Coach Ian Clark was proud to see his athletes – Jason Dunkerley (left) and Josh Karanja – come away with London 2012 silver and bronze medals. Photo provided
By Coach Ian Clark
I am sitting in an East London pub with a pint of lager, suffering from a bit of a hangover. This hangover is of a different sort however; unrelated to alcohol, this one comes the "morning after" the Closing Ceremony, a finale that marks the end of the most successful 11 days in Paralympics history.
This is a participants' party, one that sees 4,000 athletes from 160 countries celebrate each other's human and sporting triumphs; appropriately, they are saluted by artists of their generation – Coldplay and Rhianna.
Sipping my lager, I am content and proud as I reflect on the London 2012 performances of Jason Dunkerley, the Ottawa middle distance runner who I coach: first, a bronze in the 1,500 metres and a then a few days later, a silver medal in the 5000 m (in both events, Jason is classified in the T11 category: athletes who have no vision).
As I think of my coaching relationship with Jason, and Josh Karanja, his indispensable guide runner, I know that the three of us really began to prepare for this success 20 months ago.
This preparation addresses the critical components of thoughtful planning around training and racing, nutrition, injury prevention and rest. But at its core, the approach relies upon the tireless dedication of Jason and Josh – toughing-out the hard but necessary practices that I dish out to them in Ottawa over several months, day-in, day-out; good weather and bad.
A former competitive runner myself, I know there is no short-cut around these relentless efforts, as do Jason and Josh. It is a true team effort of three. That said, the lion’s share naturally goes to the runners; they are the ones who must perform.
As I begin to coach Jason in 2011, I am aware of his running ability, background and age. I decide to discuss with him the possibility of new approach to his training; he is receptive.
We agree to focus the next 18 months on increasing his maximum aerobic capacity through greater mileage and long-tough track repeats and hill-work, while simultaneously maintaining his speed and improving his running efficiency. Jason buys in to this approach, as does Josh.
The plan pays dividends as Jason continues to improve his times over both the 1,500 and the 5,000 events; his 5k time improves immensely. Jason and Josh become increasingly successful running and racing partners. I know that Jason relies on and has full confidence in Josh. Josh appreciates Jason’s efforts and toughness and, from my perspective, adds to Jason’s running by increasing his confidence and pushing him beyond his comfort zone.
As the Games near and as we taper the training, I know the two are mentally and physically ready. Race results and time trials in Ottawa have proven that. My conversations with both of them give me final comfort: they are fit, rested and confident.
In the final days and weeks in Ottawa, we discuss the opposition, principally Brazilian, Kenyan and Chilean, and agree upon our final strategies and tactics for both races. We have consensus: the goal is to win gold in both races. Inside, the three of us know this will be a tough achievement. In sport, as in life, one has to take risks. We do not take our opponents for granted.
Prior to leaving Ottawa, we learn of the Paralympic “buzz” in London – all 2.5 million tickets sold out for all events; the public demanding more. Our arrival in London demonstrates why Great Britain has been so successful in hosting these Olympic and Paralympic Games. Superb athletic facilities, transportation (the Tube; “mind the gap, please”), 24/7 print, television and electronic coverage and the ever-present, friendly and helpful volunteers dressed in purple.
But most importantly, the British, a sophisticated sporting people, have embraced the Games with their hearts and minds. The Games are simply the talk of the nation; a pleasant respite for a nation weary from the Euro-crisis, the economy and the spring rains.
Visiting Jason and Josh in the Athletes Villages, we enjoy a meal together, firming up each other’s confidence. These visits confirm to me that their needs are well met; they can focus on their upcoming performances without distraction.
I take my seat in the Olympic stadium for Jason’s 1,500 m semi-final. I am astonished that 80,000 screaming Brits are in attendance (for a semi!). I look around. I am moved and a little choked up by the fact Jason and Josh will soon take to this vast international, and potentially intimidating, stage. I am proud of these guys.
