Tokyo Paralympics 2021: Jaryd Clifford claims silver medal in gusty 5000m final run
A man on a mission? Or a glutton for punishment?
Jaryd Clifford is a bit of both.
Legally blind, Clifford produced one of the most courageous displays of middle distance running by an Australian Paralympian to win a silver medal in the 5000m in brutal conditions in Tokyo on Saturday.
Racing in 34 degrees temperatures and 65 per cent humidity, Clifford ran himself to the point of exhaustion, virtually falling over the line as he emptied the tank.
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He was so spent that he began vomiting after almost fainting in the stifling heat and needed urgent medical treatment to get his temperature down.
“I don‘t remember a great deal. I feel like I nearly didn’t make the line in the last 20m,” he said.
“I struggle to focus after a race which makes me dizzy and then I get motion sickness and start throwing up. After I threw up I didn‘t get much better.
“I laid down in the tunnel and the doctor just stood over me. I remember him yelling ‘more ice, more ice’ and he was shoving ice down my shorts. That was kind of interesting but it worked.
“Then they took me into another room and I was on a bloody stretcher which all seems a bit dramatic.”
Clifford, who has macular degeneration which blurs his central vision but still allows him to see some things from the edge of his eyes, was still struggling to cool down almost an hour later when he went to the ceremony to be presented with his silver medal, his first at the Paralympics.
Already a world champion in both 1500m and 5000m, the Victorian had expected to win gold so was disappointed at finishing second but admitted the oppressive conditions got to him.
“It was bloody hot and humid. I thought I‘d prepared well and I still back that but the way I felt after the race, I haven’t felt like that ever in my life,” he said.
“So that makes it easier to accept the result because it really genuinely felt like I had to fight even to get to the finish line.”
But that’s not the craziest bit because Clifford – who remains the favourite to win the 1500m – has vowed to also run the marathon on the last day – despite knowing the serious health risks.
The Olympic marathons were moved almost 1,000km north to Sapporo – which is less muggy than Tokyo – but Paralympic organisers have decided to hold all the ultra endurance events in the sprawling Japanese capital.
Adding to the risk, Clifford hasn’t even trained for the marathon and has only completed the distance once, when he ‘accidentally’ broke the vision impaired world record after starting out as pacer for his Australian teammate Michael Roeger.
“When I was lying on the stretcher, my first thought was far out ‘I better make sure this doesn’t look too traumatic because they might pull me out,” Clifford said.
“But I genuinely think I feel good. I think that was just an initial bodily reaction.
“The 5km is a different beast and for the marathon, I‘m going to have my guides so I’m going to be able to get sponges and water the whole way.
“I’m actually looking forward to the marathon in a different way because it‘s a slower pace.
“It’s a different kind of beast and it’s a beast that I think I’ll be able to handle even better than the heat on the track in the stadium, it’s a different type of thing.”
HOW AUSSIE RUNNER FOUND VISION FOR GREATNESS
Jaryd Clifford looks at things differently from most athletes, but not because he’s legally blind.
He has macular degeneration, which blurs his central vision, but still allows him to see things from the edge of his eyes.
He can’t see far ahead and finds it difficult to make out finer details, including recognising faces, but his visual impairment hasn’t impacted his perception and ability to see the bigger picture.
When he was 13, he wrote down his sporting goals on a whiteboard in his room.
Under the headline “running”, he listed them as: Paralympian, World Medal, World Record, World Champion, Paralympic Gold, Marathon.
He checked off the first goal in 2016, aged 17, when he was picked to run the 1500m and 5000m at the Rio Paralympics.
He didn’t win a medal that time but there was no shame in that because it was a red-hot field, so much so that the first eight finishers in the 1500m, including Clifford, posted faster times than the winner of the equivalent Olympic race for able-bodied runners.
“Rio honestly opened my eyes to a lot of things,” Clifford said.
“I remember being in the stadium and it was one of those moments when you don’t want to leave.
“I felt fully satisfied but at the same time, I thought I want to come back one day and win gold. That was just the beginning for me.”
Now 22, Clifford has already ticked off all his other goals, bar one, and insiders are betting the house that it’s only a matter of time until he completes his bucket list and emerges as a global star of Paralympic sport.
