David Brown and guide Jerome Avery compete in the IPC World Para Athletics Championships 2019 Dubai on Nov. 12, 2019 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
When visually impaired Team USA Para track athletes need a guide, they often turn to Jerome Avery and Wesley Williams.
Between them, Avery and Williams have nearly three decades of experience as guide runners with the U.S. national team, helping athletes win gold medals and break world records along the way. Both are now training with elite American athletes preparing for this summer’s Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.
“They have been working with us for a long time,” said Joaquim Cruz, U.S. national team head coach, “and they are the best in the business of guiding and assisting the athletes.”
Avery and Williams grew up near each other in California, and both became accomplished track and field athletes. During his record-setting track career at Fresno City College, Avery placed in the top 20 at the 2000 U.S. Olympic Team Trials but did not make the team. He then became a guide runner in 2004 as a path to the Games in Athens. There, he helped high jumper Lex Gillette win a silver medal.
“That was a life-changing experience,” Avery said. “I didn’t know that this was part of my journey and this is something that I should be involved in up until he was up on that podium. And when he was draped in the flag — the smile on his face, the excitement on his face — I knew that this is something that I could be a part of.”
Three years later, after he graduated from California State University, Northridge, Williams joined his friend as a guide runner to prolong his own athletic career.
“In the beginning, it was definitely a big learning curve — just the communication part and the whole athleticism part — a lot of just trial and error,” Williams said. “We’ve made a lot of mistakes, but we’ve made it happen.”
In the running events, athletes and guides are tethered together. Rhythm and communication become critical.
“Each one of the guys that I’ve worked with have been totally different than the other,” Avery said. “I don’t do the exact same thing with each of these guys that I’ve worked with. They’ve taught me how to paint that picture in order for them to visualize or see what I’m trying to teach them.”
Williams began working with Gillette in 2007 and helped him to a bronze medal at the Parapan American Games in Rio de Janeiro that year.
“Lex is a very likeable guy, so we automatically clicked,” said Williams, who has won four world championships, medaled in four Paralympic Games and set the world record in the high jump. “Lex is one of those one-in-a-generational … athletes. He hasn’t slowed down one bit.”
Avery has guided three athletes — Gillette, Josiah Jamison and David Brown — to Paralympic and world championship medals. Brown has set world records in the 100- and 200-meter.
“We’re always talking,” said Avery of the athletes. “We’re always spending time with each other. It’s more than just teammates. We definitely are brothers.”
Avery and Williams are now training with Brown and Gillette, respectively, in the run-up to Tokyo.
“Training is going phenomenal at the moment,” Williams said. “We’ve got meets coming up, so we’re kind of in meet mode now.”
“The field has gotten tougher, of course, but David knows what he has to do,” Avery said of Brown. “If we’re both on the same page, in great condition, ready to go, there’s no telling what this guy can do and what he’s capable of running.”
Avery, 42, and 38-year-old Williams aren’t certain if they will continue as guide runners much beyond the Tokyo Games.
“Lex definitely has his sights on 2024,” Williams said. “I don’t know if I can go for another four years. I would love to see him pursue that, but I think this may be my last go-around. We know that it can’t last forever, so we’re branching out and trying to do things outside the track together, as well.
“Guide runners dedicate the same amount of time and of their life to this … just as much as athletes. It’s a position that I didn’t know existed, but I’m very grateful to have been doing for this long.”
Avery also plans for a life beyond guide running. He is forming a nonprofit called “Guiding Lives” that will focus on pairing up future visually impaired athletes and guide runners.
“The connection is there now for me to connect the athletes with the guide runners,” Avery said. “I’m working on that. I want to create that next generation … for everybody.”