Londonderry's Olympic hero receives honorary degree

EGLINTON'S Olympic champion, Jason Smyth has been awarded an honorary doctorate at Queen's University, the youngest ever person to get such a degree.

The Grammar school is rightly proud of their former student and internationally successful athlete. The testimonial speech given at the ceremony last Monday, July 6, sums up the outstanding achievements of this young man.

Isabel Jennings, Director of Student Plus at Queen's University Belfast told the packed graduation ceremony: "There are many things which make Jason Smyth unique but one of the most striking things about this afternoon's Honorary Graduand is that the achievements for which we honour him today have all been accomplished within the first 22 years of his life, making him Queen's University's youngest ever Honorary Graduand, and another first for Jason.

"It is probably not surprising that Jason chose Independence Day to commence his life's journey. He was born in Derry to parents Lloyd and Diane Smyth on the fourth of July 1987 and is the eldest of five children, with one brother and three sisters. We are pleased that Diane, Leeza, Laura Jayne and Jessica are able to join us today – you are all most welcome to Queen's in what is a very busy week for the family, as Leeza will be married on Friday.

"Jason was only eight years old when he was diagnosed with Stargardts disease, a genetic disorder resulting in partial loss of sight. The family were understandably devastated by this news but even at such an early age Jason displayed an inner strength which was to become a characteristic of his attitude to the challenges that his future sporting life were to throw at him.

"Speaking of the disease Jason said, "I grew up with it. It's normal to me. I don't look at it as a downfall. I don't think of it"

"Winning however, has always been high on Jason's agenda regardless of the stakes – his mother Diane recalls his determination to win from infancy, whether at childhood games or on Sports Day. On one occasion when asked about his Sports Day performance he said, "I did ok". It was later that day when Diane discovered a trophy, and it emerged that he had won everything he had competed in.

"It was at Limavady Grammar School, in the summer term of 2004, when Liz Maguire, Jason's PE teacher, identified his potential to succeed at sprinting and set in motion a chain of events which were to take Jason to the height of his sporting achievement. Little did Liz know that Jason only joined the athletics club to "keep his PE teacher happy" – but only 8 months later Jason had been selected to compete at Northern Ireland level. The year ended on a high with Jason being selected for the Junior Commonwealth Games in Australia. Not a bad first year for a beginner!

"On a day when Queen's is proud to graduate the teachers of tomorrow, it is worthwhile to take note of the pivotal role a teacher can play in identifying latent talent and steering a pupil on a road that can lead to great achievement.

"There is one other person who had entered Jason's life by this stage and who has made a significant contribution to his professional development. Stephen Maguire, who started work as Jason's coach in 2004 and mentored him throughout the many successes in the early days. Stephen and Jason have made a winning team and continue to work together.

"Coach Maguire believes Jason can deal with pressure well because he has interests outside of athletics, especially watching his beloved football team, Liverpool. Jason follows his own path, and is more likely to mention Stephen Gerrard as an inspiration rather than Usain Bolt, to whom he has regularly been compared.

"In the early summer of 2005 Jason competed in the District, Ulster and Schools championships, winning both the 100 and 200 metres at Irish level and setting a new Irish record. In August 2005 he gained Irish selection to compete in the European Paralympics Championships in Finland, where he broke two further world records.

In 2006 and 2007, Jason went from strength to strength, continuing to break records, not only at Irish level, but across the world. But it was 2008 which was to see Jason reach the pinnacle of sporting success.

"The year started with a Gold at the Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, followed by a new personal best of 10.53 seconds for the 100 metres in the European Cup in Estonia. But the best was yet to come when Jason became a double Paralympic Gold medallist in Beijing in September 2008, gaining Gold in the 100 and 200 metres in front of some 90,000 spectators, defying a hamstring injury, and setting new world records in both events.

"It is characteristic of Jason that, when asked how he felt about his Olympic success, his response was similar to what Diane described when he underplayed his success at that School Sports Day years before. He said, "People ask me if I'm happy but the emotion is relief. When you cross that line after training for 4 years, 5-6 days a week, for a 10 and a half second race, all that pressure lifts".

"In a gesture that says everything about Jason's character – on his lap of honour, he stopped to console a fellow athlete who had not been so fortunate on the field of play – a gesture that typifies Jason.

"You have to ask yourself what makes someone so young, so wise.

"It is often said that the greatest successes are borne from the greatest struggles but to define Jason Smyth's achievements in these terms would be to do him a great disservice. Many people wonder what it must be like to sprint with a visual impairment. Jason describes how the challenge of not always "seeing" can, in fact, be very liberating. He said: "I can't see the lines sometimes and it's hard to see the finish line which means I don't dip, it's not something I do". Surely there is a lesson for all of us in this sentiment.

"Already Jason has started to give something back and his involvement with young people in the community and his visits to local Schools, where he gives freely of his time, have helped to motivate others. It is surely encouraging to know that your sporting potential can be discovered at the age of 17 and you can be a gold medal winner only four years later.

"So where will Jason Smyth go next? Having recently qualified for the European Senior Championships in Barcelona, and with less than a quarter of a century behind him, the possibilities for his future are endless.

"Jason identifies a future challenge as gaining Gold at both the Paralympic and Olympic games. It is his strong desire not to be typecast but to be recognised as an accomplished, mainstream performer in his chosen sport.

"As Jason says, "It's a big goal of mine to run in the Olympics one day, hopefully London 2012 if things go well. I don't see why not, I don't see why it can't happen."

I for one believe Jason can realise his dream.

"Jason – we wish you every success and will watch your future with interest. You are truly an inspiration and a role model to us all."

The Vice-Chancellor then conferred the Degree of Doctor of the University, honoris causa, on Jason.