Racing out of retirement
By Aida Stratas
Jason Dunkerley (MA ’14) collected another world-class medal and memory after winning silver in the men’s 1,500-metre T11 race at the World Para Athletics Championships in London on July 21. He and new guide Jérémie Venne crossed the finish line in four minutes 13.67 seconds, just over two seconds behind Kenyan gold medallist Samwel Kimani.
“We felt we ran the best race we possibly could have on the night,” said Dunkerley, who has been blind since birth. “It was a privilege to share this amazing experience with Jérémie and to represent our country in the home of the Paralympic movement.”
Dunkerley’s feat is all the more remarkable considering that he was supposed to have retired. After the 2016 Paralympics in Rio, where he placed fifth, he said his days of international competition were over.
“I like the feeling of being challenged to get the best out of my body and push the limits in my training,” said Dunkerley, who turned 40 in August. “That’s why, after retiring, I got back into it — at a more moderate level, but enough to stay in decent shape. So when Athletics Canada encouraged me to try to qualify for London, I was ready.”
A kidney donor
Dunkerley is one of very few athletes to return to high-level competition after donating a kidney. He has lived with a single kidney since donating the other to his then-wife in 2013.
“Other than the first year following our surgery, when I was more tired than usual, I’ve really felt good,” he said. “I’ve been very fortunate, because it can be much more difficult for many kidney donors.”
A veteran athlete with six world championship medals under his belt, Dunkerley recently earned another honour. He has been invited to represent North American athletes on a new World Para Athletics advisory committee.
“I’m excited about this opportunity to make positive changes for other para athletes,” he said. “I look forward to helping increase the involvement of athletes with more severe disabilities, so they can get the support they need to flourish.”
“I’ve been so lucky”
Born in Northern Ireland, Dunkerley moved with his family to Canada when he was 13. His parents encouraged their three sons, all born blind, to be just like other children, playing outside, riding their bikes and playing soccer.
“We went to a school in Brantford, Ont., with other blind kids and were exposed to many different sports,” he said. “I was drawn to running and love the way it makes me feel. I’ve been so lucky to have the chance to participate in the Paralympics. It’s a unique opportunity that few people get.”
Dunkerley, who works for the federal government as a junior analyst with Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada, came to uOttawa as a mature student, at age 36. He completed a master’s in World Literatures and Cultures at the Faculty of Arts.
“It was a fantastic experience, and reinvigorating,” he said. “I was constantly challenged to stretch my mind in different ways — it was somewhat similar to running!” He recalls fondly the support of professors such as Joerg Esleben and Jorge Carlos Guerrero, who “helped me get the most out of my education here.”
Level playing field
He also received “great support” from Access Service, the University office that seeks to level the academic playing field for students with temporary or permanent disabilities. “Staff were always very personable and accommodating,” he said.
Dunkerley encourages other people with disabilities “to try to see the glass as half full and your disability as an advantage and a strength. It’s part of who you are, and not something that defines you.”
He laced up his shoes again on August 27 for the Je Cours 10-kilometre road race in Quebec City. "After that, I’ll continue to do what I love — travelling, reading, writing, playing guitar — and, of course, running.”
Jason Dunkerley and guide Jérémie Venne running their silver-medal race in London. Photo: Yonathan Kellerman / Athletics Canada