Legally Blind Prep Runner Has Sights Set On Paralympic Team

Joel Gomez (2699), with leaders Chris Caudillo (515) and Jackson Adelman in the Boys Open Division Mile at Arcadia, ran a PR and San Diego Section-leading time. (Jeffrey Parenti photo). 

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UPDATE: On Friday, Classical Academy's Joel Gomez fell short of his goal of qualifying for the 2021 Paralympic Games in Tokyo in the 1,500-meter run, clocking a 3:57.41 to place 20th overall at the Azusa-Pacific Last Chance meet. He needed a 3:49.30 for an automatic qualifying mark.

"I'm pretty happy with that performance," said Gomez via text. "That's a 2.5-second PR. It's definitely tough getting used to having bodies around me during the race again but certainly an improvement over last weekend's race (Arcadia Invitational mile)."

Gomez was born with Blue Cone Monochromacy, has 20-300 eyesight, and is legally blind. He came back Saturday in the 800, running a 1:54.71 PR at Azusa-Pacific.
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Joel Gomez is a student of many talents 

A senior at Classical Academy in Escondido, Gomez carries a 3.97 GPA and plans to major in industrial engineering in college.

He has written two songs and plays four instruments.

In track, he's the San Diego Section leader over 1600 meters after running a 4:20.08 mile at the Arcadia Invitational, which converts to a 4:18.08 for 1600.

Joel Gomez is legally blind.

His corrected vision is 20-300 and the threshold for being legally blind is 20-200. He was born with a condition called Blue Cone Monochromacy, which allows him to see his competitors in a shadowy sort of way.

Gomez is trying to turn it into a positive as he hopes to make the 2021 U.S. Paralympic team in Tokyo in the 1500-meter run.

"I can't drive and I'm not on the fence of being legally blind," said the 17-year-old. "I ask people to let me know who they are right away when we talk because I can't tell.  I can see the lane lines on the track but the inside rail has to be perfectly lined up or I might step on it and trip.

"I wouldn't recognize me in a mirror from three feet away. I'd think 'hey, who are you?' I'm severely color blind."

Not that he lets that stop him from being the best that he can be in the classroom or on the track.

There are a few things he has to consider before a race.

He needs to tell the starter that he's legally blind and would prefer to have lane 5 in the middle of the track. In most of his dual meets, that's all he needs to bolt into the lead where he won't get boxed in or bumped as much. 

That's how he ran a 1:55.44 for 800 meters-all by himself.

In a race like the Arcadia mile, he knew there would be plenty of traffic and once the gun sounded, he was on his own. He knew there were others with better times.

Sure enough, he got bumped around but didn't let it slow him down as he finished a strong eighth in a personal best.

"I've never had an amazing race there," said Gomez. "As a sophomore, I was in the Rising Stars mile and lost a shoe.

"This year the meet director never responded to me that I'd be in the meet but when a friend of mine saw the entries online, there I was. That was 10 p.m. the night before the meet. I'm more of a planner than most -- like two weeks out -- but I wasn't going to pass up this chance."

He ran the mile and after a two-hour break he came back to run the 800, placing fifth in 1:56.25, just off his solo 1:55.44

Gomez's distance coach, 1984 Olympic 800-meter gold medalist Joaquim Cruz, wanted him to run the mile and 800 during the day portion of the meet to get used to running back-to-back.

That's because Gomez's next stop could well be the 2021 Paralympics in Tokyo.

His vision at 20-300 makes him a T-13 Paralympian. T-11 is for completely blind athletes, T-12 has some sight and T-13 can distinguish shadows and forms.

Today (May 14), Gomez is scheduled to compete in the Azusa-Pacific Last Chance meet 1500m, looking for the A standard time of 3:49.30 or at worst, the B standard 3:51.62 from which the field could be filled out if not enough runners meet the A standard.

His 4:20.08 converts to a 4:00.7 for 1500 meters. The runners at Azusa-Pacific will be high-quality competition. 

"Joel's training shows he's better than 4:20 -- I think much better," said Cruz, who never makes predictions before a race.

"To be an elite runner you have to do a lot of work but he's thinking big. He likes to win and he can lead if the pace is too slow. This is called the "Last Chance" meet, so nobody is going to be running slow."

It really isn't Gomez's last chance as he could still qualify at the Paralympic Trials June 17-20 in Minneapolis, but should he get the standard Friday, it will put him in a much stronger position.

Tye Smith, who is Gomez's high school coach and works hand-and-hand with Cruz, simply says there is no limit to how good he can be.

"He ran that 800 in 1:55 all by himself -- the nearest runner was 40 meters back," said Smith, who makes sure there are people every 200 meters to give Gomez his splits since he can't see the clock. "I think Joel ran very, very well at Arcadia but he forgot how aggressive that kind of competition can be because he hasn't had that all year. 

"I think he could run a 1:52 for 800 meters and 4:15 for 1600."

Gomez is focused but he isn't one-dimensional.

In fact, he has written two songs -- "Running Blind" and "Along for the Ride" -- as well as recording 30 others. He can play four instruments -- his favorites are the Ukulele, the violin, the guitar, and the piano.

But it's on the track where he is focused right now, aiming for the Paralympic standard and then the San Diego Section prelims and finals.

"I race to win, not for time," said Gomez. "Coach Cruz can tell by my fitness what time I'll run. He tells me if he's happy, I'm happy. He's never disappointed with what I run."

Both are hoping for one of those moments on Friday evening.

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Steve Brand is a regular contributor to MileSplitCA and serves as the San Diego Section editor.

Inserted photo by Raymond Tran.