Jaryd Clifford will make history at the IAAF World U20 Championships in Tampere Finland next month when he becomes the first Australian Paralympian to compete at an 'able-bodied' world championships. But his pathway to achieve this nothing to do with the challengers of his visual impairment, have been an extraordinary achievement.
Clifford always ran in primary school but never made it past the district until grade six where he managed to make it to state cross country. In 2012 at the Australian All School cross country championships he was there to compete in the para event, but received a call up to fill a team vacancy in the able-bodied race.
He recalled this able-bodied debut.
“The night before the race I laid awake, terrified of what the morning would bring, fully resigned to the doom I was facing.”
The weather made it an even bigger challenge for the athlete born with a degenerative eye condition called Juvenile Macular Degeneration.
“As the gun fired – rain still pummelling the course, my rain specked goggles rendered ironically useless in the downpour – I ran as fast as my legs could carry me. It was the most brutal race of my life. At the finish line, I was numb with shock. Sixtieth and last place. Two-and-a-half minutes behind the winner, Josh Torley. ‘That was bloody ridiculous,’ I said to mum quietly. ‘I am never doing that again.”
However his ‘never again’ thoughts were soon forgotten when the Australian Paralympic Committee (APC) invited him to a talent search day
“I wasn’t very strong and I struggled with the power exercises, but when it came to the beep test I seemed to be in my element. They told me that running was the sport I should do,” recalled Clifford.
The APC even considered him capable of qualifying for the Rio Paralympics.
“I joined Diamond Valley AC in 2013 and began training twice a week under Max Balchin. I was really just enjoying the fact that I was doing something without being limited.”
By age 14, Jaryd Clifford was one of Australia's leading Paralympic distance runners. At the March 2014 Australian Junior Championships, he easily won the Ambulant U16 400m/800m and U20 1500m. But could he mix it with able-bods?
“Winning a national title was something I had never even dreamt of. To win three, that was beyond belief, but qualifying for an able-bodied track nationals wasn’t even a consideration. I really thought it was impossible.”
In August 2014 he ran his second able-bodied national championships, placing a very respectable 20th in the U16 cross country.
“I had only just snuck onto the Victorian team as the final qualifier. I was scared that it was going to be a repeat of 2012. For the first 3km, I had the race of my life, then it all unravelled. I only just got to the line and collapsed over it, I was at medical for the next hour. It was one of the toughest races of my life, but it was the race that made me realise I could contend with the able-bods, I just had to put my head down and work harder.”
There were more positive signs, and in December his ability was confirmed when in his Australian Championships track debut at the nationals schools he placed a brilliant fourth, in the U16 3000m in 9:09.55 - just missing a medal by 0.53 seconds.
“This was a breakthrough. For the whole race I felt out of place, like I shouldn’t be there. With 100m to go it came down to the crunch and I think I was still a bit bewildered at where I was in the race. I think this hesitancy cost me a medal, but it made me believe that maybe one day I could stand on that podium.”
There were more top-10s at national championships in 2015 and his international debut at the IPC World Championships where he placed seventh in the 5000m. He was the youngest in the field by eight years.
But in March 2016, aged only 16, he broke through for his first national medal. After a very quick 5000m in the U20 where he placed fifth in 15:09.17 and bronze in the U18 1500m clocking 4:00.28.
“Every time I stepped on the track I was surprising myself. I ran the under 20 5000m hoping to post a qualifier for the Rio Paralympic Games, but being only 16 I felt out of place. By the end of the race my mind had changed. Placing fifth with the Paralympic qualifier, I knew things were changing, I was improving out of sight. In the 1500m the last 100m seemed to last forever. I was pretty sure I was in the bronze medal position, but I didn’t know for sure. Then crossing the line, I knew for sure. Finally, I proved to myself I could take it to these guys.”
He went on to compete at the Rio Paralympics, placing seventh in the 1500m and 5000m and closed the year with another national medal - a silver in the U18 3000m at the 2016 Australian All Schools.
By this stage it looked like an extraordinary achievement of a place in an able-bodied team, the 2018 IAAF World U20 Championships, was possible if he could continue to develop.
In the U20 1500m at the March 2017 Australian Championships he was the third age-eligible for the World U20s, however the race was missing some threats like Jackson Sharp, Zachary Facioni and Josh Torley.
“I ran 3:49 in early 2017, but I never thought about World U20s, there were just too many guys that were faster than me.”
At the end of summer Jaryd's PBs were now down to 3:49.05 (1500m), 8:31 (3000m) and 15:01.39 (5000m).
“In May, Philo Saunders began coaching me and he instilled in me a belief that maybe I could. Without a para championship in 2018, I needed something to aim for, so I started dreaming big.”
He had 12 months to secure selection for the World U20s, but now as a seasoned international he needed double peaks, as in July 2017 he would contest the IPC World Para-Athletics Championships in London. Just days after his 18th birthday he won bronze in the 1500m - his first international podium place.
In Part II we hear about how Jaryd’s overenthusiastic training stint almost disrupted his tilt at World Junior representation
David Tarbotton for Athletics Australia