Jaryd Clifford: Being Number One

Diamond Valley’s 21-year old will be the first member in the club’s history to wear the number one bib. Coinciding with the International Day of People with Disability, AV sat down with Clifford, who in 2019 became a double world champion over 1500m and 5000m (T13), defeating the 2016 Paralympic Champion Abdellatif Baka (Algeria) over 1500m and breaking Baka’s world record in the process (3:47.78). 

Clifford contextualises his achievements and addresses the common misconception in the para-athletics space.

As the 2021 Paralympics Games draw closer, Clifford chuckles at the opening query:

What do people misunderstand about the Paralympics?

“Throughout my career, there has been an obsession with the question: “are you going to try and qualify for the Olympic Games one day?”.

“My answers have been published on TV, radio, and in the newspapers always following my breakthrough performances on the para-athletics scene. My answer is simple: When I wake up in the morning, I dream of Paralympic gold. When I go for a run, I dream of Paralympic gold. When I go to sleep at night, I dream of Paralympic gold. I’m a proud Paralympian and this will forever be the greatest honour in my career regardless of any able-bodied exploits that may or may not happen.”

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Clifford explains he’s regularly involved in conversations where individuals from many sporting spheres converge on a common point:

“How good would it be for the Paralympic Games to join the Olympic Games as one gigantic carnival of sport?”

Clifford is quick to outline his thoughts on the recurring topic, “The Paralympic Games is not the Olympic Games and it does not need the Olympic Games to succeed – billions of TV viewers and sold-out stadiums since Sydney 2000 exemplify that we are doing just fine.”

Clifford emphasises this point through illustrating what the Paralympic Games provides.

“The Paralympic Games provides a window where people with disabilities from around the world take centre stage. It is a chance to showcase that the stereotypes created by society over thousands of years are completely deluded. Disability does not have to define someone. Disability is not the end of the world. And, that people with disabilities must be inferior to able-bodied people simply because of the disabled label.”

Clifford encourages anyone who feels the need to compare the events to look locally.

“Watch the Paralympic Games, watch the junior para-athlete coming up through the ranks. They can do things most people couldn’t dream of. The spectacle of sport and humanity that defines the Paralympic Games is unparalleled. We aren’t here to prove ourselves in a competition with the Olympic Games. We are who we are, and we’re bloody proud of it. Just as Olympians can be heroes for young para-athletes, it is time for Paralympians to receive the recognition that leads to us being heroes for all people from all walks of life.”

Awarding Clifford with the number one bib involved assessment of his 2019-20 season. This task resulted in a clear conclusion – Clifford’s achievements marked a paradigm shift in Australian para-athletics. The first para-athlete to compete in the able-bodied World Athletics Under 20 Championships in the history of the event, Clifford’s trajectory continued to loftier heights in 2019.

Building on a breakout season, 2019 saw Clifford become a double world champion over 1500m and 5000m (T13). Clifford defeated the 2016 Paralympic Champion Abdellatif Baka (Algeria) over 1500m, breaking Baka’s world record in the process (3:47.78). Retrospective discussion of Clifford’s accolade list brought up the next misconception: “Australia must win quite often at the Paralympics, right?”

Clifford grins upon hearing this classic trope.

“Australia has only had 4 Paralympic Games champions in ambulant distance-running classifications in history (less than Olympic champions):

  1. Rob Biancucci – Cerebral Palsy 800m in 1988. His winning time was similar to Edwin Flack’s time when winning the first Olympic gold medal.
  2. David Evans – Arm-Amputee 1500m in 1996.
  3. Paul Mitchell – Intellectual Impairment 1500m in 2000.
  4. James Turner – Cerebral Palsy 800m in 2016.”

Scrolling through Paralympic distance running results, a trend becomes clear immediately – Kenya, Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. These four nations have shown a near-unbreakable stranglehold on visually-impaired distance running since 2000. The possibility that an Australian might break this trend is momentous.

“Sometimes people possess the misconception that winning a gold medal at the Paralympic Games is easy. Some people believe that we only recognise Paralympic achievements due to some kind of inclusivity agenda. This is wrong. Historically, Australia has won more gold medals at the Olympic Games than the Paralympic Games in distance running, and we have more chances with different classifications. People watch Michael Roeger, Deon Kenzie, and myself winning world titles and think ‘this must be normal’. No, this is just a golden era for Australian Paralympic distance running. Winning a gold medal at the Paralympic Games is as tough as anything.”

Clifford tackles the most frustrating misconception last, “Well, your legs work alright, what’s vision got to do with running performance?”

Clifford was diagnosed with juvenile macular degeneration at the age of 3. The condition affects his central vision making jostling for position in a 1500m pack complex. When fully rested, Clifford can see a blurred outline of sorts of the objects immediately in front of him. Racing 1500m is often characterised as a balancing act between fatigue and pace, made more difficult by Clifford’s vision worsening when fatigued. Throw in differing light conditions, and Clifford’s description of “winging it” becomes rather apt.

“Running a 1500m by myself, in a pack, and going absolutely hell-for-leather is one of the scariest things I will ever do. There is a lot going on in those moments but I guess it’s something you get used to. People marvel at how I manage to get around a track. Well, I would like to ask them the same question. I learnt to run with my vision impairment and, like them, I can’t comprehend any alternative perspective. It’s the same as walking down the street. I learnt to adapt, to grit my teeth and just do it because the alternative is to sit at home feeling sorry for yourself”

Clifford reiterates that this mindset is one he carries with him day to day.

“The human mind has this powerful ability to adapt and I guess this is what I am harnessing to not only get through life but properly give life a red-hot crack – why wouldn’t you? That’s not to say I don’t run into things, fall over, make a fool of myself because I couldn’t see something – that stuff happens all of the time. But to live life in fear of failing or in fear of a bit of pain would be as boring as it gets. I don’t have time to wrap myself in cotton wool.”

Loss of vision tends to evoke a powerful fear of sorts in people Clifford meets, and the concept isn’t lost on the young middle-distance runner.

“I think people are scared of the idea of not seeing. People cannot comprehend it and that becomes a fear for they think if it ever happened to them then their life would descend into a relentless struggle. When I run, I’m running into that which I cannot see. I trust the people I’m with and I trust that the places I know haven’t changed since the last time I ran there. In longer races, especially off the track, the verbal instructions I receive reassure me that I can continue to hurtle into this unseen space without hurting myself. Running with my best mate and guide Tim Logan is one of the greater feelings I get in running because I have no hesitation to trust him with my life. If he says the path is clear, the path is clear and I’m more than happy to run as hard as I can into the unseen. It takes time to get rid of this fear. But when you do, it is the most liberating feeling.”

A dominant force in para-athletics at 21, Clifford’s 2019-20 season marked a historic shift in distance running, locally and globally. Victorious at a major championship, a world record holder in his pet event, Diamond Valley’s first recipient of the number one bib – Jaryd Clifford.