(L-R) David Brown and guide Jerome Avery compete in semifinal 2 of the men's 100-meter T11 at the Paralympic Games Rio 2016 on Sept. 10, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
Guides are more than just the eyes for visually impaired Para athletes, and the service they provide is hard to overlook.
More than simply guides, they are coaches, friends, mentors and cheerleaders. In the case of track and field, more than just directing their runners down the track, they can lead and inspire their fellow athletes to greater heights.
The Team USA roster for the 2019 World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, features three guides. Longtime guides Jerome Avery and Wesley Williams will be joined by relative newcomer Jared Lane as they assist U.S. athletes in the pursuit of their goals amidst the desert sands of the United Arab Emirates.
Avery, a four-time Paralympian, is the longest-tenured of the three. He has been a guide runner for Team USA since being encouraged to join the team to assist long jumper Lex Gillette for the Olympic Games Athens 2004.
A former Olympic hopeful himself, Avery made it as far as the U.S. Olympic Team Trials for Track and Field in 2000 and 2004 but did not make either team. He figured his Olympic dreams were over until a phone call from a friend convinced him to go to Athens as a Paralympic guide.
“It was the first Games for both Lex and myself, but he ended up winning the silver medal,” Avery said. “At that moment, seeing him receive the medal and how important that was to him, I realized how valuable I could be in using my sight to help someone else.”
After guiding Josiah Jamison in the Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Games — the pair took gold in 2008 — he was paired up with David Brown in 2014 in what Avery termed “a match made in heaven.”
“We were paired up because David’s training partner wasn’t able to make it, so the coach put us together. We just lit the track on fire,” Avery said. “Because of my speed, David was able to open it up himself. Coach saw that and kept us together.”
The duo clicked right from the start, with Brown setting a U.S. record in their first meet together and a world record in their second meet. Brown and Avery went on to win the gold in the Rio 2016 Games.
“To this day, David is the only totally blind individual to run the 100 in under 11 seconds,” Avery said of Brown’s feat in breaking the world record in 2014.
Avery will again be guiding Brown in Dubai, and the pair hopes to defend their Paralympic gold medal in Tokyo next summer.
Wesley Williams, a three-time Paralympian, is joining Team USA in Dubai to serve as a guide in the long jump. Guiding Gillette to silver medals in the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Paralympic Games, the pair will compete together in Dubai as they also prepare for the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Lane will add his talents to Team USA as a guide runner in both the 100- and 200-meter competitions. He was recruited to the Paralympic squad in the midst of pursuing his own Olympic dreams after a standout sprint and hurdling career at Northeastern University, where he owns three all-time team records.
Lane will guide Jamison in Dubai after guiding Antoine Craig at the Parapan American Games Lima 2019 in August. Guides and their runners usually must dedicate much time working with one another to develop a rhythm.
“I’ve been out (in California) since January,” he said. “There’s much to learning running cadence and mirroring stride patterns, as well as how different runners start.”
To Lane, the biggest adjustment from running by himself to running with and for someone else was to vocalize the commands he would previously mentally relay to his own body.
“Telling David or Josiah to push, or where we are on the track – calling off the distance and then when to lean at the finish,” Lane explained of the important commands to keep in mind. “Instead of just thinking about it, calling it out for another to understand.”
Lane admits it takes a while to fully get the hang of those matters, and that he is still learning. “I’m not like Jerome yet. Jerome has been doing it for years and he is on point.”
To Avery, being a guide runner is about much more than simply being faster or stronger. It’s about developing a bond of trust and brotherhood with those he guides.
“In a sense, you have to be a sport psychologist,” he said. “It’s working together and finding that fine line where we are completely in sync with one another. It comes with a lot of communication; it comes with a lot of trust.
“We have a brotherly bond. I definitely feel like there is a strong relationship between a guide runner and the athlete he is guiding. If the athlete doesn’t trust you, it’s just not going to work.”