By Dan Plouffe
LONDON – There they were at Olympic Stadium in London, the Ottawa pair of Jason Dunkerley and guide Josh Karanja, setting the pace not only for the best T11 men’s 5,000-metre competitors in the world, but also for 80,000 fans, who rose out of their seats and did the wave in sync with the leaders.
Possibly competing at his final Games, Dunkerley was en route to achieving something he’d never before done in an illustrious career that included three medals from the three previous Paralympics.
In the best shape of his life at age 35, Dunkerley set his second personal-best of the 2012 Paralympics, and for the first time, won two medals from the same Games – an accomplishment that should go down as one of the finest moments in Ottawa sports history.
“It was a big thrill for us,” smiled the newly-crowned silver medalist, who lost the lead near the final lap and came in 12 seconds behind Chile’s Cristian Valenzuela in 15:34.07, but over 20 seconds ahead of third place.
“For me personally, as I get older, the Paralympics are getting harder and harder and the world’s getting faster,” Dunkerley continued. “I’m here racing guys that are younger when I’m 35, but I’m still getting better. I think there’s still a long way we can go, and that’s why I’m excited.”
Dunkerley and Karanja left nothing to chance in their 5k race. The Ottawa Lions club members figured their ability to run 74-second laps was their biggest asset, so that’s what they were set on doing.
“It didn’t matter who was behind us or in front of us, we were going to hit our times and that’s what we did,” explained Karanja, who loved every moment of competing at his first Paralympic Games. “It was awesome. This is as good as it gets. I don’t think I’ll ever have 80,000 people cheering for me ever again.”
It was almost unfathomable to believe Dunkerley and Karanja had only been training together for just over a year, brought together by Ottawa coach Ian Clark. The pair were perfectly in sync, running stride for stride, side by side, for the duration of their races – more so than any of their competitors.
The image of Northern Ireland-born Dunkerley and Kenya-born Karanja proudly parading around the maple leaf flag on two occasions after their medal victories impressed Canadian minister of sport Bal Gosal.
“Those guys are true Canadians,” Gosal said, expressing the pride he felt himself, as an immigrant from India, to be wearing the maple leaf in London. “They’ve worked hard, they trained hard, and now they’re representing Canada. It’s an amazing feeling.”
Road to the podium
Dunkerley credits his new team as a large part of the reason why he was able to run faster than he ever has at an age when most athletes are slowing down. It started with a very difficult decision to split with his former Toronto-based guide Greg Dailey, with whom he’d won a 1,500m medal in each of his first three Paralympics.
Dunkerley believed a local guide who was available for workouts full-time would be a major key to his success in London.
“I think he was ready to kind of depart from where he was. He kind of said, ‘OK, I got one more shot at it, so let’s try a different approach,” recounted Clark, who focused on maximizing Dunkerley’s aerobic capacity in training instead of focusing on speed. “It’s all about getting in the distance as you age and you move to a different event.”
Dunkerley called Karanja “a real role model” who taught him how to work hard, and was very pleased to stand on the podium and have his guide receive a medal for the first time thanks to a policy change in advance of London 2012.
“I’m just so thrilled for Josh,” added Dunkerley, whose team is committed to continue working together at least until the 2013 world championships, where the 5k will be their main focus. “He’s put so much work in. It’s been a missing part of our sport. It’s long overdue.”
Inspiration from #1 fan
The last piece of the puzzle was family support, highlighted Dunkerley, who visited relatives in Northern Ireland once his races were done. That starts with his wife, Colleen, who’s also been a major source of inspiration as she’s battled juvenile diabetes and now kidney disease.
“She’s undergone a lot of hardships through that, with losing her eyesight, now with her kidneys,” Dunkerley explained. “But she never complains about it. She just goes about life and takes it as it comes. Her whole attitude is to be strong to help other people feel more at ease with it.
“I know what she’s going through, and it helps on those days when you’re feeling down or feeling like you don’t want to be out there working.
“She’s my #1 fan, and she’s incredibly inspirational.”
Thinking back to high school when he first started running, Dunkerley can’t believe that he’s managed to win medals from four consecutive Paralympic Games – a total of three silver and two bronze.
“I was so far away from ever even considering it,” reflected the athlete born with a congenital eye condition called Leber’s Amaurosis. “It’s so different than any other competition. It’s about trying to get it right on one day out of every four years.
“It’s all about getting to the starting line feeling healthy and strong and confident and dealing with a crowd like this and the effects of everything that goes with it.
“It’s been a privilege to be able to have been involved in this sport. I’m very proud that we’re here and we ran well.”
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