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Athletics News and Content:
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Athletics

Visually impaired athletes are classified according to the degree of vision they have.

Athletes compete in most track and field events, 100m, 200m, up to the Marathon and in most field events, eg Shot Put, Discus, Javelin, High Jump, Long Jump, Pentathlon.

Competitions are held regularly where athletes with a visual impairment my compete.   Local and regional competitions lead to the Provincial Games, with athletes then being selected for National Championships. 

Athletics is one of the main events at the Paralympic Games, held every four years immediately after the Olympics.

Please call the British Columbia Blind Sports and Recreation Association office at 325-8638 for further information.

Unity of purpose: A tie that binds

re-printed with permission
Iain MacIntyre, Vancouver Sun,
Saturday, August 26, 2006

As Steve Walters and Dustin Walsh accelerate together toward the 2008 Paralympics -- Walters the guide for a blind Walsh -- their unity of purpose extends beyond the confines of a 400-metre oval track

They are connected by a skate lace because they love hockey and they're Canadian and it's long enough to allow for the unforeseen.
Steve Walters lays the lace across his right palm, then wraps the slack around his hand after making two small loops that he wordlessly offers Dustin Walsh, who accepts them by feel with the middle and index fingers of his left hand. When they are ready, the runners are separated by only an inch of string, a tiny bridge compared to the great thing that also separates them.
Walters can see. Walsh is blind.

There are other differences, too.

Walters is 30 years old, married and with a two-week-old son named Nash -- like the basketball player -- an eight-year-old daughter, Kayla, a mortgage on a house in New Westminster and a job as a personal trainer.

Walsh is 23, single, lives with his folks in Coquitlam and is singularly devoted to becoming the fastest blind 400-metre runner in the world. Walters is his guide, and it seems on the surface that this hockey lace must be the only thing holding them together.

It is not.

They have more in common than the first syllable of their surnames.

As they leave Sunday for Holland and the International Paralympic Committee World Championships, they share reasons for running fast and accelerating towards the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing and what they hope will be a medal for Walsh.

He was two years old when struck by glaucoma, which within a few years had robbed Walsh of his vision. He is categorized as B1. Total, limitless blackness.

Walsh was so young when he could see that he doesn't remember it, but as his sight ebbed away over time he could make out shapes and colours, and he is thankful for those because he uses them still as reference points.

His dad, Larry, took him skiing and swimming and cycling on a tandem bike and on to the track, where he guided his running son until Walsh somehow found himself at a world junior championship at age 15 and finished second.

He has been coached since then by Don Steen, a national team coach and father of decathlete Dave Steen, who medalled at the 1988 Summer Olympics despoiled by Ben Johnson.

Walsh was just getting really serious about his sport when Walters was limping away in disgust from his.

Like Walsh, Walters has been running forever, but with the benefit of seeing where he is going.

He joined the Richmond Kajaks track club at age 12 when his family moved to Steveston from Prince George. Walters became a promising junior, then a promising senior runner. Always promising, but never quite getting there.

Walters ran the 400 in 47.5 seconds at age 21. More promise. Not good enough to make a Team Canada, but promising. Some places, a 21-year-old runs a quarter mile in the 47s and a national organization sees the promise in it and helps with some training money.

In Canada, underfunded Athletics Canada says: "Nice try, but sorry, you're two seconds or one second or 0.23 seconds too slow to qualify for funding. Good luck, anyway."

Walters had to fend for himself. He became a training partner for Shane Niemi, and helped push his friend to six straight national championships in the 400 and a Canadian record of 45.52 seconds that stood for four years until Tyler Christopher exploded upon track and field last season. Niemi, by the way, was never deemed good enough by Athletics Canada to run at an Olympics. "Nice try. Sorry. Good luck, anyway."

Walters was about 2.5 seconds slower than Niemi and 25 years old in 2001 when he finally surrendered his national team dreams after tearing his hamstring for the third time in four years.

"I was tired of being broke," Steve says. "I probably could have run 46.90. I might have been a fringe guy [on a national team]. I wasn't doing it to run 45.99, because I knew that wasn't going to happen. I knew my limits. I was a good minor-leaguer. It was all based on a hope. There was only so much you could put into it."

He started a personal-training business -- he works out of APT Studios in Kitsilano -- and got on with life. And life was getting on fine with him when Steen called in October 2004 with an intriguing offer.

Walsh was fifth at the Paralympics that summer in Athens, but lost his guide runner of two seasons when Blair Miller moved from Richmond to England to be with his girlfriend. Steen was interviewing candidates to replace him.

Finding one was not supposed to be easy. The guide needs to be comfortably faster than the blind runner, and most guys running three or four seconds faster than Walsh are running for themselves.

"It's tough," Dusty says. "Guys are doing their own thing. We were expecting to go through a few people, and Steve was the first guy we tried and he worked out. We did luck out. We weren't expecting to be that lucky."

The new team convened for the first time at Steen's house the night the Boston Red Sox won the World Series and arranged for a trial run in Burnaby.

