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Running on faith: Mormon who just missed Olympics will compete in Paralympic Games

Published: Wednesday, July 25 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

Ireland's Jason Smyth celebrates after crossing the finish line in the men's 100-meter T13 final to win gold and set a new world and Paralympic record in the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games in China.

Brian Lawless, SPORTSFILE

Paralympic sprinter Jason Smyth is going to the 2012 London Games with mixed emotions.

The legally blind runner will happily defend his world records and the two gold medals he won in the 100- and 200-meter Paralympic events at the 2008 Beijing Games.

On the other hand, the 25-year-old Mormon from Northern Ireland recently came within centimeters of qualifying for the men’s 100-meter Olympic race.

Paul Hession defeated Smyth in the final strides at the Irish Championships on July 8. The Olympic-bound Hession took the title with a time of 10.37, .01 of a second ahead of Smyth, although both their times were far outside the Olympic “A” standard time of 10.18.

Smyth, whose vision is affected by a condition known as Stargardt’s disease, a genetic loss of sight, spent most of the past three years training in Florida with top U.S. sprinter Tyson Gay. This training helped Smyth come within fractions of a second of hitting the Olympic “A” standard by posting times of 10.22, 10.23 and 10.24 in the past year.

“It was pretty disappointing,” Smyth said in a recent Skype interview from Ireland. “We made a lot of sacrifices to make that happen, and to be literally centimeters away is pretty disappointing. But I still have the Paralympics.”

Although Smyth won’t be the first athlete to compete in both the Olympic and Paralmypic games, he expressed gratitude for many blessings in life, including his family, friends and LDS faith. He is preparing to get married in December. He has learned to live life without 90 percent of his vision.

“Anything’s possible,” Smyth said. “No matter what you do, success requires hard work and sacrifice. At times you may wonder what you are doing, or if it’s worth it. But if you want to do something, work for it. There is no reason at all why you can’t achieve it.”

A Mormon

Smyth hails from Derry, a city in Northern Ireland of more than 100,000.

About 60 years ago, his paternal grandparents were among the first converts to join The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Derry. Smyth’s father was brought up in the church and served a mission in California before returning to marry his mother, a convert, who waited for her missionary.

Smyth’s father is a small-business owner and his mother was a nurse before she started having children. The sprinter is the oldest of five children, including three sisters and a brother.

“I’ve been fortunate to have been brought up in the church,” Smyth said. “My parents have taught me to do things properly, not half-heartedly. They have supported me constantly and have my best interests at heart.”

There are fewer than 3,000 Latter-day Saints in Ireland, with one stake, four wards, nine branches and one district. Growing up, there were several chances to get into mischief, Smyth said, but his family and the church helped him come through the teenage years with a strong testimony of the gospel.

Smyth explored the possibility of serving a mission, but his eyesight was too big of a hurdle. Looking back, Smyth has no regrets.

“I’ve always believed that when one door closes, another opens,” he said. “I can share the gospel in other ways.”

Blind

Smyth was 8 years old when he was diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease. He said he was too young to understand or get discouraged, so he learned and adjusted. The loss of vision was more difficult on his mother.

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