The Race that ran faster than the Olympics:
My Story by Jaryd Clifford (Australia, 17 years old)
It was dark underneath the stadium, dust was thick in the air and the room smelt strongly of sweat. I ran my tongue over my cracking lips, trying to wet them. I could feel the tension of the place in my every muscle. The noise of the crowd above was muffled but still gently shook the concrete pillars that held the stands in place. Fourteen of us visually impaired runners waited in nervous anticipation for our turn. Our hearts were hammering, our minds telling us that “this was our chance to run in front of the world, to show the world how fast we really are”.
These exact words entered my mind without any realisation to how true they would prove once our race had run its course. We were about to run in a race that would be replayed on television screens around the globe, make up headlines of major newspapers throughout the world and become one of the most talked about events of the Games.
It was only a statistic, but it sparked something special.
The call “it’s time” came in Portuguese. My heart was really thumping now. I could feel it pulsating through the green and gold of my singlet as if it were fighting to escape my body, as though it knew what it was about to endure. I reached for a towel to wipe the sweat from my palms, but even this simple task seemed too much. I was trembling.
As we began the walk up through the tunnel, getting closer to the track, doubts began to chase each other through my head “Was I ready for this? What if…? What if…?” It was too late to turn back. I knew that my parents and sister would be out there amongst the crowd, my friends were back home glued to their TV screens, all relying on me to finish and expecting nothing less than for me to do my best.
As we continued up the tunnel, I quickly stopped, closing my eyes. I took a deep breath and gathered my thoughts “this is the Paralympic Games, you are 17 years old. What do you have to lose?”
When I opened my eyes, I felt a friendly hand on my back. A volunteer gesturing me to move forward. I slipped my racing glasses over my eyes with a newfound readiness and followed the back of Chaz Davis, the American, unflinchingly out into the flashing colours and deafening roar of the Rio stadium. It was all worth it, the thousands of kilometres and hours of pushing my body to its limits. All worth it to experience that moment of stepping out into the Paralympic stadium. I will never forget it.
We were lined up in a row. I am sure we all felt it, a sense of camaraderie. It reminded me of stories that I had listened to as a child, of warriors before battle, their silent common understanding of what each other was experiencing. We were all in the same position. We had our own battle, our one chance every four years. It was a brief yet settling moment, but my mind quickly returned to the task at hand, after all these were my competitors.
I was on the outside and first introduced. My name boomed throughout the stadium. Goose bumps quickly spreading over my skin as I realised my face was being beamed to millions of people across the planet. It felt as though the whole world was watching. I imagined to them I was Jaryd Clifford, Australia, but to me I was the skinny Aussie with the goggles, the boy running amongst men and as the camera continued along the line of runners, my body gave a shiver.
All of a sudden, the crowd erupted into an ear splitting unanimous explosion, at least that is what it felt like. I jumped forward for a second thinking the race was starting without me. Startled, I looked around and remembered the two Brazilians in my race. The noise made by the crowd for them was both inexplicably scary and exciting. One of the greatest moments of my life.
The starter then called us to our marks. My toe up to the line, my legs now uncontrollably shaking. This was it, the time had come. All I had to do now was run 1500m.
When the gun went, the crowd erupted once more. As my body left the relative sanctuary of the start line, for the first time I smelt the rubber at my feet, I was running at last. My legs stretched out, flowing and feeling their way to the first bend. The excitable roar that filled the stand from top to bottom followed us around the stadium. It was chasing us, breathing down our necks, egging us to go faster and faster.
As I ran down the home straight for the first time, I had a clear run. The nerves had left me, I was flying now, did I dare think of a medal?
I had no idea of pace, but over the next lap I realised the race must be quick. I slipped steadily to the back of the field. Bodies pressed around me, closing in on me, leaving me no room to move. I began to panic. I was being pushed, shoved and then I stumbled. I managed to save myself from hitting the hard blue rubber of the track, but I was shaken up. Now, I could not hear the crowd, could not see the colours flashing in and out of my vision, my only thought was of getting to the finish line.
One lap to go, the bell must have rung. The gaps had opened and I could now confidently navigate my way forward. I passed the American, then the Canadian, then quickly the Brazilian, then the Moroccan or was that the Tunisian? It did not matter. I was nearly there, my arms pumping, my legs burning. I saw a figure just ahead of me, I pushed harder trying desperately to catch whoever it was. Where was the line? My legs were screaming at me now to stop and give in, but the figure was coming closer, I pushed on, the line was just there. It was over, I had finished.
I had no idea of position or time. I saw blue, that must be Chaz, my American friend. I embraced him and it all came rushing back. The noise, the bright lights, the dancing colours. The stadium seemed to be shaking, I heard someone say “World Record”. What a race, the adrenaline was pumping. All I felt was overwhelming, indescribable emotion.
Someone grabbed my arm and led me to a group of cameramen. I was too overwhelmed by the moment to understand what was going on, but it soon registered this must be Channel 7. I did my interview. The memory is simply a blur.
As I began to walk from the stadium, my mind already all consumed of plans to do it again. Next time, I would be at the front, next time I would push for a medal, maybe even gold. Next time was four years away, Tokyo 2020. My mind was set. Before I left for good, I turned and faced out into the cauldron of colour and noise one last time before leaving with a parting thought “Bring it on”.
Over the next week, social media was alight with articles and analysis. The winner of the race, Abdellatif Baka of Algeria, had run and won the 1500m in a time of 3:48.29. This time was just under two seconds quicker than the time Matt Centrowitz of the USA ran when winning the Olympic 1500m Final only weeks earlier. A feat which sparked much media attention.
Track and Field fans appreciate that these races are incomparable, that the tactics used vastly differentiated the two races. However, it was still a statistic nonetheless, a race that would come to be known as “The race that ran faster than the Olympics”.
It was a privilege to be a part of such a race. I finished 7th and a few days later matched that with another 7th in the 5000m. I was now to myself and to everyone, Jaryd Clifford, Australian Paralympian.
I have started 2017 with a bang! Running 3:49.05 over the 1500m and 14:51.38 over 5000m. The 2017 Para World Championships are scheduled for July in London and I am dreaming big!
In 2018, I am aiming to qualify for the IAAF World Junior Championships, which would be a first for a Para Athlete.
To follow my journey onwards to Tokyo 2020 you can follow me on Instagram (@jarydclifford) or on Strava.