RIO DE JANEIRO — After Jerome Avery failed to make the U.S. Olympic team in the 100 meters in both 2000 and 2004, it seemed like his dream of international sports glory had faded away.
On Saturday, at Olympic Stadium, he will be running for gold alongside David Brown, the current fastest blind man alive. Brown is the reigning world champion in the T11 category of the 100 meters. T11 athletes are nearly or totally blind.
Despite his lack of sight, Brown is comfortable on the track due to Avery, his guide runner since 2014, as he sees what Brown cannot.
“He’s the voice on the inside,” Brown said. “He’s been a guide runner for a number of years so his experience allows me to just focus on running at my best and nothing else.”
Guides are designated aids to visually impaired Paralympic athletes, in sports from track and field to equestrian and soccer. Their commitment level is parallel to their athletes’ — training alongside them day in and day out. This is the first Paralympics at which guides are receiving medals.
“When you’re running alone, it’s more selfish,” said Chris Clarke, the guide for British sprinter Libby Clegg, who won the T11 women’s 100 meters on Friday. “As a guide, I’ve got to look out for Libby — set her (starting) blocks up and give her cues every now and then. It’s interesting, I like it. It’s like being part of a Formula One team.”
Clarke and Clegg were caught in controversy Friday, when Clegg was disqualified after the T11 100-meter semifinal because it appeared Clarke broke the rules by pulling her during the race. The ruling was appealed and overturned.
“This is my third Paralympic games, I would never want to dishonorably win a medal,” Clark said. “For me, I was a little upset that allegation was made against me and I’m just glad that I have a fantastic team fighting in my corner.”
U.S. triple and long jumper Lex Gillette and his guide, Wesley Williams, have worked together for nine years and are roommates in Chula Vista, Calif.
“He’s basically my brother,” said Gillette, who won a fourth consecutive Paralympic silver in the long jump Thursday and celebrated on the medal stand with Williams at his side. “If I need anything, he’s there to the rescue.”
Williams was a top sprinter at Cal-State Northridge before hearing about guide running from a friend. He attended a camp through Team USA where he and Gillette hit it off.
In addition to Paralympic silver and the last two world championship golds in the long jump, Williams has helped Gillette to the world record in the event (22 feet, 1 inch). Gillette is the only totally blind man to eclipse 22 feet.
When Gillette is preparing to jump, Williams stands in the middle of the jumpboard, calling out instructions. He jumps off to the left or right just before the jump, depending on where he thinks Gillette should go.
“We train every day, putting each other in different positions,” Williams said. “Just him knowing that I got his back and me knowing he’s got mine and we groove from there.”
In cycling, the guide and athlete work in teams called tandems. The guide, called the pilot, sits in front of a two-person bike and steers. The guide has to be just as fit and skilled as the athlete, called the stoker, as they both pedal.
“As a team we have to stay in sync in all areas, and it can be really tough when you’re constantly seeing great times being put up right before you go,” said British pilot Helen Scott, who, working with stoker Sophie Thornhill, set a Paralympic record Friday in the 1000 meters in the B category.
U.S. sprinter Brown and Avery had only been together a few months when Brown broke T11 world records in the 100 and 200 meters in April 2014, marking the first time both records fell to the same person in a 24-hour span.
Bound together by a tether attached to their hands, Avery and Brown run stride for stride down the track with Avery leading the way vocally to keep Brown in the lane. When Brown and Avery began working together, the tether was 10 inches. As they got more comfortable running next to each other, they shortened it. At one point, it was 3 inches long. Now that they’re totally in sync, the tether is long again.
Brown’s world record in the 100 (10.92 seconds) still stands. He is the only totally blind man to run under 11 seconds. He and Avery call themselves “Team BrAvery.”
On Saturday, Team BrAvery will be together again on the track at Rio’s Olympic Stadium. This time, they also could be together at the top of the medal stand.
“It’s what we’ve been training so hard for during the last for years, to see it fulfilled is going to be great,” Brown said. “Just to have him up there with me, there will be a lot of emotions for the both of us.”
Kennington Lloyd Smith III is a journalism student at the University of Georgia. Penn State and Georgia are partnering with The Associated Press to supplement coverage of the 2016 Paralympics.