coach Stephen Maguire had been in contact with Brauman, they swapped emails and the American advised Maguire on Smyth's training.

They kept in touch and after Beijing, Brauman invited them both out to train with his athletes in Florida. Their first stint was for two months in 2009 and it was an intimidating experience for Smyth to be joining a group of sub-10 second athletes, but he adapted well and from then on they decided to spend six months of the year there.

"The Americans and the Caribbeans are the best in the world and you have to go wherever they are and learn from them," says Smyth, who finds the other athletes who train with Brauman very helpful, especially Tyson Gay. When it comes to the technical aspect of sprinting, he's been there and done it and has plenty of advice to offer.

"Just being there and training with someone who is so good day in and day out is a great experience. And Tyson is probably the best out of everyone at helping me. He is just a nice genuine guy who wants me to do well."

And Smyth has done well. Since he based himself in Florida he's consistently improved, recording a succession of personal bests and becoming the first Paralympic athlete to qualify for the European Championships in Barcelona last year.

However, the Sunshine State isn't for everyone. David Gillick moved there last winter and spent some time sharing a house with Smyth. A few weeks ago, the 400m runner opted to return to his old training base in Loughborough in England. After he came home, he detailed his experiences, describing feelings of loneliness and isolation.

"I remember chatting with Dave and he was feeling a bit cut off but in general I find athletics a very lonely sport," explains Smyth.

"He came from Loughborough where there are lots of athletes and lots of mixing and then to go to somewhere where you don't really know people, it can be very lonely. There isn't much to do in Clermont where we are but if you really want to do something you go 20-30 minutes down the road.

"In Clermont, you don't really have friends. You have the people you train with, but after training we don't really hang out. But after a day of training I find that I'm beat. I just want to lie on my bed and watch a movie. I know training is going to be tough the next day so I've got to be rested and ready to go.

"I'm happy in my own company, I've never had a problem sitting on my own and doing nothing all day and it doesn't bother me, whereas other people need to be constantly on the go," Smyth continues.

"I found the first year being out there harder than the second year, maybe your expectations are a little bit different. Then the next year you realise that's just how it is, and athletics is a lonely sport, you just get used to it."

Overall, Smyth likes it there, he fits in, the other athletes respect him for working hard and he is happy because he gets to train with the best athletes in the world.

Steve Mullings is another of Brauman's athletes, but last week it emerged that he tested positive for a banned substance. The Jamaican sprinter is the third fastest man over 100 metres this season and could now face a life ban having already served a two-year doping ban for steroids from 2004 to 2006.

Smyth is currently in Daegu at the World Championships and doesn't know much about the Mullings episode, but he expressed shock and disappointment as drugs go against the whole ethos of their training group.

Next summer, Smyth hopes to become the first athlete in history to compete in the Olympics and the Paralympics in the same year.

He ran a personal best of 10.22 in Florida last May which is well inside the B standard qualification time for London 2012. In fact, it's only 0.04 of a second off the A standard of 10.18. But, as it stands, he is not eligible for to go the Games because of an agreement between the Olympic Council of Ireland and Athletics Ireland earlier this year which only allows A standard athletes to go to London.

"I think that when an athlete is young, developing and has a B standard, they should be taken along for the experience," adds Smyth. "You would expect their improvement to continue so it makes sense to bring them, but if someone is older and has a B standard then that changes things and from that point of view I can see why they don't send B standards. I hope to run the A standard time so hopefully I won't have to worry about it."

Smyth hails from Derry so he had a choice of which country he could compete for. An email was sent to both the British and Irish Sports councils to see if they were interested in having him on board.

Great Britain didn't seem very bothered, even though his times suggested that he'd be close to a medal in the Paralympics, but Ireland definitely wanted him.

"I don't know if Great Britain did their homework or knew very much about me. They just fobbed it off, whereas Ireland were very interested so it made sense to come here. Looking back, it was probably a better decision."

Smyth is preparing to run the 100m next weekend and if things go his way he could be racing against his training partner Tyson Gay at a World Championship event.

Now that would be a dream come true.

Sunday Indo Sport

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