At the turn of the decade, Jason Smyth was preparing for a run at number six and seven in terms of Paralympic gold medals.
The fastest Paralympian in history was gearing up for Tokyo 2020 only for the games to be deferred for a year following the outbreak of Covid-19 across the globe.
Smyth, like many athletes, now finds himself at a loose end knowing he won’t get to compete at a fourth Paralympic Games this summer. The Derry native admits it was a feeling of mixed emotions, however, he feels it was the right call.
The sprinter, who has already qualified for the games, feels it is those in the midst of qualification that are going to feel the pinch most.
“Like a lot of athletes, it’s mixed emotions. First and foremost, it was the right decision and if you asked any athlete they would have told you that they saw it coming; there were big questions about it because it wasn’t looking like this virus was going to settle down in the near term in Europe and within other countries, it only seems to be building, like in America.
“We’ll see now what impact it has on people’s preparations. I had already run the qualifying time so I didn’t have to worry about that, I wasn’t chasing or forcing anything. When you’re ahead of where you need to be, it’s always easier, but it’s much more difficult for those that were chasing it.”
While Smyth is confident that his qualification time will carry over into next year, he admits that the uncertainty of it all is difficult to deal with. Given his T-13 classification, he relies on person-to-person contact in order to maximise his preparations.
With all sporting facilities now closed, he admits that the risk of getting injured will now increase.
“It’s difficult. Probably the most difficult part, and it isn’t just sport, is the unknown.
“For me, things like having to access services – the Sport Institute (of Northern Ireland -SINI) is closed because people are working from home and I need people-to-people contact. Look at physios – what can they do? If I don’t get access to treatment, the longer it goes on, it increases the risk that I’ll get injured.
“For me, it’s about staying as close to where I am now as possible and dropping off as little as possible. I’m in the best shape I have been in six or seven years.”
With seven world titles, five Paralympic gold medals, a world-record and recognition as the fastest Paralympian ever, it would be easy to suggest that the Derry man might put his feet up for the remainder of the year.
However, the reigning world champion feels that is not possible claiming if he was to take a break now, by the time 2021 comes around, he won’t be able to reach his maximum potential.
Smyth has been given gym equipment by Athletics Northern Ireland so that he can remain in shape while on lockdown just outside Belfast, however, he is fully aware that for some of his Team Ireland colleagues, having a gym at home won’t suffice in terms of helping them reach peak levels of performance.
“You can’t put the feet up. What you do this year sets the foundations for next year. In my sport, we’re preparing to run fast during the summer so if I decide to take a break, by the time next year comes around I’ll be looking back and thinking ‘when was the last time I ran really fast?’. The answer would be the summer of 2019 – that’s far too far away.
“Training-wise, I plan to still be able to run fast this summer even though there are no guarantees that there’ll be races. I need to be in that shape and then later in the year look to build through winter training just like a normal season.
“Athletics Northern Ireland have given me some gym equipment (he had none at home until before COVID-19 became an issue as he used SINI facilities) and that gets me by in terms of core work, strength exercises. It’s good that I can do all of that here in my home.”
“I’m lucky that in my situation, it’s probably as good as I could get and that reduces the chances of dropping off. Thinking of others – how long can they do without (facilities, structured training, etc) without a drop-off? If you see no light at the end of the tunnel, that’s where the challenge is.
“The impacts are different. Take middle distance runners, for example, they need less gym work and they can run more on the road or grass. In technical events, like the jumps, they rely on equipment, swimmers need a pool. There’s only so long you can go on – you can adapt for a month, but if it goes on longer it gets harder and harder.”
Smyth will be 34 by the time the Paralympic Games returns in 2021, however, the five-time gold medalist isn’t concerned much with age, in fact, he already has his sights set on Paris 2024 claiming to be in better shape now than he was seven years ago.
“My plan was all about Tokyo and then reassessing after. It’s a four-year cycle and as you get older and closer to the end of your career it’s harder to plan four years ahead, but Paris 2024 is only three years on from Tokyo now. I am in better shape than I have been in six or seven years; I’m in a good place. Being in a good place increases my longevity so the delay doesn’t change anything for me going into next year.”
Having achieved a level of success on a global scale rarely seen from any athlete, the Toyota ambassador was chosen as one of eight athletes [and the only Paralympian] to feature in an Olympic Games video series leading up to the Games in Tokyo.
Smyth admits that while he doesn’t look into it too much, he admits it was a nice feeling to be chosen as he feels that some of his achievements have not garnered the recognition they deserved.
“I don’t tend to look too much into these things because ultimately it all has to come back to me and getting my performances right. At the same time, it is nice. I do think that some of the stuff that I have achieved doesn’t get the recognition that it would in other sports so it’s nice when people appreciate what I have done.”
Whether it’s Tokyo 2020 or 2021, at the end of the day, the goal remains the same for Smyth and that is to win.
“The goalposts have moved, but the goal remains the same. What I want to achieve hasn’t changed, just when I want to achieve it.”