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Encinitas Teen Ready To Run At Tokyo Paralympics

Joel Gomez during a training run at Triton Track & Field Stadium on UC San Di...

Photo by Alexander Nguyen

Above: Joel Gomez during a training run at Triton Track & Field Stadium on UC San Diego campus, July 27, 2021.

Watching Joel Gomez run on the track, you wouldn’t know that the recently turned 18-year-old is legally blind.

He's fast, and he zooms around the curve on the track. But Gomez has a rare genetic condition.

Listen to this story by Alexander Nguyen

“So my visual impairment is called blue-cone monochromacy. And I’ve had it since birth," he said.

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It means that things further than an arm’s length are a blur and he can’t differentiate between certain colors, such as orange cones on green grass.

It hasn't affected his running much, though it does sometimes present challenges.

“So, once my dad was running alongside me," Gomez said. "They had already packed up at the end of the meet because ours was the last race of the day — so he was carrying the chair and our dog on a leash telling me, ‘Go this way, go this way,” and the announcer was saying, ‘Parents, don’t run with your athletes,’ so we had to explain to the announcer my disability.”

Parents running alongside student athletes is a disqualifying infraction in high school track and field.

Growing up, like many other kids in Encinitas, Gomez was playing soccer. But as he got older, the sport proved too much for his visual impairment.

"I played soccer until I was around 10 years old, that's when the game became too competitive," he said. "The ball was getting kicked around faster because we're growing up, we get stronger as we get older."

That was when he switched to track and field. One of Gomez's strengths on the soccer field was his speed. He could make it from one end of the field to the other before the other players. He just couldn't see the ball, he said.

"I had amazing endurance compared to all the other athletes whenever we would go for a lap," Gomez said. "Whenever the coach has us go for a lap around the field, I would always end up in first."

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That's not surprising, considering athletics runs in the family. His father, Carl Gomez, is a 5.0-rated tennis player, two steps below sectional and national ranking. His mom, Rynn Whitley Gomez, was a runner.

Joel's events are the 1,500-meter and 400-meter races. It was a coincidence that he became a distance runner. His first running club was a distance-running club. If it had been a sprinting club, he might have been a sprinter, he said.

Still, competing for the Paralympics was never the dream. In fact, Joel and his parents didn’t even know about it.

In high school, Joel competed with sighted runners. He attended Canyon Crest Academy until his running competitions meant that he'd be missing too much school. He then switched to Classical Academy High School in Escondido for its online program.

It was happenstance that the Gomezes learned about the Paralympics. At one high school competition, officials wouldn't let Joel run with sunglasses. He is very light-sensitive because of his condition.

That was when his mom contacted Richard Robert, the US Track and Field Para Athletics Committee chairman.

“So Richie Robert asked me on the first phone call, ‘Well, how fast is he and how legally blind is he?’” Whitley Gomez said. "I told him and he said, 'He needs to be visually classified and looked into the Paralympic team.' So I said, 'No sir, I think he just needs to wear sunglasses at a high school meet."

Through that phone call, Joel’s parents eventually agreed to let him be visually classified with the Paralympics. He’s classified as T-13 — the least visually impaired division. It means he can differentiate between shadows and forms.

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While Tokyo will be Joel’s first Paralympics, he is no stranger to competing on the world stage.

“In 2019, I was nominated to the World Junior Para Athletics Championships in Nottwil, Switzerland," Joel Gomez said. "And I competed in the 1500 and 400 meters and I won gold in both events. Then I went to Parapan American Games, which was held in Lima, Peru that August and I finished second in that event.”

Still, making it onto the US Paralympics team wasn’t a sure thing. During the Paralympic team trials last month in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Joel's time in the 1,500-meter was 4:00.31 — 95.4% of the automatic qualifying standard of 3:50.

There were only 35 spots on Team USA, so for four days after the trials, before the announcement, Joel said it was the longest and hardest four days of his life.

"I was counting every single name off on my fingers to make sure that ... oh, there's this many left, will my name be called," he said.

Joel's name was the 16th name called. He said that moment was one of the most genuine moments of his life because he has no idea what would happen.

"When I made it, it was just pure ecstasy," he said. "It was amazing."

In Tokyo, Joel will be competing in the 1,500- and 400-meter races. After the Paralympics, he will attend Purdue University to pursue a degree in industrial engineering.

As far as his running career, Joel plans to pursue it as long as he can.

The Paralympics competitions start on Aug. 24 and go through Sept. 5.

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