In perfect step
The first time Dylan Williamson watched Dustin Walsh and his guide runner in action, he was amazed at the synchronicity between the two men.
Guide runners are used for visually impaired or blind athletes, with the two either running in unison by holding either end of a short tether, or with the guide running behind the athlete, giving verbal instructions as they make their way around the track.
The athletes must be within 50 cm of one another and the guide runner cannot pull their runner or cross the finish line ahead of their partner.
Williamson, a 22-year-old from Langley, was being brought in as a potential replacement for Steve Walters, Walsh’s guide runner of the past seven years.
The 29-year-old Walsh was left blind at birth by glaucoma.
“You obviously need a good physical match so you can run in stride,” explained Walsh, following a brief break in a recent workout at North Surrey Secondary.
“Every step we take is a mirror image so when my left leg is coming through, his right leg is, and vice versa, so we are covering the same amount of ground with each stride.”
Personality is also important.
“It really is like a marriage,” laughed Walsh.
“You spend so much time together, training, at meets, hotels, etc.
“You have to be able to put up with each other and know each other’s personalities on and off the track.”
“It was amazing to me how quickly I meshed with him,” added Williamson.
“We can both laugh quite easily, whether at ourselves or at a joke.”
Williamson, 22, was a relative late bloomer when it comes to track.
An avid basketball player at Walnut Grove Secondary — he graduated from the school in 2008 — he took up track in Grade 11 as a way to stay in shape.
He soon found he enjoyed the sport.
As for becoming a guide runner, that happened by chance.
With Walsh looking for someone to fill in for Walters — who had been hired by the Delta Police Department — Trinity Western track and field coach Laurier Primeau, also the head coach of Canada’s Para-athletics team, thought Williamson might be a good match.
They brought Williamson out for what he calls “a trial by fire.”
After about four or five practices, it became obvious that this partnership would work.
“We are a team, that is the most awesome thing,” Williamson described.
“We are competing as one athlete.
“I think it is really a unique experience that not a lot of athletes would really get.”
The original plan was for Williamson to fill in for Walters, who would serve as guide runner if Walsh qualified for the 2012 Paralympics in London. But a nagging heel injury changed all that and now, just 16 months after he started as a guide runner, Williamson is also off to London.
“I started 2012 not expecting to go, so it was a pretty big surprise,” he said.
“I am super excited. Growing up, I never thought this would happen.”
Williamson said he is extremely privileged to have been selected, both as a guide runner, and to represent Canada.
“Running with Dusty has been I think the best experience in my life,” Williamson added.
“And going to the Olympics, it is just an honour for me.”
For Walsh, who grew up in Coquitlam and now lives in New Westminster, this is his third Paralympic Games.
He competed in Athens in 2004, placing fifth in the T11 400m race and was 11th in Beijing four years later. Walsh was 11th in the 400m race after suffering through a hip flexor and quad injury.
Walsh is running two events in London: the 4x100 relay — alongside Braedon Dolfo — and the 400m, and he feels good about his chances.
“I have been to two medal ceremonies and had to watch, which is a very frustrating thing,” he said.
Walsh said he is one of the lucky athletes who has enough funding where he does not have to work and can concentrate solely on his training.
“That is a really fortunate position, because not everyone gets the chance,” he said.
He also likes his new role as a mentor of sorts to Williamson and other younger athletes.
When Walsh began running with Walters, there was a seven year age gap between the two with Walsh being the younger of the two. That is the same gap between Walsh and Williamson
“I definitely learned a ton from (Steve) over the years, so it is really cool to pass along what he has taught me,” he said.
“I am definitely not perfect, but I try and put out an example that other younger athletes can try and learn from.”
Williamson, who will attend Trinity Western in the fall to study to become an athletic therapist, hopes this is just the start of his career as a guide runner.
“If Dusty is going to keep it up, I would love to be there with him (in Rio 2016).”
Walsh will have his parents in London, and his aunt and uncle may also attend.
Since Williamson only found out a few months ago he was going to London, only his mom was able to get time off to travel to London.