David Brown and guide Jerome Avery compete in the Men's 100m T11 at the IPC World Para Athletics Championships Dubai 2019 on Nov. 12, 2019 in Dubai.
Jerome Avery and David Brown, the defending Paralympic champions in the 100-meter T11 classification, have not been able to train together for several months due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While Avery, a three-time U.S. Paralympic medalist guide runner, has had to train apart from Brown, he’s been using some of his spare time to help push the conversation amongst athletes looking for guide runners and guide runners looking for athletes.
In the case of Humoody Smith, there was even recently an in-person meeting.
Smith is a blind runner entering his senior year at Snohomish High School in Washington and was named a U.S. Paralympics Track and Field High School All-American after winning state titles in the 100, 200 and 400 ambulatory divisions in 2019. He spotted Avery featured in a recent Runner’s World article and reached out to him saying he would be in Southern California this month and requested to meet him.
Avery spent ample time with Smith, showing him ways to improve his form and giving him a bucket of suggestions as to how to find the proper guide runner, something Smith has been struggling with as he looks beyond high school competition and toward a spot on the U.S. Paralympics National Team one day.
“He’s a young kid and I can tell he’s hungry, and that’s the exact same thing I saw in David. Their mannerisms are the same. Their body builds are the same,” Avery said.
“I told him to be patient. It’s hard to find guide runners that are in it for the right reasons. Once he finds a guide runner who’s consistent and as fast as him, the sky’s the limit. There’s no telling how fast this guy can run.”
Smith was born in Iraq, and spent a year in various hospitals in Iraq, Jordan and Iran after he was shot in the face by insurgents at 2 ½ years old. His Shiite family had been ambushed in a Sunni neighborhood in Baghdad. A year later, his uncle, an English professor at Baghdad University, discovered an organization called Healing the Children that would sponsor Smith to come to the U.S. for facial reconstruction surgery, one of 29 surgeries he would need. He was only supposed to stay in the U.S. for six months, but once it was determined his sight wouldn’t be restored, he stayed in the U.S. permanently with his host family.
Smith participated in sports from an early age, taking to the wrestling mat at 6 and then branching out to football in middle school and track in high school.
“I’ve always been athletic, playing around with my friends and all that, and I decided of my own volition that I wanted to try wrestling because that is a sport that doesn’t require sight to be successful at,” Smith said, before going on to be a three-sport athlete.
On the track, Smith has clocked personal bests of 12.3 in the 100, 25.8 in the 200 and 1:03.18 in the 400. He’s extremely goal-oriented, already looking to obtain a spot on the U.S. Paralympic Team for 2021, while also hoping to earn a double doctorate one day in psychology and law.
“Just be patient,” Smith now tells himself, repeating Avery’s advice to him. “Understand the process. Let my skills speak for themselves. Don’t try to force success. Success will come to me if I continue training and going where I’m going.”
But first, he needs a consistent guide runner for his journey.
This is a challenge many visually impaired runners face as they rise in the ranks — finding guide runners who are consistent, have the willingness to train at the national level and run and just as fast or faster than them. Most end up finding guides through word of mouth.
As a former Olympic hopeful who has been a guide runner with U.S. Paralympics Track and Field since 2004, Avery knows the intricacies and dynamics of the pairing process as much as anyone. He’s guided Brown, Josiah Jamison and Lex Gillette all to Paralympic medals and constantly gets phone calls from mothers and fathers with visually impaired children looking for guide runners in their area.
“How do we pair them up?” Avery said. “There are still a lot of untapped visually impaired athletes out there, it’s just a matter of finding out how to get to them,” Avery said.
Wanting to address this head on, Avery has spent some of his extra time during the pandemic to finish developing his “Guiding Lives Foundation,” a platform he hopes to launch later this summer that will connect athletes with guide runners directly.
“This isn’t about me. This is about somebody else achieving their dreams,” Avery said. “At the end of the day, you have to be selfless, you have to be patient and you have to understand that this isn’t your show. Of course, we’re there in the light with the athletes. But I’m aware that David or Lex or Josiah are Batman, and I’m Robin. I’m fine with that because I’m still part of that duo, and that’s what keeps me going. These guys keep me motivated and the fire burning inside me because I know how valuable I am in what I do.”
Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.