Three-time Paralympic medalist Jason Dunkerley (left) has come within one second of his personal best three times in the 1,500 m this season, and is constanly raising the bar in the 5,000 m since he began training with Josh Karanja, his Ottawa-based guide, last summer. Photo: Dan Plouffe
Name: Jason Dunkerley
Events: 1,500 m (world ranked 2nd), 5,000 m (ranked 6th)
Classification: T11 (visual impairment)
Age: 35 (On Aug. 21)
Associations: Ottawa Lions
Personal bests: 4:08.05 (1,500), 15:45.07 (5,000)
Previous Paralympics: 2000 – silver, 1,500 m, 2004 – silver, 1,500 m, 2008 – bronze, 1,500 m
Name: Josh Karanja
Sport: Athletics (guide runner for Jason Dunkerley)
Associations: Ottawa Lions
Previous Paralympics: None
By Leah Larocque
He owns a medal from each of the past three Games, and as Canadian para-athletics legend Jason Dunkerley readies for his fourth trip to the Paralympics, he’s shown that he may very well be in the best form of his career now at age 35.
A big reason for the bounce in his stride is the relatively new partnership with coach Ian Clark and guide runner Josh Karanja. Watching Irish-born Dunkerley and Kenyan-born Karanja run at Terry Fox Athletic Facility, you may think that the duo has been together for awhile, but the pair only came to be in August 2011.
Dunkerley and his two brothers grew up with a congenital eye condition called Leber's Amaurosis. His introduction to running came while he attended a school for blind children that put a strong emphasis on giving the students a chance to do sports.
“When you are good at something, you want to do it more," Dunkerley highlights. "And the more I ran, the more I improved and it snowballed from there.”
Karanja was also exposed to running in school and joined the cross-country and track programs at Nepean High, and later trained with the Ottawa Lions before accepting a scholarship to Eastern Michigan.
Their partnership came to be after Dunkerley made some major changes to his training, which included reaching out to Ottawa coach Clark. Karanja had just returned from Eastern Michigan after completing his Masters degree in public administration.
Clark, who'd coached Karanja previously, proposed the new pairing, and after a trial month, it was a match.
Having a full-time local guide runner has allowed Dunkerley to make the switch and focus on the 1,500 metres and the 5,000 m, rather than his former 800 m specialty, which was dropped from the Paralympic program due to a purported lack of depth in his T11 visually-impaired category.
“I had never really put much of a focus on 5ks and it is an opportunity to do something new and explore a new area," Dunkerley explains. "The 800 is a fun race and it's over quickly and the speed definitely helps (in the longer races).”
Clark is excited about his athletes’ potential for the London Games.
“Jason has made so much improvement in both his technique and fitness. Since September 2011, he has dropped more than a minute from his 5k time,” Clark notes.
Dunkerley has a current personal best of 4:07 in the 1500 m, and so far this year has run 4:08 three times. He's hoping to improve on that in London. Even though the 5,000 m is a new event for Dunkerley, he is the current Canadian record holder for the event with a time of 15:43 and is ranked second in the world.
With the potential to earn a fourth (or fifth) medal in four Games in the nation where he grew up, it has the makings of a perfect way to cap a career, although Dunkerley isn’t sure about that one way or the other.
“It could be (my last), you never know,” he says. “I think as you get older, you start to really appreciate the significance of it. It’s not easy to get to there and it’s not easy to do well and the whole world is getting much more competitive on the para side of things so it has really force me to get better and evolve. I am not the same athlete I was five years ago or even two years ago.”
Despite being hampered by an injury a month before the Canadian team trials at the end of June, Dunkerley feels confident in his training.
“We have done some workouts that I have never come close to doing before previous to this year," he notes. "I think Josh and I are a great team and we are going to compete hard.”
Over the past year, they've grown close too.
“I know it’s tremendously meaningful to (Josh) and he puts a lot of pride in what we do," Dunkerley adds. "And I know that when the going gets tough I want to succeed for him in the same way I want to succeed for myself because he has invested a lot in it as well.”
Karanja has yet to guide Dunkerley in an international race against other runners with visual impairments, but expects his experience with the
NCAA’s Eastern Michigan Eagles will help.
“Jay is a tough guy, which is what I like,” explains the 28-year-old. “I like to be tough when I run. It’s like life really – everyone has the same issues.”
When the gun goes off in London, Dunkerley and Karanja will be in sync not only in stride, but also in game plan.
“I want to go in the best shape possible and contest for the win,” Dunkerley says. “I want to give ourselves every chance and not hold backand leave everything on the track without regrets.”
A potential flag bearer?
As one of the veteran leaders of the Canadian team, Jason Dunkerley will certainly be considered as a potential flag bearer for the London Paralympic Games.
Dunkerley medaled in each of the past three Paralympics and is active in helping to advance parasport, especially with his Achilles Ottawa organization that finds guides for runners with visual impairments. Dunkerley was also born in the United Kingdom, which gives him a special connection to London.
Benoît Huot, a 28-year-old swimmer who owns a perfect dozen Paralympic medals, is another strong candidate.
Dunkerley remains humbled by the thought of potentially carrying the maple leaf into the stadium. “I’d love to do and it would be an amazing honour,” he says. “It’s something I would do in a heartbeat if I had the opportunity to do it. An incredible thing to do.”
AUG. 31 – T11 1,500 M ROUND 1, 6:23 A.M. ET
SEPT. 2 – T11 1,500 M SEMIS, 6:56 A.M. ET
SEPT. 3 – T11 1,500 M FINAL, 4:02 P.M. ET
SEPT. 5 – T11 5,000 M ROUND 1, 6:24 A.M. ET
SEPT. 7 – T11 5,000 M FINAL, 3:09 P.M. ET