The American sportswear giant Nike has already signed up as one of his sponsors and could get an early return on the investment if things go according to plan and he wins Paralympic gold this week.
Clifford is entered in three events in Tokyo — 1500m, 5000m and marathon — and is the favourite to win the lot.
It’s a daunting challenge, both physically and mentally, and has been made that little harder by some of the unexpected added hurdles he faces.
While Clifford is the reigning world champion in the visually impaired category for both the 1500m and 5000m, he will be running in Tokyo without his guide, Tim Logan, who was unable to come to Japan because he’s been battling injuries so isn’t quick enough right now.
The world record holder for 1500m, Clifford runs at a pace that is faster than the 4-minute mile. To keep up, his tethered guides need to be world-class athletes themselves.
Not only that, the most important job of a guide is to let blind runners know exactly what’s going on around them so they can adjust their pace depending on how far in front or behind they are to their main opponents.
In races where tactics often play as much a part in determining the winner as pure athletic ability, running without a guide is a huge risk so Clifford knows he needs to be brave and keep his wits about him.
“Tim is one of only a very few people who can do that under pressure and I can trust but unfortunately he’s had some injury setbacks so I’m going to have to go solo and that will change how I run it,” he said.
“It’s a big risk, obviously, but you have to be able to trust yourself and feel safe when you’re running. I think of it like a Formula One driver, they just need to go as fast as they can but the moment they hesitate, they nearly need to retire.”
The Victorian will have two guides for the marathon, which is far trickier and more dangerous than any races on the track because it is run on roads, making navigation imperative, not only for finding the way to the finish line but also locating the drink stations along the route.
It’s no exaggeration that Tokyo’s searing humidity presents real and serious health risks.
The marathons were moved almost 1000km north to Sapporo during the Olympics but remain in the Japanese capital for the Paralympics.
If that’s not worrying enough, then this should be. Clifford hasn’t even trained for the marathon, which will be run on the final day of competition, Sunday, September 5.
It’s always been a long-term goal of his but he only entered the race in Tokyo after ‘accidentally’ running a marathon earlier this year, where he also broke the world record.
He agreed to run as a pacer for his Australian teammate and close friend Michael Roeger, the world champion in the classification for athletes missing part of an upper limb.
The deal was he would drop out once he had enough but he just kept going, tweeting later: “Accidentally ran a Marathon today & broke the Blinky World Record with a 2:19:08.”
That performance alone was enough for Clifford to be installed as the gold medal favourite but not in his eyes because he’s not certain he’ll make it to the end this time.
“Most people, when they front up for a marathon, even if they‘ve trained for it, they’re pretty scared, so it’s a challenge that I’m definitely not naive about,’ Clifford said.
“I know it’s going to be difficult and it could go terribly wrong but I’m kind of happy to roll the dice and take this risk.
“I think my body is ready for it but I‘m going to be smart about it. I’m not going to try and do something crazy, crazy fast.
“I‘m just going to survive and hopefully the result follows it because I’m definitely pretty terrified in a way.
“There‘s a quote that I really like from the Power of One (by Australian novelist Bryce Courtenay) that says ’first with your head, then with your heart’ and I think that’s really applicable to the marathon because the first 30km is all head, then the finish is all heart.”
Clifford has also set his sights on being more than a Paralympic competitor. He is already on his way to becoming an important advocate for disability sport.
He was into running before his eyesight started to deteriorate when he was in primary school but his impairment has not only reinforced his love of the sport but also his admiration for the movement.
“Running for me is this thing that I have for a long time been able to do without ever feeling like there’s something that can restrict me or limit me,” he said.
“I became a runner through the Paralympic movement. I met all my friends in running through the Paralympic movement. All my heroes have pretty much been Paralympians, my dream on the whiteboard was always to be a Paralympian and win a Paralympic gold medal.
“So many people have supported me and believed in me so I want to do it for them. One of them was my papa, who passed away.
“He was a big supporter of my running. He had tickets to come to Tokyo. He was going to be there on race day.
“He called me all the time. He even emailed me about my 1500m world record, about 30 minutes before he passed away, so he‘s a pretty big person that I’ll be thinking about in the moment.”
Originally published as Tokyo Paralympics 2021: Jaryd Clifford claims silver medal in gusty 5000m final run
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