A Very American Coup By Michael – Louis Ingram, Editor-in-Chief...
By Art George-Special to BASN
Outrunning what he can’t see, the fastest blind man in the world is American David Brown, established by his gold medal in the 100 meter sprint in the “T11” category for completely blind runners in September’s Rio Paralympics. Right alongside him was his sighted guide runner Jerome Avery, a former Olympic aspirant who has found his place as a world class guide runner. Just behind them by less than a quarter of a second, also running blind, were Felipe Gomes of Brazil and Ananias Shikongo of Namibia, with their sighted guides.
In blind Paralympic running, teamwork is key. In each T11 race, the blind runners are accompanied by their sighted guides, who must maintain but not lead the pace of their competitor and channel them within their lanes, while running hard. These are not just “feel good” races. Brown’s time was 10.99 seconds; many competitors representing the best of their nations had slower times as they lost qualifying heats in the regular Olympics.
Gomes and Shikongo also pushed endurance with speed, as they went on to medal in the 200 meters (gold for Shikongo, silver for Gomes), the 400 meters (silver for Gomes, bronze for Shikongo), and the 4×100 relay (gold for Gomes with the Brazilian team, bronze for Shikongo and Namibia). Brown did not compete in the other races.
The 100-meter sprint is considered track’s defining sprint event; thus, Jamaican world record holder Usain Bolt is considered the planet’s fastest man with his time of 9.58 set in 2009. Brown was the first man to break 11 seconds in the T11 100 meter, with his world record time of 10.92 in a Paralympics-sanctioned meet in 2014. Bolt clocked 9.81 in the Rio Olympics, just more than a second faster than Brown who was running blind and tied to another runner.
FASTER THAN OLYMPIANS
In another Paralympic event, the 1500 meter run in the T13 category for runners who are extremely visually impaired, “legally blind” but not completely blind, the top four places actually finished faster than the winning gold medal time in the regular Olympics. Abdellatif Baka of Algeria beat by more than 1.7 seconds the time turned in by Olympic champion Matthew Centrowitz.
Baka set a new Paralympic world record and had the fastest 1500 meter time by either an able-bodied or disabled athlete in Rio’s Olympic and Paralympic games. The second, third, and fourth place times also were all faster than Centrowitz. Silver went to Tamiru Demisse of Ethiopia, bronze to Kenya’s Henry Kiwa.
Baka’s time was 3:38.29. Centrowitz clocked 3:50:00, unusually slow for the Olympics, as he set a slow pace with the intention to drop his opponents with a sprint over the last 400 meters. Centrowitz’ personal best for the distance is 3:30.4 which would have put him far ahead of the fastest Paralympian at Rio, but the actual times as recorded were noteworthy as Paralympians beat Olympians, according to the clock on a given day.
THE GUIDE PROCESS
David Brown’s sighted guide is Jerome Avery, who had a personal best for the 100 meters of 10.17 in 2004. He clocked 10.26 in the 2004 Olympic trials but did not qualify for the United States team, and missed again in 2008, acknowledging then that his dream of individual glory was not to be. Some of his records remain at Fresno City College in California; he won some meets in Europe, but fifteenth fastest in the country is fast, albeit not fast enough. Instead, he discovered guide running.
In 2004, he worked with blind long jumper Elexis Gillette to a silver medal in the Athens Paralympics. He said he experienced an internal shift, realizing that helping someone else was an “awesome experience. I never made it to this level, but I’m able to help someone else realize their dreams and accomplish their goals.” In 2008, he helped guide Josiah Jamison to gold in the T12 category 100-meter.
Brown and Avery had only been together a few months when Brown broke T11 world records in the 100 and 200 meters in April 2014, marking the first time both records fell to the same person in a 24-hour span.
As they run, Brown and Avery are held together by a six-inch length of braided shoelace linked to their fingers. The cord has shortened from twelve inches originally separating them to only six inches as they became more synchronized, running more together. Avery helps Brown get set in the starting blocks and positions him behind the starting line. Avery will count off elapsed distances and instruct Brown to “drive” or “push” or other advice. He will advise where they are on the track and whether they need to alter positions.
Their coach, Brazilian Joaquim Cruz, won gold in the 800 meter run at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and silver in 1988 in Seoul, Korea. They train together at Team USA training facility in Chula Vista, CA, where athletes are provided lodging and meals so they can train full time. Avery is also employed in shoe sales by Dick’s Sporting Goods in a program that provides supplemental income to athletes and trainers.
TRUST AND SERVICE
Cruz has said that building trust between the runner and guide is the most difficult part of training. At one point, Brown tended to lean a bit to his left, dipping his head slightly toward Avery, as he worried about losing contact with his partner, and this imperfection could result in slower time. As they train, they must correlate strides and movements. “Don’t run me into anything,” Brown thinks. “You have that fear.” Avery has said that Brown’s start is so explosive that he had to adjust his own.
Cruz said that it takes a specific kind of athlete to be a guide, and the talent pool is extremely small, consisting of runners who have elite speed but fall short themselves of Olympic standards. Avery was discovered to meet those criteria, and also have a skill for mimicking other athletes’ arm swing and stride. At one point in Brown’s training, he was running faster than another guide could match, and Avery was substituted in.
An additional characteristic is necessary for a guide: he must be able to sacrifice his own dreams. Many talented sprinters come and go through the guide program, but don’t stick when they must commit to another’s success and forego their own.
Cruz himself had issues of trust as a coach for the U.S. team. As a competitor for Brazil in 1988, he suggested that the successes of track star Florence “Flo-Jo” Griffith-Joyner were due to steroids, and that her sister-in-law Olympic medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee looked like a “gorilla,” also from drug enhancement. He then denied making the remarks, before a video interview surfaced in which the remarks were recorded. Neither Griffith-Joyner nor Joyner-Kersee ever tested positive.
This year, as a Brazilian who had attended college in the United States, Cruz was training American athletes to compete in his native country at the Rio Olympics against Brazilian athletes. David Brown’s chief rival was Brazilian Felipe Gomes, the second-place runner in the 100 meter, who had beaten Brown in other meets. Cruz consults with Brazilian sports councils, and has advised other national teams on preparing for the Rio games in terms of travel, Brazilian culture, and diet.
In the 2007 Pan American games in Brazil, Cruz lit the cauldron as a Brazilian Olympic hero, but coached the U.S. team. He admitted his divided identity was strange, but has grown more comfortable with the idea. His commitment and competitive drive, he says, is to the athletes he coaches, although he could cheer for Brazil as well. He has said he loves his homeland, but loves his athletes more.
At age 23, Brown is young, with years of potential yet untapped. Avery says that Brown is the blind Usain Bolt. To run just more than a second off of Bolt’s pace, blind, while tied to another person, Avery says, is nothing less than extreme.
At age 36, Avery trains to help Brown succeed. He pushes himself hard, so that he can push Brown. Avery does not reveal when his own body experiences the pain of training, so as not to distract Brown. His place on the championship track is one of service.