“An Inner Strength,” Global Histories: Ireland (2020)
“An Inner Strength,” Global Histories: Ireland
Growing up in Londonderry, Northern Ireland, Jason Smyth’s dream was to play professional football. “I always wanted to play for Liverpool,” he recalled. But at age eight, around the time he was baptized, he began to have problems seeing and was diagnosed with Stargardt disease, which affects central vision. Finding the football on the field grew difficult, but Smyth continued to play, relying on his speed. “If I had the ball at my feet,” he said, “I could run past anybody.”
When Smyth was 16, a teacher encouraged him to try competing as a runner instead. While training safely without his full sight required extra effort, his vision presented fewer challenges competing as a runner than it did in football. Under perfect conditions, Jason can only see the white lane lines as blurs in his peripheral vision. When the track is wet, however, the lines are completely obscured by the glare. Not being able to see the finish line until he crossed it made it impossible for him to dip toward the finish line, as most runners do to win close races, but he could still win by running strong all through the course.
Working with a talent he felt he’d been given by God could be both a blessing and a challenge. “Everybody has something that they’re incredibly good at,” he reflected. “It’s so easy to doubt yourself and so easy to look at what you can’t do and beat yourself up about it.” For him, the gospel plays a vital role in pressing forward through the obstacles. “Who I am as a person is because of my faith,” he noted. “It gives me a greater perspective of what is important in life, as well as an inner strength that motivates me to do better.”
As he reached elite performance levels, both Britain and Ireland offered Jason the chance to represent them at the Paralympics as a runner. Jason chose Ireland. At his first Paralympics in 2008 he brought home gold medals and set world records in both his events, the 100-meter and 200-meter races. A few years later, he became one of the few legally blind runners to compete at elite levels outside the Paralympics, running with the Irish relay team in the 2011 European Team Championships and bringing home a bronze medal. He also won gold medals in the 2012 and 2016 Paralympics and missed qualifying for the 2012 Olympics by just 0.04 seconds.
In the midst of all this success, however, Jason worked to keep perspective. “This part of my life and my track is only a small period of time, and it also isn’t the most important thing,” he said. For him, his temple marriage, children, and faith needed to come first as a foundation in life and as preparation for eternity.