Close your eyes just for a second. While keeping them closed, get up from wherever it is you are sitting and try to go down the passage or to the nearest door. Pretty difficult, isn’t it? Now, imagine not being able to see at all, ever. Imagining won’t quite give you the full grasp of what it’s like to be blind, but anyone who has ever tried to survive blindfolded will know that it’s not easy.
Now, imagine not being able to see and then running as fast as you can, not being able to know exactly where you are going or where you will end up. That’s exactly what Libby Clegg and a number of other athletes did on Monday night. Scotland’s Clegg won gold that night, but she had a little bit of help from a friend.
Clegg, like the other competitors, runs with a guide runner. The runner is attached to their wrist and it takes a symbiotic effort for the pair to go forward. They have to keep their strides in synch, making sure that they run “with opposites” to keep things going. Keeping that up is the difference between winning or losing and, when the synch falls away, the guide needs to correct the strides and get back into it. The guide needs to make sure she doesn’t veer out of her lane and keep talking her through the whole process.
Clegg’s partner in all of this is Mikail Huggins. A Birmingham born-and-bred lad, Huggins has been Clegg’s eyes for the last three years. He was inspired by his stepfather Lincoln Asquith, the man who was Clegg’s guide runner before him. When Asquith had to retire, Huggins jumped at the chance to take over and the two have been racing together ever since.
In an interview with the Scotland Herald, Huggins explained that it’s a working relationship, with a few small differences.
“On the whole Libby and I have a great relationship on and off the track. I need to know if she is happy or unhappy, whether to offer support or step away and give her space. In a professional relationship, just like any personal one, there has to be respect, trust and communication. I need to know what makes her tick – and vice versa,” said Huggins.
“Honesty is crucial. Neither of us can be afraid of saying something that might offend the other. There have been occasions where we’ve had a disagreement but stepping on to the track we’ve put our professional hats on, got the job done, then talked afterwards. It is rare that we do argue, though,” he adds.
Despite being born in England, Huggins never had any doubt of running for “Team Scotland” at this year’s Commonwealth Games, because he knew how much it would mean to his partner. For him it was an opportunity – as most of his running career has been – and the gold medal the pair earned has been the icing on the cake of years of hard work.
Clegg only got into running after she was diagnosed with the rare condition known as Stargardt disease. She is legally blind with no central vision and only slight peripheral vision in her left eye which is deteriorating as she gets older. To take her mind off her condition, her mother took her to a running club and at the age of 14, she was talent spotted. She wasn’t keen on the idea of using a guide at first, but after falling over a few times, Asquith started running with her when she was 16 years old.
“It’s hard to explain what running feels like when you’re blind. It’s exhilarating, being in control and out of control at the same time. Last summer’s Paralympics was fantastic. It was such an amazing atmosphere in the stadium. At our other events, there’s usually only a handful of spectators, but the crowd of 80,000 screaming for us was surreal. We ran well – we broke a European record in the T12 100m final – but we came second. Although I couldn’t see the crowd, I could feel the roar through my whole body as we sprinted up the track together. It was a unique experience,” Clegg told Runners World in an interview.
Integration of the Para-events has been a hit. Not only has it offered the athletes the exposure they deserve, it has also seen them celebrated at the same time as their able-bodied counterparts.
Sport is great for many reasons. One of them is because it is contested by amazing people, achieving amazing things. It serves as inspiration to propel us ordinary folk forward, to inspire us to kick dust in the face of adversity.
The place of the Commonwealth Games is sometimes questioned. Big-name athletes often try to dodge it, but this year’s edition, for those have tuned in, have captured the hearts of many for many different reasons.
In Monday night, 50,000 people roared, cheered and reverberated their admiration for Clegg and Huggins as they stepped onto the podium to collect their gold medals. This team had won the hearts of tens of thousands of people in the stadium, and thousands more who watched on across the world. That’s what the spirit of athletics games is all about, and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to not feel enchanted by it all. DM
Photo: Brazil’s Terezinha Guilhermina runs alongside her guide in the women’s 60m T11/12 event during the British Athletics International Match at the Emirates Stadium in Glasgow, Scotland, January 26, 2013. REUTERS/David Moir
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