25 April 2022
Jason Smyth has smashed many barriers - physical, psychological, sporting and social - in his life. Where did the Derry-born sprinter get his seemingly bottomless motivation, and can he keep the fire lit ahead of Paris 2024?
“One of the things I’ve tried to do in my career is to bridge the gap between what people see as possible and impossible,” says Jason Smyth - and you have to believe him.
The 34-year-old Derry man is talking about the moment in 2010 when he became the first Paralympian to qualify for a mainstream European Championship. He’s not only the world’s fastest Paralympian, but transcends that classification too.
“We look at a paralympic athlete and we think he or she shouldn’t be able to compete at that level,” he says. “There’s plenty of people with opinions, but I filter out the noise. The only way to do that is by doing your talking on the track, and performing.”
It’s hard to pick a defining moment in Smyth’s life - gold at four consecutive Paralympic games, a string of world records and firsts crowd the field - but the day in 1995 where he was diagnosed with the eye condition Stargardt Disease was foundational.
An inherited condition which his grandfather suffered from - but which none of his four younger siblings were affected by - it saw him lose over ninety percent of his vision, leaving only the periphery.
“My parents noticed it,” he recalls. “I’d started sitting closer to the TV; instead of looking at them I was looking past them. It’s a hard one, at such a young age to deal with what’s such a life-changing moment.
“In those situations you’re told about all the things you can’t do,” he continues, “things you won’t be able to do. For me I didn’t fully comprehend it at the time. It’s something I just had to learn to deal with.”
Learning to live with the condition was a process that only culminated for Smyth when he transitioned from his passion of football (where his natural speed made him stand out) to athletics at the suggestion of a secondary school teacher, and from there into Paralympic sport, where he was forced to address his condition and his identity.
“The thing that did hold me back was belief and confidence in myself - not physically, but internally. I spent a lot of those teenage years trying to hide my disability,” he freely admits. “I didn’t wanna be seen as different, I didn’t wanna stand out. But all of the sudden this idea of getting involved in Paralympic sport would shed a light on this thing I was trying to hide”
“You’re saying ‘Look at me, I have a disability, I can’t see very well’. I’m not sure why I decided to do [Paralympic sport] in that moment, but it's incredible to look back and see how significant it was.”
Smyth was greased lightning from the start. He won the Irish Schools Championship less than a year after he started, and turned out an amazing performance at the Youth Commonwealth Games in Melbourne, Australia (a free holiday the teenage Jason had never imagined), leading to his first Olympics in Beijing, 2008.
To say it was a culture shock was an understatement.
“All of a sudden we were in this stadium with eighty, ninety thousand people,” he enthuses; “That was a new situation. How do you deal with that atmosphere, that pressure? Could I perform and get things right?”
It turns out he could, winning two golds for Ireland and setting new records in the 100 and 200 metres. Like all his achievements he wears it lightly, with Northern deprecation and introspection.
“In those moments you don’t necessarily know you’ve broken a record until you’ve crossed the line. You gain a hundredth of a second on each step,” he explains, “and that can turn into half a second over forty steps - it’s such small margins between getting it right and wrong.”
Smyth was now a global name and one to watch, bouncing from Beijing to barrier-smashing in the European Championships, the mainstream event being a warmup for his second shot at Paralympic gold in London 2012.
It was here that he scored the ‘double-double’, landing two more golds and delivering the fastest Paralympic 100 metres in history.
“For me it has been the best experience,” he says, his eyes shining. “The support, the atmosphere and the build-up, and because it was a home games my family, my friends, everyone was able to be there. The atmosphere in that stadium was nothing I’d experienced - the noise was electric.”
His next visit to the Paralympics in Rio 2016 saw him bring home gold in the 100 metres once again, though he found himself experiencing a rare human thing - disappointment in hitting the same high repeatedly.
“We left London with this expectation that this is the way all games are gonna be going forward,” he explains, “and when we went to Rio there wasn’t that excitement and that buzz. I won the gold in the 100 metres, but even though you had that moment of success, everything around it just didn’t live up to that expectation and I left feeling a little bit disappointed.”
It was the road to Tokyo in 2021, however, that would prove to be the sprinter’s darkest hour. A back issue (“There were times I couldn’t touch my knees” he recalls), limitations on training due to Covid and a fresh crop of young, fast contenders entering the field saw Smyth spend a year in purgatory in the run-up.
“I honestly wondered if my career was done,” he says with a sigh. “I wondered if I’d make the games. It was a really tough year, full of huge doubts and unknowns.”
Those doubts, and the support of his world-class team, propelled Jason over the line to win gold in the 100 metres once more.
“To pull it together in that moment, under that pressure, was incredible,” he beams.
“I look back now and feel like I have to smile at myself: how was I able to get that right in the moment?!”
Looking at the next games in Paris 2024, Jason can feel the support of the Irish nation behind him, but has no delusions about the challenge ahead.
“Can I go a fifth games and win another gold medal?” he asks. “Can I maintain that level? At that stage I’ll be 37 and up against younger athletes. I look at 2024 as an incredible opportunity but the risks are significantly higher - but therein lies the opportunity. It’s a kick for me, I need to be better, I need to improve.
“That’s the moments you want to be part of,” he says, fists resting on his thighs. “When I look back over my career that’s the moment I try to thrive in - I try to do things that won’t be done again.”
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We believe that greatness isn’t something you’re born with. It requires work, dedication, self-belief, and support. In 2024, Team Ireland will travel to Paris with the hopes of a nation on their shoulders. And we will be supporting them every step of the way.
So when our Olympians and Paralympians take to the world stage, let’s come together in raising a nation to greatness.