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From Little Athletics to Paralympian

From Little Athletics to Paralympian

“The people I did Little Athletics with, we kind of grew up together in a way, so that’s a really special connection – particularly now that athletics is such a big part of my life.’’

 

 

When dual world record holder Jaryd Clifford exits quarantine after returning from the Tokyo Paralympic Games, some of the first people he will want to see are the ones he met at the Diamond Valley Little Athletics Centre almost a dozen years ago.

“That friendship has literally never ended; it’s been a kind of forever thing,’’ says Clifford. “So looking back in hindsight it’s quite nostalgic. The people I did Little Athletics with, we kind of grew up together in a way, so that’s a really special connection – particularly now that athletics is such a big part of my life.’’

Indeed, Clifford acknowledges that the sport changed his life, long before he thought of competing internationally. Diagnosed at the age of three with the genetic condition juvenile macular degeneration, he played football, soccer and basketball.

But, as his vision deteriorated during the middle primary school years, so did young Jaryd’s ability to perform at the level he wanted on the field, pitch and court. Only when he started running did frustration turn to something far more positive; only on the Little Athletics track as an 11 or 12-year-old did he feel truly uninhibited and free from limitation.

Thus, athletics helped Jaryd Clifford to see what his vision impairment and a 2012 Paralympics Australia talent search would eventually make clearer still.

“For me doing some of the other stuff, like the jumps, is difficult, but then I realised that my vision impairment was actually a blessing in disguise, because it showed me the sport that I was probably best at, anyway,’’ he says.

“To find this sport that I felt that I could do without my impairment maybe stunting what I could do in other sports… running was liberating, in fact, and it was a bit of an outlet, too.

“I would describe myself as quite hyperactive, to be honest, and running is a great way for me also to meet people. Pretty much all of my training is done at talking pace, and that really social part of running has been pretty fundamental to a lot of my life experiences outside of sport, too.’’

 “To find this sport that I felt I could do without my impairment maybe stunting what I could do in other sports… running was liberating, in fact, and it was a bit of an outlet, too.”

 

That early environment was crucial, as  it helped to spark a passion that endures. Clifford’s supportive and enthusiastic Diamond Valley coaches Max Balchin and Lyn Davis were particularly influential, for it was never about the winning or the performance goals, but simply loving what you do.

“That’s one of the crucial elements of performing well later down the track as an elite athlete and, for me – and I think many other people around the country – the experience at Little Athletics is extremely positive,’’ says Clifford, 22.

“There’s no unnecessary pressure; you pretty much get out of it what you want to get out of it, and that’s crucial, because I think the athlete has to drive their own pathway and want to own what they want to do. At Little Athletics, there were all these opportunities so you could kind of dive into whatever you wanted to, and, for me,  it gave me the independence and freedom that I thrive on.’’

And which, more generally, some people living with disability can struggle to find. Clifford believes athletics can be rightly proud of its accessibility and inclusiveness; after all, there are no more fundamental movements than running, throwing, jumping.

“I think the fact that people of all different abilities can participate is super-important, and I know the power of sport is not just health or that social connection, it’s that feeling of being able to be competitive, to compete against other people.

“Kids yearn for that sometimes, and I think some of the programs Little Athletics particularly is putting in place now to ensure that athletes with disability, kids with disability, can compete against their able-bodied counterparts is super-important.’’

As is collaboration and co-operation across the sport as a whole, given Clifford’s lived experience that the benefits can be so lasting and profound.

“My belief is that anything in life works better when people work together,’’ he says. “So athletics united and athletics working towards a common goal is when athletics in Australia will probably operate best.’’

“My belief is that anything in life works better when people work together,’’ he says. “So athletics united and athletics working towards a common goal is when athletics in Australia will probably operate best.’’