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.”
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.”
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.
Over the years, Smyth has relied on others for help. There are many day-to-day things he can’t do for himself, like drive a car. One of his biggest frustrations is not being able to see people who walk by and acknowledge him. Because Smyth can’t see them, he keeps going and the friendly passer-by feels ignored by the arrogant runner.
“I don’t mean harm or badness, I just struggle to see people and they won’t understand,” Smyth said. “People have to initiate conversations with me.”
Despite the challenges, Smyth has never used his blindness as an excuse.
“It’s unfortunate that I have bad eyesight, but everybody has problems,” he said. “There’s not an awful lot you can do about things, apart from get on with it and make the best of the opportunities put in your path.”
Growing up, Smyth loved soccer. One day when he was 16, a schoolteacher saw him running and asked if he had any interest in doing track events. He had absolutely zero interest, but couldn’t say no to the teacher.
“I was (European) football, football, but said yes and asked if she could get me some information, thinking she wouldn’t,” Smyth said. “But she did.”
It turned out that Smyth was a natural runner. It was not difficult to run in a straight line in the 100-meter race, and as long as there wasn’t a glare on the track, he could make the bends in the 200-meter event. With Stephen Maguire as his coach, he was soon running in the Commonwealth Games in Australia. He was hooked.
“A free trip to Australia? I could get used to this,” Smyth said. “That got me interested.”
Before long he qualified for the Paralympics and won two gold medals in Beijing. He will never forget the feeling and atmosphere of winning in front of 90,000 people.
“The best was the relief, the joy and the satisfaction of winning,” he said. “All the hard work I had put in to that point paid off.”
Since then, Smyth has trained full-time at the National Training Centre in Clermont, Fla., with Gay and other elite runners. He has also competed in massive stadiums around the world.
“I believe that Jason is very talented,” Gay told The Telegraph in 2011. “I honestly think that his running technique is better than mine. He would be in my top five when it comes to technical guys running.”
Smyth has appreciated the chance to learn from the best.
“He (Gay) gives me advice all the time and tells me things he’s seeing or watching and what needs to be changed and what it’s supposed to feel like,” Smyth said in the same article. “Getting advice from somebody who’s been there, done it and knows what it’s supposed to feel like, it’s priceless really, isn’t it?”
What many don’t know is that Smyth is engaged to a 25-year-old woman named Elise Jordan from Orem, Utah. The couple has a date to be married in the Salt Lake Temple in December. The two met through Smyth’s uncle who lives in Utah. Jordan will be in London to cheer Smyth on during the Paralympics later this summer.
Smyth is grateful to be getting married and hopes to continue running. He is also grateful for the influence the gospel continues to have in his life.
“I’ve had to learn to grow up and stand on my own two feet, to learn things my way. I’ve come to know things for myself, and that has been the start of making me who I am,” Smyth said. “No doubt it (my experiences) has strengthened my faith. You have success and know that is not because of you alone, it’s because of Heavenly Father. The day you believe that it is all you is the day you make the biggest mistake you can. I’ve realized you have to make the most of the opportunities and in return, share the gospel with those you meet.”
To learn more about Smyth, visit his website www.jason-smyth.com.
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