Supporting Canadian Athletes

Jason Dunkerley

Shrugging off his disability as “it’s all I’ve ever known”, it is easy to understand why blind runner Jason Dunkerley currently sits among the best in the world in middle distance T-11* running. Not letting anything stop him from reaching his goals, the easy-going 30-year-old shrugs off most challenges he faces and in fact is always searching for new ones to take on. It is that determination that led him to volunteer to be an athlete rep for Athletics Canada in 2005. And he recently expanded his athlete leadership resume when he was elected to the AthletesCAN board of directors in September 2007.

“The chance to become involved in athlete leadership has enabled me to learn from being around inspiring leaders and advocates, and to be engaged with our sport community and the key issues it faces,” says Jason. “I feel that the strong tradition of athlete advocacy in Canada is crucial to uphold, and I hope to continue to evolve and to encourage others to develop as athlete leaders in order to keep the athlete voice alive.”

Jason’s commitment to keeping that voice alive is significant considering he himself is lucky to be alive. Jogging home from a hockey game along the Rideau Canal in Ottawa in 2005, Jason and fellow vision impaired runner Stuart McGregor were hit by a car. Jason suffered a fractured skull and a broken leg, but not a broken spirit. He vowed to come back stronger then ever and he has done just that. 2007 was Jason’s best year on the track and he has high hopes for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.

Jason and his two younger brothers—twins John and Chris—were born blind due to a genetic condition. The boys, along with sighted sister Nicola, grew up in Newtownardes, Northern Ireland, where Jason says despite his lack of sight, he had a pretty normal childhood.

“Sometimes it’s hard for parents not to shelter disabled children for safety reasons, but our parents always told us to go out and play,” says Jason, whose parents divorced when he was eight. “The other kids were pretty accommodating. They would tie a bag around a soccer ball so we could hear it coming.”

Immigrating to Canada (Hamilton, Ont.) at age 13 when his mother remarried, Jason attended W. Ross MacDonald School for the blind where he participated in a variety of sports. The school encouraged extra curricular activity and Jason “did it all”—running in the fall; wrestling, swimming and goalball in the winter; and track-and-field in the spring.

“I enjoyed running the most,” he says. “But, I never expected it to lead where it did.”

Encouraged by his teachers to pursue his running, Jason began to train more seriously and made big improvements in his last year of high school. He was excited about running at the University of Guelph, where he went to study international development, but found the transition wasn’t as easy as he’d hoped. The coach of the track team and the track athletes had never worked with a blind athlete and while Jason says everyone was accommodating, it took him a while to hit his stride.

“It was a frustrating time in some ways because the bulk of the encouragement had to come from me,” says Jason. “No one was questioning how often I ran or didn’t run but myself. After a while, people realized that I was very motivated and began to help me without me having to ask. It wasn’t an easy start, but it worked out.”

During training sessions, Jason’s fellow athletes would take turns guiding him through his runs. That arrangement worked well at the time, but when he qualified for his first international competition—the 1998 World Blind Games in Madrid, Spain—Jason knew he had to find someone to work with him on a consistent basis. He was introduced to Greg Dailey six weeks before leaving for Madrid and Greg agreed to train and compete with Jason leading up to and at the Games. When the pair won gold in the 1500m and set a personal best by seven seconds, Greg made the decision to work with Jason long term.

“That experience helped Greg realize I had a lot of untapped potential and he committed to help me reach my goals,” say Jason, whose next big competition was the 2000 Paralympics in Sydney where he and Greg won a silver medal. “Since then we’ve worked on a year-by-year basis and we’re now in our tenth year.”

The pair continued to have success in the 800m and 1500m after Sydney, and to date have won 10 gold medals in international events including two at the 2001 Parapanams and two at the 2007 Parapanams. They also brought home a silver medal from the 2004 Parlaympics in Athens.

For Jason, having the medals placed around his neck is always bittersweet as Greg doesn’t get to enjoy the same accolades. Jason says the issue of guides receiving medals has been brought up with the International Paralympic Committee numerous times and the response is always that the issue is being looked at.

“It’s really a team effort and Greg trains and competes just as hard as I do,” he says. “I’m lucky he’s stayed with me for long. A lot of guides quit because they get tired of the lack of recognition.”

Jason answered Athletics Canada’s call for an athlete rep in 2005 because he felt it was a good opportunity to develop some new skills. In his three years as the rep, Jason has embraced his role and enjoys being the liaison between athletes and the national sport organization.

“I like making sure athletes are represented accurately,” says Jason. “It’s important that athletes have a voice to speak for them.”

His formal introduction to AthletesCAN came when he attended his first AthletesCAN Forum in Fredericton, N.B., in 2006. Not knowing what to expect because he knew little of what AthletesCAN was about, Jason left the Forum feeling “incredibly inspired to speak up and ask questions and not accept the status quo.”

So inspired was Jason that at the 2007 Forum in Whitehorse, Y.T., he ran for the board of directors and was elected.

“I wanted to be a part of it,” he says. “I really like telling people about AthletesCAN and passing on the vision.”

Jason also likes to encourage other athletes to get involved in athlete leadership. He says athletes are their own best advocates and no one is in a better position to speak about what matters most to athletes than athletes themselves.

“Being national team athletes predisposes us to the opportunity to develop through involvement in leadership, both personally and professionally,” he says. “Becoming involved in athlete leadership has enabled me to learn from being around inspiring leaders and advocates, and to be engaged with our sport community and the key issues it faces.”

Jason moved to Ottawa in 2003 to be with his future wife Colleen. He currently trains with the Ottawa Lions at their state-of-the-art facility that boasts one of only a handful of 400m indoor tracks in the world. And while Jason won’t know if he is heading to Beijing until July, he is confident.

“I think we have a good chance for sure,” he says. “The key is to keep training and not to get sick or injured.”

After Beijing, things are up in the air until Jason and Greg sit down for their yearly assessment. But, coming off of their best season since 2000, Jason says he will most likely keep competing.

“Before last year I was really wondering if I could get back to where I wanted to be,” he says. “Coming off of our best year ever, it’s hard to think of stopping. However, I’ve always thought it would be nice to stop when I was at or near my best. I admire the athletes who recognize when they are there and do not hang on too long.”

Completing an RBC Olympians Program position in September 2007, Jason currently works part-time for T-Base Communications—a company that liaises with banks and telecommunications companies to produce materials (for example statements or bills) for the blind and visually impaired. He is also launching his own speaking business and he and Colleen hope to start a family in the next couple of years.

*Visually impaired running is split into three categories. T-11 runners have zero vision, T-12 runners have up to five per cent vision and T-13 runners have up to 10 per cent vision.

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