HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
Moments before the start of the men’s 1,500 metres during last Friday’s Ottawa High Performance track and field meet at the Terry Fox Athletic Facility, the PA announcer made his introductions.
There was a small group of runners in the field, but one announced name stood out among the others. The announcer made a lengthy introduction for Ottawa’s Jason Dunkerley, a highly accomplished Paralympic runner, who retired in 2018.
Was Dunkerley trackside to be the official race starter? Maybe he was being presented with an award before the start of the race? These are pandemic times and everything is different. Certainly, he hadn’t returned to racing at 43.
But you can expect the unexpected from Dunkerley, a five-time Paralympic medallist. In 2005, he was struck by a car, breaking a leg and fracturing his skull. A year later, he won two gold medals at the IPC world championships.
In 2013, the visually-impaired, middle-distance runner donated one of his kidneys to his ailing wife. After a quick recovery process, Dunkerley rallied to resume training and qualified for Canada’s team to the 2013 worlds.
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So when the PA announcer listed Dunkerley’s accomplishments at his home stadium empty of spectators, it was to introduce him as one of the five runners for the 1,500 metres, a race that has brought him great joy.
Dunkerley has returned to training and competitive running and is focused on making the Canadian team for his sixth consecutive Paralympic Summer Games Aug. 24 to Sept. 5 in Tokyo.
If he can make the challenging International Paralympic Committee and Athletics Canada time standards and be picked for the Canadian Paralympic Committee team, he will be only the third Canadian to attend six Paralympic Games.
Clayton Gerein of Regina has the most Paralympic appearances for Canada at seven (1984-2008), winning 14 medals in wheelchair athletics. Arnold Boldt competed in six Games in athletics and cycling from 1976-92 and 2012.
“I’m trying to make a comeback. That’s the hope,” Dunkerley said in an interview a few days after running his 1,500 metres in four minutes and 27.24 seconds with guide Alex Berhe, which beat the minimum IPC standard of 4:32 (but fell just shy of the Athletics Canada minimum entry standard of 4:26.64).
“It wasn’t a fast time,” Dunkerley added. “I feel weird to have that time beside my name. But I’m a slow starter. I’m always that way. It’s the first meet and because there are so few meets, there’s a lot of scrutiny. People watch the results.”
Dunkerley and Berhe have until July 21 to impress the Paralympic team selectors. They are looking at meets in Guelph, Windsor and Toronto next week as well as the Ottawa Lions’ Twilight Series and the Canadian championships.
The IPC high performance time standard is 4:21.42 for Dunkerley’s T11 classification, while the Athletics Canada Top 8 standard is 4:16.20. The five-time Paralympic medallist’s personal-best time of 4:07.56 came at the London 2012 Games at age 35.
At the moment, Dunkerley’s first race time places him No. 11 in the IPC world rankings. He feels he can run 4:16. Japanese runners Shinya Wada and Kenya Karasawa are No. 1 and No. 2 with respective times of 4:11.90 and 4:12.08.
“I have been training a bit over a year, but I haven’t been racing because there have been very few opportunities,” Dunkerley added. “I never really stopped, but didn’t train as much. I feel capable of running.”
“I still feel like I can run fast. It’s hard work, and especially hard when you’re in your 40s. I lost my mom a couple of years ago and that put a lot of things in perspective. Life is short. If something is lingering, do it.”
Under the direction of new coach David Mather and the professional approach of Berhe, Dunkerley believes he can bring his 1,500-metre time down significantly in the next six weeks.
“My first race was not a great start, but it’s not unusual,” said Dunkerley, who started his 2016 season running 4:29 and finished at 4:07.98 for fifth place at the 2016 Rio Paralympics.
“There were nerves. I remembered all the instincts and feelings. I’ve done the 1,500 so much. It’s familiar. I remember the stages, how to execute and there was no better place to do it than here (Terry Fox Athletic Facility).”
At 43, Dunkerley and his team are tinkering with his training and trying to find the perfect plan – maybe more endurance workouts and less speed work, maybe two days of hard sessions instead of three.
Dunkerley’s drive to race in Tokyo also is motivated by one of his main rivals, who was born in the same year.
“The No. 1 world ranked runner (Shinya Wada) also was born in 1977. He is from Japan and we have talked at championships. He used his halting English. It gives me hope. If he can do it, why not me?”
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.
When the pandemic struck, Martin created the “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.