By Charlie Pinkerton
After former Paralympian Jon Dunkerley retired from competition it took a little nudging to realize he had a little something left in the tank.
The two-time Paralympian left track at 35 years old in 2015, recalling that he felt happy with his decision before friends persuaded him to take his shot at a local triathlon during the next summer.
In short summary, the race went poorly by the former Ottawa Lions runner’s standards.
“Go figure; I was just like, okay – I’m pretty sure I could do better at that if I actually put a little bit of effort into preparing properly instead of just doing it, so I started to train a little bit on my own,” he reflected while speaking to the Sportspage.
With his competitive nature kicked in, he began his training. By the fall, Dunkerley had caught the attention of Triathlon Canada and was invited to Victoria, B.C. to perform in a series of tests to determine if he would be a good fit for the national paratriathlon team.
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The ensuing summer, Dunkerley was training in Victoria full-time and competing across the globe for medal-worthy finishes in World Cup events.
Dunkerley got off to a hot start in his first two years of International Triathlon Union (ITU) events. In 2017 and 2018, he finished on the podium in four out of his first seven races. It wasn’t until last year that Dunkerley’s revived commitment to sport and the “triathlon bug” he says he caught, was seriously tested.
Dunkerley competes in the category of paratriathlon for totally blind visually impaired athletes, known as B1. He’s required to run, swim and bike with a guide, and as Dunkerley notes, his competition is of an extremely high level.
“Our category is super competitive, so you have one or two bad outings and it can really set you back,” he said.
Throughout all of 2019, Dunkerley and his guide James Cook were unable to land a podium finish, only placing as high as 5th in an ITU event just once. Dunkerley lost the federal funding he had received as he no longer held standing one of the world’s best athletes in his sport.
“There’s no room for error at all,” he said.
The loss of funding meant that Dunkerley had to move back to Ottawa near the end of last year.
Cook remains in Victoria, but Dunkerley says the distance hasn’t been too troublesome to their training towards their goal of reaching this summer’s Paralympics. Dunkerley mostly bikes indoors, as he says he would anyways because of the weather in B.C.; he runs with friends he’s made through the Running Room; swims at Brewer Pool; and he and Cook talk to compare training a couple times a week.
They’ve relied on crowdfunding through a GoFundMe page to help them get off the ground this season. Their first race takes place Feb. 29 in Australia.
The qualification process for the Paralympics will be somewhat complicated for Dunkerley, since it takes into account athletes’ performance from the previous year, but he says ascending to a top 10 ranking should solidify his spot at the Games. He’s currently the 14th ranked paratriathlete in his category.
Reaching his goal begins in Australia, where there’s five athletes ranked higher than him who he’ll race against. Finishing ahead of as many of those ranked above him will be crucial in each of Dunkerley’s races this season. He’ll compete in three events in the next five weeks that he says “will go a long way” in determining if he has a shot at making the Paralympics come what will be an ever-important ITU World Paratriathlon Series race in Montreal in June.
Overall for him and his guide, it’s simple, Dunkerley said: “We just need to race well, period.”