Jaryd Clifford: ‘Sport is so much more than a medal’

Jaryd Clifford was in shock. As he crossed the line in second place in the men’s 5000m T13, the 22-year-old was physically exhausted. He staggered around, briefly congratulated his competitors, y luego, as the commentator David Culbert put it, Clifford went off for a moment to lose his lunch.

But the shock went beyond the physical. In the post-race interview, Clifford broke down as he talked of not achieving his goal, and of racing for his late grandfather, who’d had tickets for the Games back when Japan still had plans to fill the stands. His grandfather died before Clifford’s big day.

“It wasn’t good enough for what I wanted today,” Clifford said on Channel 7. “But I gave it everything. I’m pretty cooked, pretty emotional and that’s a testament to where Paralympic sport is. No medal is a guarantee ever. And I knew that.”

Clifford grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Greensborough and now trains in Canberra under the tutelage of esteemed coach Philo Saunders. He came to Tokyo with one goal in mind. He’d won gold at the last para-athletics world championships and was viewed by many as the hot favourite. Gold at Tokyo was the logical next step.

So when Spainaird Yassin Ouhdadi el Ataby bolted for the finish about 250m from home, Clifford seemed, maybe only for a split second, a little stunned.

Around the bend Clifford fought, in the final straight he lifted again, but no matter how he lengthened his strides, he drew no closer to el Ataby. It was an exceptional run from the Spaniard.

Clifford’s outpouring of emotion is not a surprise. He writes for the Runners Tribe website with style, heart and an understanding of rhythm that you might say mirrors his talent as a runner.

Clifford’s eyesight began to worsen in primary school due to a condition called juvenile macular degeneration. His sight continues to deteriorate, meaning that in some races, he now runs with a guide.

Hace tres años, he wrote movingly about his first race in the Australian National Cross Country, Envejecido 13. Clifford had been called up to race in the able-bodied competition, but wrote about how he’d been too shy to mix with his teammates.

“The other boys knew that, después de todo, I was only there as the token inclusion, the one to make up the numbers," el escribio. “A late withdrawal had left the able-bodied team one runner short. As it was too late to call upon the rightful replacement and I was already running in the para race, I was their only option. Unceremoniously I found myself thrown into the chaos of battle for the very first time.”

His glasses quickly fogged and within two minutes of the start of the race, he was all alone. He finished dead last.

Clifford wrote of the scene post-race: ‘That was bloody ridiculous,’ I said to Mum quietly. ‘I am never doing that again.’ I could not have been more wrong…”

En sábado, Clifford’s emotional interview drew messages of support from some of Australian athletics’ biggest names.

“How lucky are we to have [Jaryd Clifford] as an Aussie,” said the olympian Tamsyn Manou on Twitter. “The Aussie aths are community are so proud of you.”

Kurt Fearnley, a three-time gold medallist and perhaps Australia’s most recognisable Paralympian, said in a tweet: “Sometimes these moments get ya. You’re exhausted. The second you think of the people you love, [y] if that is linked to loss, you’re gone…. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s beautiful.”

Luego, Clifford returned to the track for another interview. Under a still scorching Tokyo sun that had sent him, brevemente, onto a stretcher under medical supervision, Clifford allowed his spirits to lift. A least a little.

He watched as Channel 7 broadcast an interview with his family, wearing special Jaryd Clifford t-shirts, no less, and heard as his father explained Clifford’s unusual training methods during one Melbourne lockdown.

“It was pouring rain… he mapped out all the streets in the area,” his father said. “He got to the marathon and he hadn’t done every street, so he kept going.”

sí, his journey to Tokyo was about winning gold. But Clifford had more to say.

“Sport is about that but is also about so much more,” he said on Saturday. “If we can change anyone’s life, as running has changed my life, then sport is so much more than a medal. It’s about if we can touch people’s lives. If I’ve done that today, for anyone, that’s a gold medal in another way.”

Clifford will go again in the 1500m on Tuesday, before the marathon in a week’s time.

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