By Jaryd Clifford.

I found out at my kitchen table. I thought I was ready. I wasn’t.

All night, I couldn’t sleep. There was no panic, no despair – only numbness. It pressed in around me, suffocating my thoughts. I felt trapped. I wanted to pummel my pillow and never stop.

Each passing hour felt like a year. All those years of wilful suffering: thousands and thousands of kilometres. All for one moment, a split second in life.

As the sun rose, I moved from my bed to the couch. I stared at the black television screen in front of me. Mum sat down and began to talk. I struggled to reply, fearful of the emotion that threatened to overwhelm me. Any word I did speak was a quiver, a trembling translation of the chaos in my mind.

A message flashed on my phone. It was from my running hero, now training partner, Michael Roeger. It read: “It’s been tough, mate. I feel like the world has been turned upside down. This year was supposed to be my year. Thinking of you too, mate.”

Finally, the tears rolled down my cheeks.

After weeks of speculation, the 2020 Paralympic Games had been officially postponed. It was the correct decision. It had to happen.

For some, my reaction to this news might seem irrational or lacking perspective. After all, the dream is not cancelled, it is only delayed – at least for now. However, when you obsess over a single moment for the entirety of your teenage life, and then that moment disappears, there is no rationality or explanation; there is only hollowness.

I was 13, and at my first training camp at the Australian Institute of Sport, when I first thought of Tokyo. Now, I am nearly 21. Every day since, it was written somewhere: in a notebook, on my whiteboard, even in the passwords of my high school computers. Like many athletes, I would wake up thinking of Tokyo and go to sleep thinking of Tokyo. It would be dishonest to portray the personal investment in my Tokyo dream, and the identity it has given me, as anything but the most defining pursuit of my life to date.

Despite this, I do believe I have balance in my life, other passions with the power to consume me. But it is important to understand that the thought of Tokyo has dominated my life. Sometimes, it feels as though my entire life has been dedicated to one question: Will I win in Tokyo? Waiting another year for that answer is excruciating.

As I sat on the couch that morning, I was finally forced to confront that reality. In myriad ways, so did my training partners, my teammates, and my family. Around the world, this pandemic was reshaping lives, a lot of the time for reasons far worse than sport.

As I reflected upon this, my thoughts turned to the power of community.

At a global level, that community is our collective humanity. In a crisis, I feel this the strongest. Unity is essential, and tolerance, crucial. Diversity is our strength, but our commonality binds us together: all human, all alive at the same point in history, and all riding this wave together.

Some people dismiss such sentimentality as quixotic, even childish. But as I sat there, contemplating the world, I realised that this spirit is the quintessence of our community: the Australian Paralympic family.

We represent society in all its quirky complexity. We hail from every corner of our sprawling nation. Our backstories are stranger than fiction, and our personalities stretch the confines of convention, whatever that is. But we are a family, a community that always stands together.

Since that morning, I have traded messages with my Paralympic teammates. Together, we are coming to terms with this abrupt reshaping of our lives. Every day on social media, I witness the strength and courage of our Team.

I know we will persevere. It is what we do.

How am I coping now? Good, I think. I am enjoying running more than I ever have before. It still gives me a sense of freedom from the world. And Tokyo? I still dream of winning a gold medal. It is still written on my whiteboard. I still wake up each morning with Tokyo on my mind. In a lot of ways, nothing has changed. But I will never forget that night when it felt like the world was falling apart.

20-year-old Jaryd Clifford (Para-athletics) made his Paralympic debut in 2016 and is the reigning world champion over 1500m and 5000m in the T13 classification for athletes with a vision impairment.

This article first appeared in the June issue of The Australian Paralympian magazine. The magazine is an exclusive for members of AUS Squad – to read more great stories like this, and to access the full magazine, join today. Already a member? Sign-in now.

By: Jaryd Clifford
Posted: 17 June 2020
Imagery with thanks to Athletics Australia