Jason Dunkerley

This month we talked to the two-time medal winner at the 2012 London Paralympic games (and Ottawa resident) about how he got his start as an elite middle distance runner, what he sees next for the Paralympic movement, and what he loves about the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend.

1. How long have you been running? How did you get started as a middle distance runner?
I was always fairly active as a kid but started running more seriously in high school. I went to a school for blind students where we were encouraged to try different sports, and I caught the running bug and have been running since.

2. As a visually impaired athlete, you run with a guide, Josh Karenga. How did you and Josh connect?
Josh Karenga was coached in high school by my current coach, Ian Clark. Josh returned to Ottawa last summer after finishing up a track scholarship at Eastern Michigan University, where he had been an all-American in the steeplechase. At the time, I was looking for guide running help and Josh agreed to give it a try. He had never guided previously but we clicked right away and made the decision to move forward as a team with the London Paralympics in mind.

3. In 2012, organizers of the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend introduced a new category for blind and visually impaired runners in the 10K event. What has the response been like to the new category?
The response was overwhelmingly positive with nineteen blind and visually impaired participants. I actually think it did a lot to place visually impaired running on the map in the national capital area. Many people who are visually impaired do not grow up with sports and are never encouraged to participate in physical activity. I think the race did two really good things: it provided a “safe” and welcoming environment for prospective visually impaired participants who might have been sitting on the fence on whether to come out; and it also showed the public that people of all abilities can participate. This is the notion we promote at the organization I work for, the Active Living Alliance for Canadians with a Disability, which is a national movement committed to the health of the 15 % of Canadians who have a disability.

At Ottawa Race Weekend, the Visually Impaired category was added for the first time in 2012, just a couple of months ahead of the race, so there’s huge potential to promote the race more widely this year and hopefully attract others to come from out of town. There was some disappointment among our community this past year that race organizers did not differentiate the Visually Impaired category in the race results, as with the wheelchair category for example. We’re hoping this might change this year, now that we have a year behind us and the potential to really grow the level of participation this upcoming year and in future years.

4. Any hopes and/or plans for future Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend events (either personally or as an advocate for blind and visually impaired runners)? What else is Achilles Ottawa working on right now?

Yes, we would absolutely love to be involved in future races – speaking for Achilles Ottawa and myself personally, it’s a terrific event – one of the high points for many of our Achilles Ottawa athletes. Ottawa Race Weekend is one of the races we are going to target in 2013.

In terms of current Achilles Ottawa initiatives, we’re currently planning our first Annual General Meeting, which will take place in November and at which we will come away with our first elected Board. In addition to holding our regular Thursday evening group runs over by Mooney’s Bay, we are hoping to continue to recruit new members (visually impaired as well as guides), we’re revamping our website (www.achillesottawa.ca), and we’re looking at producing Achilles running bibs to distinguish blind athletes and guides for recognition and safety.

5. What makes the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend unique or rewarding in your opinion? Any special Race Weekend memories?

I think Race Weekend is unique and special because of the community it brings together. Everyone seems to come out of the woodwork – from elite to recreational runners, young, old, and everyone in between. And they all start on the same starting line. You also tend to see people you haven’t bumped into in years, and everyone is keen to “give it a try and lay it on the line” – to test their training to see where they’re at. I guess it has something to do with human optimism and the hope of overcoming and succeeding. In a city where winter lasts for so long, Ottawa Race Weekend coincides with the beginning of summer. There is a really positive, supportive vibe. There are few road races that are held in the evening, in the case of the 5 and 10 km races, and few that really reach out to the city in the way that Ottawa Race Weekend does. I’ve raced twice and was not in great shape either time, so my memories are of hurting! But the energy and crowd support and running on your own turf so to speak is pretty special. It’s really a beautiful race.

6. You recently competed in the London 2012 Paralympic Games, winning bronze in the 1500m and silver in the 5000m. Congratulations! Your running coach, Ian Clark, remarked that London 2012 marked a clear turning point in the Paralympics and the para-sport movement. How does it feel to be a part of that? What will help the para-sport movement continue to grow and flourish?

I think the Para movement has evolved a lot during the time I’ve been competing. It’s an exciting time for sure. To see the venues packed in London, and the intense media scrutiny and public awareness in the UK shows that the Games are really beginning to come of age. And seeing Oscar Pestorius’s outburst after losing in the 100m and the British cyclist breaking down after being disqualified – this is real. It’s raw and unchecked emotion at its best, which is such an intimate part of high performance sport.

At one time there may have been the view that “everyone is a winner” with respect to the Paralympics. That’s definitely no longer the case. It feels good to be still competing at a time when the Games are starting to earn the credibility they deserve. The world’s disabled athletes are getting better and part of the driving force behind this comes from incentives available to many athletes. As in able-bodied sport, incentives encourage people to “bend” rules sometimes. The classification system, which categorizes athletes into functional groupings based on their degree of disability, is a flawed system that is not effectively enforced by the International Paralympic Committee. It’s not difficult for athletes to cheat the system and “pretend” that they’re more severely disabled, with an end result that they compete with an unfair advantage. It’s probably the worst kept secret in Paralympic sport and advancing the movement from where it is now is really going to be contingent to a large extent on the International Paralympic Committee addressing this systemic issue.

Thanks Jason! To visit the Achilles Ottawa website, click here.