News & Updates

4 May 2023 • General

Para sprinter Joe savours Paris adventure

Joe Smith will be among seven athletes who form a group set to compete at the 2023 Para Athletics World Championships in Paris next week. Credit (Alisha Lovrich)

When the New Zealand team was announced for the Paris 2023 Para Athletics World Championships it had a very familiar look. Led by our three Paralympic champions – Lisa Adams, Anna Grimaldi and Holly Robinson – and supported by our double Tokyo Paralympic podium fillers Danielle Aitchison and Will Stedman as well as 2019 Para Athletics World Championship representative Mitch Joynt the team boasts extensive international experience.

Yet perhaps a little less known is Joe Smith, the seventh member of the team, who is all set to make his Para Athletics World Championship debut in Paris in the 100m T37.

The 25-year-old Aucklander has been a consistent performer for several years on the domestic circuit and he is understandably elated to make earn selection for what will be the biggest competition of his career.

“It means the world to be selected,” says Joe. “It makes all the sacrifices to get to this point worthwhile. Looking at the New Zealand team it is of world class calibre. To be the seventh member I hope to make great connections with people and soak up as much information I can with the longer-term goal to come back to Paris next year and compete at the Paralympic Games.”

Born in Leeds in Northern England, he relocated to Auckland with his family aged “nine or ten” where he followed multiple sporting routes. He later went on to play reserve grade football and premier cricket and the former Sacred Heart College student is a handy nine handicap golfer.

At no stage did he explain to either his co-workers or friends he even had a disability, but after a co-worker made a mean comment to Joe about his disability this caused a change of attitude.

“The remark hit me, and it was a bit of a turning point,” added Joe, who suffered multiple strokes just days before he was born which triggered cerebral palsy. “I thought I can’t keep ignoring it, so I got in contact with Paralympics NZ who referred me to Parafed Auckland who then asked if I fancied trying sport of athletics.”

Initially put in contact with Paralympic medallist and Athletics NZ throws coach John Eden it quickly became apparent his future would not lie as a thrower. However, after he was advised to join the training group of Hamish Meacheam based out of AUT Millennium on the North Shore he found his athletics calling.

From a football background he was initially identified as a middle-distance runner however after rapidly dropping his 100m PB for 13 seconds to 12.4 his coach decided to focus his efforts as a sprinter.

“I knew if it continued to run well there could be real opportunities for me,” recalls Joe, who works as a greenkeeper at Remuera Golf Club. “Hamish outlined the Para athletics pathway, and I was told I had the potential to represent my country internationally.”

On his debut season in the sport, he ran a blistering 12.15 for the 100m at the 2020 Daikin Night of 5s which offered huge encouragement. A fracture to the fifth metatarsal of his right foot brought an abrupt end to the season but he was hooked and in the shape of training partners, Keegan Pitcher, a double bronze medallist at the 2017 Para Athletics World Championships, Mitch Joynt, Tokyo Paralympian Anna Steven and rising Para sprinter/jumper Paddy Walsh, Joe believes he quickly found his herd.

“Keegan Pitcher was then a part of the group who like me also had cerebral palsy,” he said. “I had never met someone before who cerebral palsy and was involved in sport, and it was very inspirational. I found a sense of belonging in the group.

“I would get the chance to ask Keegan or Mitch silly questions like, how early should I get to the meet? Are my spikes the right size? It was easy having these people around someone to nurture me and they were brilliant to train with too.”

While enjoying every second of being part of his training group his disability does present its challenges.  Balance and co-ordination can be demanding and his range of motion in his hips and shoulders can be limited.

“I try not to think about what the other lads are doing in the groups in terms of weights and just focus on what I can do,” he explains. “Also if I do say three full reps I get a lot more fatigued than your average person.”

Thankfully he has an empathetic and understanding coach. Hamish has huge experience coaching Para athletes and has skilfully guided Joe throughout his time in the sport. Offering a patient approach, Joe says: “He sees everyone as an individual and he has an ability to tinker training to adapt to everyone’s needs, which is cool. He has a great understanding of athletics in general but also Para athletes as well.”

Joe has continued to perform consistently. Last year he won silver medals in the men’s open para 100m (12.27) and 200m (26.17) at the Jennian Homes New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Hastings before going on to place sixth in the 100m and place fourth in the 200m at the open men’s Para races at the Oceania Area Championships in Mackay, Australia.

“I loved Mackay and to feature as part of that first New Zealand squad was cool,” he adds. “I thought I performed pretty well. I would have liked to have run a little better in the 100m, but I know conditions weren’t great.”

This season Joe has recorded a season’s best of 12.25 – just a tenth of a second from his two-and-a-half-year-old PB. He claimed men’s open Para 100m silver (12.37) and 200m bronze (25.96) at the 2023 Jennian Homes New Zealand Track & Field Championships in Wellington and sits tenth in the world rankings for the former event.

And following his selection for Paris he next hopes to fine tune his training to add to his natural ability to get out the blocks quickly by working harder on maintaining his form right through to the finish line.

His parents have booked their tickets for the Para Athletics World Championships to be held at the Stade Charlety in Paris, so what would he like to achieve while representing his country in the French capital?

“The goal is to make that final,” says Joe. “If I can make the final, I hope to run a New Zealand and record (which currently stands at 11.97 set by Matthew Slade in 2005).”

Beyond Paris a return to the French capital for next year’s Paralympic Games is the goal, but whatever happens in the future Joe just loves the thrill of running fast.

“There is something exhilarating about sprinting and bursting out of the blocks,” he says. “Then once out of the blocks, it is very simple – it is about running as fast as you can go.”