For Brent Lakatos, the summer of 2003 will always be considered a watershed period of his life.
Back then the native of Dorval, Que. was a 23-year-old with a goal to compete for Canada at the Summer Paralympics in Athens, Greece.
However, it was not crystal clear heading into that season as to what sport would get him to the Games. He had been equally dedicated to wheelchair racing and wheelchair basketball since 1996.
Despite a strong trials camp performance, Lakatos did fall just shy of making the Paralympic basketball team. Wheelchair racing went a lot better: He won the T53 100-metre competition at the Canadian Track and Field Championships.
“After that season of racing I went, ‘Well I haven’t made the basketball team. I did the best I could,” said Lakatos. “I was unexpectedly doing well in racing so I decided to give racing a full shot.”
He made the right choice.
Lakatos, 36, enters the Rio Paralympics as the dominant force in T53 wheelchair racing. His career accomplishments following the London 2012 Paralympics are truly staggering:
- He is the current top ranked male T53 wheelchair racer in the world for 100-metre, 200-metre and 400-metre distances. He is also ranked third in the 800.
- He is the world record holder for the 100-metre (14.17 secs) and 200-metre races (25.27 secs).
- He captured four gold medals —100, 200, 400 and 4X400-metre races —and one silver medal — 800-metres—at the 2013 International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletics World Championships in Lyon, France.
- He claimed three gold medals —100, 200 and 800-metre events — and one silver medal —400-metres— at the 2015 IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, Switzerland.
- He netted gold medals in the 100-metre, 400-metre and 800-metre championships at the 2015 Parapan American Games in Toronto, Ont.
The impetus that has led Brent Lakatos to ascend to the top of T53 wheelchair racing were key decisions that he made in the first months of 2013.
At the time he was still in the midst of reflecting upon how he performed at the 2012 Summer Paralympics. London was considered a breakthrough Games for Lakatos. He entered these Paralympics hoping to nab perhaps one bronze medal, but ended up earning a silver medal in the 200-metre, 400-metre and 800-metre races.
While completing this process of self-analysis, Lakatos determined that a lack of top speed is what kept him from netting a gold medal in London. He decided that it was necessary for him to refine this aspect of his craft in order to consistently reach the top of the heap.
“In 2013, I knew I had four years to change that and so that was a good block of time,” said Lakatos. “For the first three months of the season just focused on speed work and didn’t do any base training or anything like that. It worked. I did get a lot faster in 2013, and continued to do so in 2014 and 2015.
“That was really the start of probably the second wind of my career.”
Another realization made by Lakatos was that he needed a new racing wheelchair in order to achieve his ambition of attaining greater acceleration. He said he felt like he had gone as far as he could with the chair that propelled him to the podium in London.
With the help of a sponsor — ACASS, an aviation services company based in Montreal — a chair with a “massive drop in seating position” was purchased.
A lowering of two inches for both his knees and his butt does not sound impactful, but making this adjustment allowed him to generate a greater push on the hand rim because his shoulders and trunk were now closer situated to the wheels.
Like any wheelchair racer, Lakatos is always seeking ways to make adjustments to his chair in order to keep getting faster. He does not rest on his laurels, but instead yearns to continue upon an upward performance trajectory. He has done so for over a decade and has set personal bests in at least one of his distances every year since 2005.
His best year-to-year improvement was 2012 to 2013. The momentous decisions made in early 2013 paid off handsomely at that year’s world championships in France. His finishing times in his three short distance events at that tournament were significantly better than his impressive Paralympics in London.
- 100-metre race — 15.31 in 2012, 14.57 in 2013
- 200-metre race — 25.85 in 2012, 25.46 in 2013
- 400-metre race — 50.17 in 2012, 49.02 in 2013
Lakatos views the 2013 championships as one of his two career highlights, the other being the 2012 Paralympics.
“Winning the gold in 2013 was special because not only was I on the podium, I got to listen to O Canada being played at the same time.”
Later that year, the part-time computer software engineer chopped down his 100-metre time to a record 14.34 at the Sainsbury Anniversary Games in London,
Video: Brent Lakatos established himself as the record holder in the 100-metre distance for the first time. Video credit: Brent Lakatos YouTube channel.
In 2014, at the IPC Athletics Grand Prix in Notwil, Switzerland, Lakatos amended the record to 14.17, and established a world best 200-metre result of 25.27.
At the very least, Lakatos is expected to win a Paralympic gold medal in both the 100-metre and 200-metre sprints considering he often wins this races by comfortable margins of over half a second. First place is also very doable in the 400-metre and the 800-metre finals.
When Athletics Canada named their 24-member track and field team for Rio last Thursday, Lakatos was identified as one of the five athletes headlining this team. He is also considered this country’s most likely candidate to win a track and field gold medal. He is not letting these external aspirations faze him.
“I think I put more pressure on myself and don’t really care about the pressure from other people so that doesn’t bother me,” said Lakatos. “If I didn’t come away with a gold I would be disappointed. From 2013, 2014, 2015, my results have been really good. It is expected for me to win a gold, and I hope I do. I want to hear O Canada played. I want to be the one to make it happen, if I am the only one to make that happen.”
Video: Lakatos wins the T53 200-metre race at the 2015 IPC Athletics World Championships in Doha, Switzerland. Video Credit: International Paralympic Committee.
To some extent he is placing even more stress on himself to be great in the 4X400 relay with T54 racers Curtis Thom (Mississauga, Ont.), Tristan Smyth (Lake Country, B.C.) and Alexandre Dupont (Clarenceville, Que.).
“There is more pressure on you in a sense to do well because if I don’t do well in an individual race I am just letting myself down, but in a team race if I don’t have a good leg, I am letting them down as well. You want to do well for everyone involved.”
Winning gold is realistic for this foursome as they did finish first at a IPC Grand Prix in Notwil earlier this year.
Lakatos considers competing as a member of this relay team to be a really enjoyable experience.
“I really liked basketball from when I was young and it is that kind of team mentality again so it’s something fun and exciting when you win a race individually, but when you win as a team it is even more intense. Everyone is so much more excited, and everyone is feeding off each other.”
In addition to the energy and enthusiasm from his teammates helping him race his best, Lakatos also leans on the support provided to him by his wife Stefanie Reid, who is a T44 long jumper for the Great Britain para-athletics team.
“It’s really great having someone who gets the lifestyle, training wise and traveling and putting that sort of thing first, said Lakatos. “It is really great living with someone who understands that, and we can support each other through that.”
There are difficulties that come with a marriage between two highly driven para-athletes. Lakatos and Reid — who appropriately met at a track meet (Canadian nationals 2005) — go without seeing each other for a month at times because they are at training camps or competitions in different cities.
While the long-distance element of their relationship is not ideal, they have found a way to create a happy life together.
Even though both husband and wife do not want to look past the challenge that awaits them in Rio, they are both committed to remain competing in para-athletics in 2017. It is their wish to participate in the IPC Athletics World Championships in their home city of London.
Lakatos did not give an indication in his conversation with Report on Rio if he will step away from competitive wheelchair racing prior to the 2020 Games in Tokyo, Japan, or if he will attempt to return and build upon what is expected to be his best Paralympics in 2016.
Whatever he decides to do, he can feel comfortable that he has been able to create a great legacy as a competitor in the sport of wheelchair racing — a sport that in a sense chose him for life back in the summer of 2003.
Photo Credit: Canadian Paralympic Team