At the London 2012 Paralympics, 80,000 fans rose out of their seats to do the wave in sync with the pace Jason Dunkerley set at the front of the men’s 5,000-metre race for athletes with no vision.
Like he did that night en route to the fifth and final Paralympic medal of his career, Dunkerley set a standard for excellence few can match over the course of 20 years as a national team member.
Nowadays, the pace has slowed for Ottawa’s most decorated Paralympian of all time.
“I don’t like using the word ‘retirement,’ but I guess you have to call it something. It’s definitely a transition,” says Dunkerley, who did not enter the 2018 Canadian Track-and-Field Championships on his home track. “I’d just got to the point where it felt like it was a job to go to the track.
“I’ve done it for a long time. It’s intense, and you have to be ready, physically and mentally, to put everything into it.
“I was just tired, and I wasn’t having fun, and I always told myself when it got to be like that, I would go, because it’s not the relationship I want to have with running.
“I still want to keep running. I want to stay in shape. I love running and I hope I can keep running forever. But I’ve had a good journey and I feel like I’m in a good spot.”
Humble as can be, Dunkerley made no formal announcement that his career was complete. He toyed with the idea of sticking it out for one last race in Ottawa, but “my heart wasn’t in it” and he didn’t want to just show up and jog around the track.
A night celebrating Dunkerley’s career would have been appropriate, but that wasn’t what he wanted. The 40-year-old did go to the Terry Fox Athletic Facility for the para events and the distance night, content to quietly visit with fellow athletes, coaches and friends.
“I didn’t want to draw a lot of attention to it,” explains the Ottawa Lions athlete. “For me, that was enough. It was just nice to be around. It’s obviously been a huge part of my life.
I’ve done it for so long and I definitely wanted to be there, but I didn’t want to have one final race or whatever.”
Born in Ireland, Dunkerley’s family moved to Hamilton in his early teens, where he first tried running. It didn’t become a serious pursuit until he arrived at the University of Guelph and ran under coach Dave Scott-Thomas.
Dunkerley went on to compete at five Paralympic Games, winning pairs of silver and bronze medals in the 1,500 m and a silver in the 5,000 at London. He also earned four World Championships titles along the way.
“I have no regrets. I really did everything I wanted to do,” signals Dunkerley, whose younger brother Jon was a 2-time Paralympic runner himself and now competes in paratriathlon.
“For me, it was always about trying to improve, and knock off more seconds, and have that as the benchmark for success,” he adds. “I love the process of training, working hard and trying to get better. That’s really what it was all about.”
Support from teachers, coaches, training partners, guides, family, friends and many others was instrumental in making success possible, Dunkerley underlines.
“To say thank you really doesn’t seem like enough,” he notes. “So many people have played a huge part in being able to continue with it. I’m incredibly grateful.”
There was a definite turning point in the lead-up to 2012. Without a coach or consistent guide runner, and suffering from an Achilles injury, Dunkerley thought about quitting then.
But then he matched up with coach Ian Clark, who introduced him to Josh Karanja, an All-American steeplechaser set to return home to Ottawa from Eastern Michigan University.
“I was 35 at the time, and they sort of gave me a second career,” indicates Dunkerley, who set two new personal-best times en route to his first multi-medal Games in London.
Sharing the podium with Karanja was particularly special.
“That year, I was in the best shape I’ve ever been,” recalls the Innovation, Science & Economic Development Canada employee. “Josh and I had been running together for a year and we’d just been working really hard with Ian. We were all on the same page and we really grew together. We were close.”
Dunkerley remains grateful that Karanja chose to focus on guiding him instead of taking his own shot at making the 2012 Olympic team.
“Josh really threw his heart and soul into what we did,” highlights Dunkerley, who went on to place 5th at the Rio Paralympics, followed by World silver in 2017. “Josh made the comment in 2012 that he felt it meant more to him to accomplish what we did together than what making an Olympic team would have been. That really hit home – to share that and to work so hard and really accomplish something together, it really meant a lot.”
Though they ultimately were passed on the final lap, that night in London – where he and Karanja decided to ditch the drama of a strategic race and run as fast as they could, lap after lap, and see if anyone could catch them – remains a moment etched in Dunkerley’s mind.
“We gave it our very best shot and we ran a personal-best,” recounts Dunkerley, who could hardly hear a word from his guide next to him over the noise of fans in the sold-out stadium cheering them on. “It was incredible. Never in your lifetime would you think you’d have those conditions. It’s something I’ll remember for a long time.”
2 Lion Olympians miss home meet
Two other Ottawa Lions Rio 2016 participants were notably absent from the 2018 Canadian Track-and-Field Championships. Olympic sprint hurdler Sekou Kaba has not competed this season, while 2-time Olympic 800 m runner Melissa Bishop gave birth to a baby girl a day before the event began.