Going to the Paralympic Games is a big challenge at the best of times.
It becomes a monumental one when a pandemic cuts off your preparation for more than a year, as Austin Smeenk well knows.
After an outstanding season two years ago, the native of Oakville, Ont. entered the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo on Monday morning to compete in the men’s 100-metre T34 event.
Only his second major race since November 2019, he finished in seventh place. The winner was Walid Ktila from Tunisia, with a time of 15.01 seconds — a new Paralympic record.
Smeenk’s weak start ended his chance of earning a place on the podium early in the short race.
“I had a poor reaction time off the start, so it’s tough to come back from that,” Smeenk said, after the race. “It’s unfortunate not to have your season’s best on the big stage.
“I feel like if I had the opportunity to do the race a couple more times, I could definitely get that time down significantly.”
The Canadian’s confidence in his potential is justified by his numerous achievements during the 2019 season.
It was in that year that he managed to lower four national records in four different events (100, 400, 800 and 1,500 metres), plus he also earned three top-five finishes at the IPC World Championships in Dubai. Due to COVID-19, most of his international races scheduled for the 2020 season were cancelled, forcing him to focus only on practicing his technique.
His frustration is understandable, as back in June he participated at the Paralympic track and field trials in Quebec, lowering the Canadian record in the 100-metres once again. He earned a time of 15.19 seconds, which is considerably better than the 15.92 he got in Tokyo, and would have earned him the silver medal.
Smeenk now has a couple of days to rest and prepare for his next event: the men’s T34 800 metres, which starts its qualifying rounds on Friday.
“I’ll just allow myself to feel this hurt and then get fired up for the 800 metres,” said the member of Team Canada. “I’ll start to prepare for that in a smart and controlled way.”