They've been roped together ever since.

Great gig for Walters, right? He gets to travel to the kind of glamourous, international meets he never qualified for on his own, and as guide to a world-class athlete like Walsh is "carded" by Athletics Canada and receives the same $1,500 monthly stipend as his teammate.

Sure, great gig. But consider this: apart from the constant interruptions to his business and sacrifices in family time, Walters, by definition, was hired to serve Walsh after a lifetime of being conditioned to run for himself, to be selfish like all elite athletes and put no one's interests ahead of his own.

Technically, Steve is "staff" on Team Canada. He shuttles Dustin between SkyTrain stations and their training sites at Burnaby Central high school and Trout Lake in East Vancouver, rooms with him on the road, makes sure Dusty gets wherever he needs to go -- the starting blocks, the finish line, the cafeteria, the bathroom. This makes Walters what? An employee? A manservant?

"I don't think there's a lot of that taking place," Dustin says. "I try not to put too much on his shoulders."

No, it's not that way at all.

The pair have become friends. They hang out and do what guys do, eating, talking sports, watching sports. Dusty will "watch" hockey and basketball games. He says he's not a big fan of Bob Cole, because those who can only listen to the announcer know not where is the puck or, in most cases, who has it.

"We'll be watching basketball," Steve says, "and Dusty can tell by the sound the ball makes on the rim whether the shot went in. It's unbelievable."

They joke. And, yes, blindness is in bounds.

At a recent training camp, Steve was taking Dusty through the chow line and surreptitiously slipped a couple of Brussels sprouts on to his plate. Not seeing them doesn't make them taste any better.

Steve nudged a few teammates to watch Dusty, who, sure enough, eased a sprout into his mouth. Dusty sat bolt upright and immediately began swivelling his head to listen for the saboteur's laughter.

"The funny thing is I knew the next sprout was coming right at me," Steve says.

This bonding is vital because the first blind man to the finish line isn't necessarily the fastest, but the one most in tune and in step with his guide.

"You could be the best athlete in the world, but if you're not comfortable with who you're running with, it wouldn't matter," Dusty says. "The teamwork is a huge part of it, more than 50 per cent. You need to be in a position to not think about [being tethered to a guide] and run flat out. That's the evolution; we've stopped thinking about it. Steve now knows what I'm going to do pretty much every race, and I know what he's going to do."

Teams are allocated two lanes, but mostly run in one. Steve runs on the inside, his right side mirroring Dusty's left as if it were a three-legged race, except one guy can't see and the team is moving around a crowded track at nearly 30 km/h.

In the starting blocks, Steve gives Dusty a couple of cues -- reminders -- for the race. Dusty slaps the track to get himself psyched and Steve stays quiet except to tell his partner how to position his hands for the start line.

The race, of course, is once around the track. At the end of the first turn, Steve calls "straight" and reminds Dusty to "pull the track" -- runners' speak for getting upright and striking the track with the front of the foot, rather than rocking forward from the heel, which squanders speed.

Two strides before the end of the back straight, Steve calls "turn" and Dusty leans left. This is the toughest part of the race, and Steve may offer encouragement or tell Dusty where they are relative to other teams. Most times, Dusty already knows. He hears foot cadences ahead and behind him, right and left.

Another call of "straight" takes them home, and Steve drops the tether with 10 metres to go, the signal for Dusty to strain for the finish and lean at the line.

"We were in a race two weeks ago and I said: 'Get your ass in gear; let's get going,' " Steve says. "And all of a sudden it clicked -- boom."

This season, their second together, their asses have been in high gear.

In June, Dusty busted his personal-best time -- 53.81 seconds from the semifinals in Athens -- by nearly a second and ran 53.05, the fastest time in the world at that point of the season. In eight races, Dusty has bettered his best time from last season seven times.

"They're just flying right now," Steen says. "Dusty is very, very bright. Possibly Steve, when he was first introduced, didn't understand that. I think they're becoming better friends every day. Steve and Dusty can't be considered individuals; they've got to be considered a unit. And to be an effective unit, they've got to communicate. Their communication is a lot better. They're able to relate during an actual race."

The irony in the relationship is that the faster Steve helps Dusty go, the more he endangers their partnership and his own employment. Eventually, with time, Dusty will gain another second and Steve will lose one. Eventually, Dusty will outgrow his guide and need a new one.

"There's going to be a time when he goes his way," Steve concedes. "But I know I'm with him until 2008. He's 23. I'll be 32. He could run 50 flat, 51 flat. Why not?

"If I don't matter, that's fine. It's about Dusty. He's the athlete. But there are only so many times when you get the chance to write your own biography? This is going to be a great story for me."

Of course, it's a story of two people.

"How long Steve can keep running 50 seconds or better, I don't know that," Steen says. "But Dusty doesn't run too fast without Steve. And Steve doesn't get out there without Dusty. I keep reminding them of that."

So, that skate lace is not the only thing keeping them together, this guide who runs and this runner who also finds a way to guide. More and more, it seems the string is the only thing keeping them apart.

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