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Jason Smyth: ‘I hope my actions show my daughters, if dad is able to do it . . . then I can’

Parenting in My Shoes: The paralympian says it doesn’t matter what the challenge is you’re facing. ‘We all face our own challenges and you’ve got to learn to get over them, embrace them’

Paralympian Jason Smyth says he always envisaged himself being a dad. He met his American wife, Elise, through his uncle, who suggested the pair meet up ahead of Elise’s planned trip to Ireland. “We went on a few dates and it developed from there.”

The couple have two daughters, Evie (8) and Lottie (5).

Finding out Elise was pregnant for the first time brought a mixture of feelings, Jason explains. “We were planning to have kids, so it wasn’t a shock. But there always is, I suppose, a little bit of a surprise. An ‘Oh this is actually happening, isn’t it?’ I think the two emotions are excitement and scared. The excitement is the easier to understand. But the reality is everything is going to change and you don’t really fully understand how much things are going to change until you’re going through it.”

Jason has Stargardt disease, which developed when he was about seven or eight. “It’s a genetic eye condition. My grandad had it, but, for him, it didn’t develop until he was about 60. Basically, the central part of my eye is completely blind and my peripheral vision is blurry. Everything I see is extremely blurry. I have a rough 5-10 per cent vision range. It’s regarded as being legally blind.”


Although his condition is genetic, Jason says the possibility of his children having the same disease wasn’t something he and his wife were concerned about. “For me, yes, there’s obviously the chance – the reality is in my family, none of my brothers and sisters have it, or aunties and uncles. I’m actually the only one, but it could be my kids. Or their kids. It’s unknown.

“For me, it doesn’t matter what the challenge is you’re facing, whether it’s visual impairment. We all face our own challenges in life and you’ve got to learn to get over them, embrace them, look for the opportunity to learn and grow and develop. So, for me, that would never be a reason why it would have any impact on having kids.

Women’s role in society or at home are a piece that’s individual to you and your family and what their needs are

“My children could have their own challenges. And their challenges could feel more difficult to them than mine. It’s back to this point of how you try to develop the ability to deal with whatever is thrown your way.

“My visual impairment... I, ironically, wouldn’t go back and change it, because I feel I’ve become a stronger, more rounded, developed person because of the challenges I’ve had to overcome. I don’t know if I’d be in the place I am now if I hadn’t had to go through those moments. So therein lies an opportunity, rather than thinking about all the negatives.”

Jason’s visual impairment does have an impact on his experience of fatherhood. Much of it lies in our tendency to take things for granted. “People take it for granted they can drive. People take it for granted they can walk past somebody in the street and see them. People take it for granted a bus can come, and they can see the number on it to get on. Going to a shop and being able to see a bag of rice they want to buy and how much it costs. They are all things that I can’t really do, because I can’t see.”

His daughters don’t really recognise the difference between their daddy and their friends’ daddies, Jason feels, both in terms of his career as a renowned athlete or in terms of his blindness. “This is normal for them,” he says.

Part of the reason he chose to participate in the TV show, Dancing with the Stars, was to show his dance-loving daughters that his visual impairment need not be an obstacle. “I hope my actions show my daughters if dad is able to do it and face the challenges and embrace it, then they can.”

Jason is a Mormon and is raising his children in this faith. “You always hear negative stories [about the Mormon religion],” he says. “You hear negative stories of some facet... that they have many wives and all that kind of carry-on. That’s not my religion or faith. Our church is down as the Church of Jesus Christ – there are a few other religions that use the book of Mormon.

“It’s a hugely important piece of my life. For me, it gives me a greater perspective of who I am, the purpose of life, and where I’m going. Even the thought of I’m blessed with a talent, so it’s not all about me. But there’s an onus on me to develop and improve my talent. I feel it’s a support network in allowing me to realise that my challenges are what make me stronger and grow, and it’s part of shaping me as a person as well.”

As a father of girls, growing up in the Mormon faith, Jason says he believes women’s role in society or at home are “a piece that’s individual to you and your family and what their needs are. My wife works part-time, but she was at home with the kids when I was an athlete. For me, if my wife’s going to be the main breadwinner there’s no issue there either. It’s not about, for me, the male-female piece, it’s about what works best for you as a family. For one family, it could be something completely different from another family.”

As for expectations around how his daughters would dress, Jason says, “for us, modesty is a piece for male and females. One of the pieces, for us, in our faith is just nearly to describe your body as a temple. How you keep it clean and look after it. We don’t drink. We don’t smoke. I suppose modesty is different, because what people wear is different.”

Just because I have values in certain spaces, or my wife does, doesn’t actually mean that’s what our daughters will decide for themselves

Though his daughters are very young now, Jason says how they might choose to dress when they’re older is something he and his wife may need to consider. “Maybe I’m wrong in my views on this, but how do you respect yourself and your body as well? Just because everybody else is doing something doesn’t mean you also need to do things to fit in, good or bad. I don’t have the answers to it. There certainly is a piece that me and my wife will have to figure out, like where our boundaries are at.

“There’s an element of boundaries, but again different families also set different boundaries, regardless of their religious background, or not. Maybe actually, that’s a piece for people to understand. What actually are my values and how do I stick to my values regardless of the peer pressure around?

“It’s not going to be easy. At the end of the day, once they get to a certain age, they make their own decisions. And just because I have values in certain spaces, or my wife does, doesn’t actually mean that’s what they decide themselves either.”

Even though he himself was a successful sportsman, Jason says he’s not a competitive parent for his kids. “The reality is, unless you as the individual, who is going to do sport very competitively, want to do it, enjoy it and are motivated to do it, it doesn’t matter how much I force – it’s not going it happen.

“It would be all about giving them as many opportunities as they want, need, and creating the environment for them to do well at it. But they’ve got to decide they want to do it. For me, sports, unless you’re going to a really high level, at the core of it, you need to enjoy it, otherwise you aren’t going to do it. And if they are going to be really good, they’re probably going to be really good, but they have to, first of all, enjoy it.”

Jason has experienced the highs and lows of parenthood. And while the lows are few and far between, one that sticks in his mind is when the hearing test was carried out on his newborn daughter in hospital. “They weren’t picking up anything around hearing, during the initial tests,” he says. Eventually, after another couple of tests, it turned out there was no issue. “But it was just in that moment. And I can kind of reflect on what it was like for my parents, that moment of your child having some challenge.”

As for the highs, he lists the moments when the children arrived and “that feeling of love”.

Little moments, “when you do something good. It might be running, or even dancing and you just get random little messages, ‘Daddy that was brilliant.’ Or ‘Daddy I love you.’ Just little things. It just feels like it softens your heart.

Parenting in My Shoes

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan

Jen Hogan, a contributor to The Irish Times, writes about health and family