Wednesday, 14 July 2010

Jason Smyth takes hype in his stride ahead of Europeans

Jason Smyth's take on becoming the first Paralympic athletic in history to compete at a European Championships has to be gently teased out of him. The unassuming Northern Irishman's appearance in Barcelona later this month has been generating copy around the world but Smyth is taking matters in his increasingly lengthening stride.

"The first Paralympian to compete in a European Championships - that's what I've been told," the 23-year-old shrugs when interviewed by BBC Sport.

"But I never get too bothered or stressed about things like that. I just focus on myself and don't get distracted by silly things that are going on around you." That approach has worked well for Smyth so far.
The Derryman had perfect vision up until the age of nine before a hereditary condition known as Stargardt's Disease began to cause his sight to deteriorate. It wasn't a sudden loss of sight but adjustments had to made in his life from then on.

"I would be able to see things generally around me," said Smyth in a Sunday Times interview in 2006. But getting things further away would be more difficult. I would be able to see colour and images and people pretty much."

He still managed to become a regular on the school football team although judging the path of the ball or finding an unmarked team-mate was not always easy.I worked much harder than I had ever done previously
However, he was to find his real sporting call in 2003 when he hooked up with Strabane man and emerging athletics coach Stephen Maguire. Maguire, though, didn't even learn of Smyth's visual impairment until after the youngster became Irish Schools champion nine months later.

The coach realised Smyth might be eligible for Paralympic competition and by the following summer he was a double European Paralympic champion, those performances qualifying Smyth for the maximum 40,000 euro Irish Sports Council grant. Further financial help from his uncle Stephen, a successful businessman in the US, enabled the athlete and coach to effectively go full-time.

Double World Paralympic gold - both in new world records - followed in 2006 and, apart from a blip at the World Junior Championships where he got stuck on the blocks, success followed success in the run-up to the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing. Smyth arrived in China as the red-hot favourite for double gold and he didn't disappoint as he took the titles with two more world records of 10.62 and 21.43.

Those performances convinced athlete and coach that becoming the first competitor to compete at an Olympics and Paralympics in the same year was a realistic goal for London 2012. But Maguire knew that the training regime would have to be upped significantly for Smyth to reach a level which would give him even an outside chance of making sporting history.

Prior to Beijing, Maguire had already been in regular email correspondence with top coach Lance Brauman, whose group includes Tyson Gay, and the Florida-based American invited the Irish duo to the United States for a training stint in the early part of 2009.

"We went out there last year for six or seven weeks and that led to us going out for the whole winter this year," says Smyth. "My family and my two uncles and their families have bought a holiday home out in Florida. We are there over the winter and they head out in the summer. Otherwise realistically, we couldn't afford to do it."
Last year's six-week stint was a taster but Smyth knew that a full winter was needed in the US for him to have any chance of reaching his full potential.

"We went out last November for two months and then came back for three weeks - then out again for two months and back again. We were out for three different blocks during the winter and spring and I worked much harder than I had ever done previously. We trained six days a week and usually kicked off at 9.30 and kept going until half past two. We would be on the track for a few hours and then we would head up to the gym.
I was in the gym four times a week doing heavy weights, whereas here at home the year before it was once a week. Every one of the six days, we were on the track and sometimes doing really hard sessions. By the time dinner time came around, I was just about ready for my bed - absolutely shattered. I was kind of living a life of just training."

Gay, double World Champion in 2007, missed Smyth's opening weeks in the US last winter as he was recovering from injury but the Kentucky man began to take the Derry sprinter under his wing after rejoining Brauman's group after Christmas.Without a doubt that's where we want to be. Run in the Olympics and retain the Paralympics titles.

"He was always coming over and telling me different little things. He'd be saying 'this is what you should be thinking of, this is what you should be feeling at different stages of the race'. I suppose there was [an element of him taking me under his wing]. Within the group, everybody is so supportive of each other and wanting each other to do well."

The group also contained the multi-medalled Bahamian Debbie Ferguson and Jamaican Steve Mullings and the Irishman in the African-American and Caribbean sprinting posse came to be affectionately known as the 'white rabbit'. The camaraderie is tremendous. Even people that weren't competing would go to competitions to watch the others," he added. And people are always interested in what I'm doing back here." Smyth started his summer season by shaving .01 secs off his 100m personal best in the US as he clocked 10.41 to again better the European Championship standard.

However, the immense value of his Floridian winter was put into sharp focus by stunning runs on successive Saturdays last month as a new Northern Ireland 100m record of 10.32 was followed up by a wind-assisted 10.27 when beating 2004 Olympic silver medallist Francis Obikwelu at the European Cup meeting in Budapest.
That run in Hungary suggested that Smyth is on course for the European Championship semi-finals in Barcelona and a place in the final may not even be beyond the 23-year-old - although Maguire is frantically playing down any such suggestions.

"I would never think about the final," adds an on-message Smyth. "It's all about focusing on one race at a time. I'll try and run quicker and quicker and if that got me to a final, that would be a fantastic achievement. "It's just about getting there injury-free and if I can run in the low 10.20s - whatever happens I would be delighted. This time last year, I wouldn't have predicted that I would be getting near to that kind of category."

The mention of injury is salient because Smyth has been bothered by a hamstring niggle since the Budapest win although he has still been able to train well. He has been named on the Irish tean for the European Championships band intends to have a race on the weekend of 17/18 July "blow out the cobwebs" before the Europeans start on 27 July.

The Barcelona championship will only be the start of a "massively busy" six months for the Londonderry man with the Commonwealth Games following in Delhi in October and the World Paralympic Games in New Zealand next January.

2011 could also see Smyth competing alongside the likes of Gay and Usain Bolt at the World Championships in Daegu in South Korea in the final major outdoor championship before London 2012.

Smyth says that his performances so far this summer have proved to him that competing at the Olympics and Paralympics in 2012 is "definitely achievable".

"Legally I've run 10.32 and I should go low 10.20s this year. Without a doubt that's where we want to be. Run in the Olympics and retain the Paralympics titles.

"I'll aim to continue to progress and be in Florida over the winters over the next two years. I don't see why I can't continue to improve and achieve what I plan to achieve."
Jason has his own website- Click Here. Interview above with BBC Sport.

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