News: Personal Best

The power of persistance on display at Gay Games VI

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Joe Smitherman (right) explains how his partner Jason's race has been a personal highlight of numerous Gay Games experiences.



My partner of over five years, Jason, and I recently attended Gay Games VI in Sydney, Australia. This is the first time the Gay Games have been held in the Southern Hemisphere, and I'd been looking forward to attending them for more than four years. These were my third games as a participant in soccer and were Jason's second, although his first time participating.

The Gay Games were first held in San Francisco in 1982. At that first event there were 1,350 athletes from 170 cities in 12 countries. Gay Games V, the first to be held off the North American continent, was held in Amsterdam and boasted more than 250,000 visitors with 14,403 participants (over 40 percent women) from 88 countries. Gay Games V required more than 3,000 volunteers and 62 staff members with a budget of almost $8 million to stage.

Totals for attendance and visitors aren't available yet for Gay Games VI, but there were more than 12,000 people registered to participate in Sydney.

Jason was entered to run the 5,000 meter in the 18-29 age bracket — not only his first time participating at the Gay Games but his first race ever. Jason was very nervous, and in fact the night before he was considering not going to the race at all.

After an almost sleepless night, we stepped out into a chilly but beautiful Sydney morning headed for the Athletic Stadium in the city's Olympic Park complex.

Jason is 29, and we knew that he'd be one of 22 competitors entered in the 5,000 meter 18-29 age group. While he was training, we tried to find results from previous Games so we'd have an idea of what kind of time he'd have to run to be "competitive." We weren't able to find any info on previous Games times, but we shot for an 8-minute mile.

I think I should let you know a couple of things about Jason at this point. First, he used to smoke. He came to me about two or three months ago and said he was going to quit sometime in the near future but was going to try the "Joe" method of quitting and just not mention it or talk about it.

He finally quit the day before we left for Sydney. I've been pushing him in this direction for a long time because I want as much time as possible with him on Earth.

Second, Jason started training for this race about two months ago. He has a personal best at the 5,000 meter (or 3.125 miles) of about 31 minutes. We thought that a 8-minute mile would be "competitive" but probably not place him near the top. The goal all along was to just finish the race.

As we entered the Athletic Stadium, runners were already warming up and checking out each other. Because Jason is so tall and thin, I think some of the other competitors were slightly worried by him. One even went as far as to try some verbal psych-out thing on him. After warming up, Jason became very excited when his name appeared along with the other racers on the stadium's large scoreboard.

At the start of Jason's race, the pack started off mostly at a sprint, and it was immediately apparent that an 8-minute mile wouldn't have done it. All three of the medalists ran the race at a dead sprint from the starting gun, with the Gold medalist never slowing or even speeding up at the end. Their times were 15:30, 16:00 and 16:16 respectively.

Even though Jason didn't plan on winning the race, I was worried about his morale as he ran because the leaders and the whole pack lapped him several times during the 12-plus lap race.

The stands held mostly other athletes waiting to compete in their own events and their supporters. After the first lap I started yelling his name as he came around to try to keep his spirits up. People in the stands would clap for the leader and a few of the other racers had a fan or two. When I called out, "Jason, keep it up!" and clapped for him, it was dead silent in the stadium because he was usually by himself unless being lapped.

After a couple of laps, somebody off to my left started clapping whenever I called out to Jason as he passed. At one point he started walking on the far side of the track, so even though I don't think I was supposed to be there, I went all the way down onto the track to make sure he could hear me root him on. He started running again before the turn, and as I cheered him on I noticed that there were other people, a fair number, clapping as I called out to him.

Everyone else had finished, and the woman signaling to the runners how many laps they had to go signaled to Jason that he had two to go. More and more people had joined the "Jason Cheer" as he started his last lap. In the first bend he started to walk but I just wanted him to make it all the way around running, walking or crawling. He started running again before he got out of the first bend, and when he turned at the last bend everyone was on their feet clapping and cheering for him — including the other runners.

I'm so proud that Jason had the courage to finish the race with him being the only runner left out on the track for two whole laps. His time of 26:50 was definitely a personal best.

This 5,000 race was an embodiment of what the Gay Games are about — competition at the highest level combined with an atmosphere of inclusion and "personal best." This was my third Gay Games and I've medaled in each of them, but Jason's race was definitely the highlight of any one yet. ©

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