Though I have complete faith in Jason and Josh, I am also admittedly a little worried. I just want the semi-final to be over with. The race begins. Jason and Josh get off the line quickly and I am pleased; suddenly, half-way down the track, the pack converges on them. Jason and Josh – especially Josh – are jostled and interfered with, almost going down twice. I am relieved when the race ends and they place second in their heat, easily moving on to the final.
Post-race, the three of us are pleased and I think a little relieved. We all agree that Jason must get a faster start in the Final, avoiding the “trouble” in order to be free and run the race he needs to medal.
We rehearse some fast starts at a track outside of London, concentrating on settling back into pace. Three days later, before another packed and thunderous stadium spectators, the gun fires to start the 1,500 m final.
Jason and Josh get off to a flawless start, accelerating to arrive at the first curve in second place, just as we had discussed and settling down to 62 seconds for the first 400 m. The race is surprisingly quick, with the Brazilian and Kenyan runner taking it out very fast.
Jason and Josh continue to race hard and intelligently; the crowd is deafening; Jason cannot really hear Josh’s words nor can he hear the runners around him, as he normally does. The pace is unrelenting. Jason and Josh are racing well – they make a concerted effort to close the gap with the leaders but are unable to do so as the race’s three and three-quarters laps wind down.
They are in third, a medal within grasp. The Chilean runner tries valiantly to close on them in the final 300 metres but Jason and Josh dig deep, holding them off to capture the bronze. Jason finished the race in a time of 4:07, mere tenths of a second off his lifetime personal best. The top 4 finishers in 2012 would have beat the gold medal winner in Beijing.
I am pleased and proud. They have executed brilliantly and seem very happy. Though I am unable to talk to them, I see them 20 minutes later on the medal stand, the entire stadium applauding their efforts as I hurriedly take pictures and clap and scream, along with my sister and Mom who have joined me in the stands.
Cut to the 5,000 m final, four days later. The three of us had agreed back in Ottawa that Jason and Josh would race at a pace of 74 seconds per lap for the majority of the race. We knew this would put them in a good position to strategically strike for a gold medal as the race unfolded.
Again, a capacity crowd of 80,000 knowledgeable British athletics (track) fans wait in anticipation as the announcer introduces the runners on the starting line.
Jason and Josh get off to a good start, assertively taking the lead after one lap and quickly separating the pack from themselves and the Chilean runner and his guide. Jason and Josh courageously lead the entire field for more than 80% of the race, brilliantly adhering to a strategy.
My sister and I cheer enthusiastically for them as they churn out lap after lap, pacing as though they possess a metronome. The Chilean holds on, following them closely at times, then fading a little, but never backing off. Eventually, after eight or nine laps at this pace, Jason and Josh are passed by the talented Chilean team.
Josh screams loudly at Jason, “We gotta go! This is your chance at the gold!” Jason digs deep and gives it his best. It looks to me like they have a chance; Jason closes the gap momentarily. On the last lap, the Chileans finish strongly, gradually pulling away from Jason and Josh to finish in 15:26 to capture the gold, collapsing at the finish line in a heap. Jason finished strongly, never letting up down the final stretch, grabbing the silver medal in a new lifetime best performance of 15:34.
My sister and I – and the Olympic stadium crowd – wait anxiously for the much-delayed medal ceremony. Finally it comes and Jason and Josh graciously accept their well-earned silver medal. Again, I take pictures with great pride. Jason and Josh are busy for the next hour with media interviews, picture taking.
There is confusion; my sister and I have difficulty locating Jason and Josh. Finally, we do and we all proceed to a Mexican restaurant to enjoy a relaxed beer or two and to share some laughs.
The long season is finally over. We are all content, relaxed and in need of some rest. Jason departs for Northern Ireland to visit relatives; Josh soon returns to Canada to a great welcome at the Ottawa airport. I spend some time with family in London and return to Ottawa. My first Paralympic experience is over.
As for London 2012, this is without a doubt a turning-point for the Paralympics and the para-sport movement. It is an unqualified success - there is no parallel. But it’s also a critical juncture - the momentum must not be lost. Can Rio continue it? Here’s hoping...