The Canadian long-distance runner is seeking elusive Paralympic gold in a city he has triumphed in before.
Rio de Janeiro will always hold special significance for four-time Paralympian Jason Dunkerley.
It was at the 2007 Parapan Am Games in this southeast Brazilian city that Dunkerley —born without sight due to an eye condition known as Leber’s congenital Amaurosis — made a triumphant return as an elite middle-distance runner after being a victim of a car accident in November 2005.
He and fellow visually impaired runner Stuart McGregor, were out running in his hometown of Ottawa, when a car crashed into both of them near an intersection.
The accident left the five-time Paralympics medalist with a broken leg, and sidelined from competitions as he underwent intensive rehab for most of 2006.
He remembered it was that year in September he felt he was fully healthy again. His recovery ignited a desire to achieve renewed success on the track.
“I was really hungry to really get back to where I knew I could get to and just make the very best of it,” the Ottawa runner said . “It was a second chance in running to really get it right and really go for it.”
A rigorous training schedule, combined with constant support from his family and friends, had Dunkerley in a confident state of mind when the Parapan Ams began in August.
All of his hard work paid off in golden fashion.
First-place finishes were accomplished in both the T11 800-metre and 1,500-metre events. He had never earned the right to stand on top of the podium at a Paralympics or Parapan Am Games. His previous best performance in the medal count was silver in the 1,500 at the Paralympics in Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004).
The soft-spoken 38-year-old recalls the 2007 Parapan Ams to this day as one of the greatest uplifting events of his life.
“I felt that I was truly back in terms of the times we completed the races, and that we ran them the way we wanted to.
“Looking back, I would say 2007 was my best year competitively.”
A Cohesive Partnership
Dunkerley is aiming to repeat the experience of striking gold in Rio at the upcoming Paralympic Games in September, but this time in the 5,000-metre race.
He began his transition from being a middle-distance runner to a longer-distance runner in 2011 for two reasons.
“Most athletes when they get into their 30s tend to have their bodies break down or not be as resilient to the faster speeds you need to really be competitive in the 800 and 1,500-metre races,” Dunkerley explained. “I have also had a few injuries, mostly Achilles injuries, over the past four and five years.”
“Also, when I was younger I didn’t really focus on the long-distance races so I thought it was an untapped opportunity I can try out.”
This decision has paid off handsomely as Dunkerley has a 5,000-metre gold (2015 Toronto Parapan Ams), silver (2012 London Paralympics) and bronze medal (2011 Guadalajara Parapan Ams) on his mantle.
Playing an instrumental role in Dunkerley’s success in recent years is guide runner Joshua Karanja. The former NCAA track and field star joined forces with Dunkerley in 2011, at the request of Dunkerley’s current coach Ian Clark, who coached Karanja in high school.
Being a good physical match made things easy.
“We never really had to work at developing chemistry,” Dunkerley said . “Certainly over the past few years we have refined our technique and I think that has been very seamless for us. We don’t really think about it. We have great rhythm. There was a lot of that at the beginning.”
It is perhaps surprising that the two are cohesive physically considering there is a height difference between the two: Dunkerley is six feet tall while Karanja is 5-10.
“Jason is a bit taller than me, but my legs are long so from the hips downward we are the same height. This makes our stride very in sync,” Karanja said . “If you see us run and take an image from the left side you actually only see Jason because our strides are so in sync.”
For each competition, the duo has a goal in mind of how they want to tackle different race segments. They divide the 5,000-metre run into intervals between 1,000 to 1,200 metres.
An example of the pair’s strong strategic prowess was the T11 5,000-metre final at the 2015 International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletics World Championships last October in Doha, Qatar.
Video courtesy of The Paralympic Games.
Instead of starting the race with authority, the pair decided to not expend too much energy early to mount a strong push in the closing stages, and to not succumb to exhaustion sprinting in the scorching 40-degree weather
Brazil’s Odair Santos, whose torrid early pace allowed him to build a huge lead throughout the majority of the race, collapsed to the ground three times during the final lap.
Santos’ first tumble allowed Cristian Valenzuela of China to pass him for gold. Dunkerley and Karanja pulled ahead of the Brazilian after his second fall to take home silver. The third slip cost him a spot on the podium as Shinya Wada of Japan overtook him for bronze.
In addition to their solid strategic acumen helping them reach the podium, both Dunkerley and Karanja attribute the respect they have for each other as a big reason for their consistent strong results.
“The greatest human being I know is Jason Dunkerley,” Karanja said . “I am biased because I am around him, but I don’t think I have met somebody more diplomatic or more understanding, even with his disability.”
A time when Dunkerley’s strong character was exemplified was after London, when he decided to take time off to tend to his wife, Colleen Hayes (also blind), who was battling progressive kidney disease.
Hayes received a kidney transplant from her husband in January 2013.
“I am so glad I got to do that for Colleen,”Dunkerley said . “It has been three years now since the surgery and she is thriving and healthy.
“I think this experience taught me that it is important to take a step back from something you are really close to. We do tend to get a bit self-absorbed or consumed in running, but really there are bigger and more important things in life.”
A willingness to sacrifice is a quality Dunkerley admires about his guide runner.
“Josh is very humble,” Dunkerley said . “He is quite selfless in his pursuit of guide running. He was a very competitive NCAA runner himself and he has put a lot of that aside to help me to go forward in running, and for us to go forward together in running. It has really worked well for sure.”
They will continue their routine of training three times a week together as they prepare to compete at the 2016 Canadian Championships and Rio Selection Trials, which are taking place in Edmonton from July 7-10.
Dunkerley has plenty of motivation heading into the upcoming games: He has not won a gold medal in his previous four Paralympic appearances.
This fact sets the stage for the Canadian runner to potentially author another great athletic story in Rio de Janeiro.
Featured image credit: Matthew Murnaghan/Canadian Paralympic Committee
Secondary image credit: Phillip MacCallum/Canadian Paralympic Committee