When most uOttawa students will be lining up to buy their textbooks this September, international development student Andrew Heffernan will be lining up at the starting blocks next to Brandon King, who is hoping to bring home the gold for Canada in the 4x100m relay at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
“We’re really excited and hope to medal,” says Heffernan, who will guide visually impaired sprinter King on the first leg of the relay and has been training intensely with him for the past 13 months. “I find starting off to be one of the more challenging positions to run because it’s your responsibility to put the baton into the hand of the next guide and the hand-off has to be perfect.”
The rules governing the competition are fairly complex. Even though the baton is exchanged from guide to guide, the parathlete must enter the transition zone first and the second parathlete cannot exit the transition before the two guides have exchanged the baton—all coordinated at full sprint in under three seconds (see video below). Four parathletes compete in each heat, to allow room for guides on the eight-lane track, and all runners must stay within their respective lanes or face disqualification. Guides also cannot cross the finish line ahead of the parathlete.
“It definitely demands a lot of coordination and communication,” says Heffernan, who became a guide after taking a year to fully recover from an injury he sustained as a member of uOttawa’s track and field team. “I’ve never been in as good shape as I am in now, and we’re just really excited.”
But physical fitness is just one part of the equation when it comes to supporting King and the rest of his team at the Paralympics. Parathletes competing in the ambulatory category (athletes not competing in a wheelchair) are ranked from T11 (runners who have no vision and must run with a tether to their guide) to T13 (runners who have sufficient sight to run without a guide—there can only be one T13 runner on each relay team). Because King’s sight is rated T12, he isn’t tethered to Heffernan, so their guiding relies mostly on vocal communication and elbow contact to gauge correct spacing. This is especially important through the turns, because the width of the lanes can vary from track to track, and King has to stay at top speed while navigating the turns. It’s a unique skill set that demands intense training and a trusting bond between runner and guide, something that obviously exists between Andrew and Brandon.
“Andrew’s really awesome, and he makes running easy,” says Brandon, who will be competing in his first Paralympic Games. “He’s relaxed and easygoing, which is good because we’ve been on the road a lot this year, and he’s a fun guy to room with!”
The two travelled together to London earlier this summer for a test run of the Olympic track facilities and have attended several relay camps to hone their skills, including one in Florida with Canada’s Olympic 4x100m relay team.
“It was very hard to hear about the Canadian team being disqualified at the Games. I know a few of those guys, and it was heartbreaking,” says Brandon. “We’ve made some adjustments to try and make sure we avoid any similar mistakes, and we’re going to do what we can to try and bring home a medal for Canada! Our main competition is Russia and Brazil, but they ain’t seen what we got yet!”