By Ken Stone
In sixth grade, Joel Gomez passed a test allowing him to skip seventh-grade math. Now a 15-year-old sophomore at Canyon Crest Academy, he’s taking calculus.
But his biggest math challenge involves running — averaging under 60 seconds a quarter-mile lap four times in a row.
Joel can see himself becoming a sub-4-minute miler before graduation — a feat accomplished by only 10 American preps — including one in San Diego (Tim Danielson’s 3:59.4 in 1966).
“I’ve … been saying that since I was a freshman,” Joel says. “That was my goal. Coach [Andrew] Corman thought I was a little crazy because he hadn’t seen me run yet. … I think he’s taking it a bit more seriously now.”
So is U.S. Paralympics, a division of the U.S. Olympic Committee. That governing body recently named Joel a Track & Field High School All-American for his 1,500-meter run of 4:15.86 at the Desert Challenge Games last June in Tempe, Arizona.
That’s roughly 4:34 mile pace — as a 14-year-old freshman.
Even more remarkable: Joel is legally blind.
“My mission in life is to inspire others, so that they too can overcome their challenges,” he said in a TedX talk in his home of Encinitas. He’s an ambassador for San Diego-based Vision of Children Foundation.
Born with a rare genetic disorder called blue cone monochromacy (BCM for short), Joel likens it to the blindness one briefly experiences walking out of a dark theater into bright sunshine. Except his affliction is constant, even in moderate light.
He says he’s missing 98 percent of his cone photoreceptors. He also has a rare form of color-blindness — “which means I can’t distinguish red from black, orange from green and blue from pink.”
(His parents, Carlos and Rynn, say his clothing color combos have been “quite creative,” he says. And when he ran cross country, the orange cones marking the route blended into the grass.)
“I’m really hoping there will be a cure someday,” he says. “They’re getting closer and closer every day. The technology has advanced so much, it’s quite incredible.”
He wears such tech in school — $10,000 eSight glasses that help him see the board, especially in math class. But they’re too bulky (and fragile) to wear while running. So he wears shades in competition.
On the track, he can make out the white lane stripes. And he can see runners immediately ahead of him. But to avoid tripping amid the dash for the pole, he asks to start in the outermost lane. And when he runs relays, he wants to anchor.
“I don’t have to pass the baton to somebody else,” Joel said in a phone interview. “Middle legs (are) twice the amount of error.”
His sight isn’t blurry, he says, but at a distance things just blend in with each other.
He’s never been disqualified for running out of his lane, although in a cross country race, when he couldn’t see the little landscaping flags, his dad ran alongside him to keep him on course.
“The announcer was yelling: ‘Parents, do not run with your athletes or they will be disqualified,’ Joel recalls.”
How does he extrapolate from a 4:34 freshman mile to a sub-4 as a senior?
Last season, he improved his 1500-meter personal record by 30 seconds. And in the past year, he’s grown perhaps 6 inches — to his current height of 5-7. (He weighs 115.)
“I’m definitely hoping to break 4 in the 1500 this track season as well as qualify for the Pan American Games and the World Para Athletics Championships,” he says, referring to a November 2019 meet in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
His next goal? Competing in the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics following the Summer Olympic Games. Most recent finalists in the T13 category 1500 run under 4 minutes for the metric mile.Joel even envisions a pro career in track and field.
Failing that, he has other talents.
An accomplished ukulele strummer, Joel also plays violin, piano and guitar. And his voice has professional polish. He can boast thousands of views of three dozen music videos on a 3-year-old YouTube channel.
He writes his own songs, too, including “Runnin Blind” and “Along for the Ride.” (His parents shoot the videos, and Joel edits them himself using Final Cut Pro.)
Father Carlos — a 5.0-rated tennis player — is a native of Colombia who came to Tennessee originally as an exchange student. Mother Rynn, who runs, put on hold a long career as a court reporter to help guide Joel.
Though Joel doesn’t play tennis, “a surprising fact … is he is incredibly good at Ping Pong,” says Rynn Whitley-Gomez. “He is able to hear the ball and judge when to strike.”
Canyon Crest coach Corman says he loves Joel’s goals.
“I think every kid that races the mile dreams of wanting to break 4 minutes,” Corman said. “For Joel, he has already overcome so much – he understands that it won’t just happen and knows he is going to have to work for it.”Corman says Joel has increased his base of mileage (about 60 a week, Joel says) and has been very consistent with training.
“As a sophomore this year, he has done a good job of adapting to our high school model of training and focus on team,” Corman said. “He really excels when given the opportunity to perform on the track.”
Olympic champion Joaquim Cruz (800-meter winner in 1984) coaches local paralympians at the Chula Vista Olympic Training Center and also advises Joel and his coach.
“He said that once I’m in the 3:50s (for the 1500), that would be a big thing,” says Joel, who is shooting for sub-4:20 in the 1600 this season, sub-1:57 in the 800 “and close to 50 [seconds] as possible in the 400.”
Cruz, who has a 3:53 mile best, says he first saw Joel compete at the Desert Challenge.
“I really liked the way he behaved himself during the competition in terms of emotional intelligence and mental strength,” Cruz said Tuesday. “He is a true performer.”
Saying Joel has a lot of potential to become a good middle-distance runner, Cruz advises him to train and compete with his high school team.
“We (U.S. Paralympics) will make sure that he has opportunity to compete at IPC qualifying meet in California and the U.S. annual Paralympic Championships.”
Finally, says Cruz, now 55: “Yes, I think that he has a good chance to make the U.S. team to compete at the Parapan Games in Lima, Peru, and Paralympic Games 2020.”
Hector Menchaca, Joel’s former coach with the San Diego Waves, is now cross country coach at Mission Hills High School in San Marcos.
He said a sub-4 would take “extraordinary commitment and dedication within the many aspects in his life.”
Menchaca thinks Joel would need personalized coaching — saying that’s where Coach Cruz comes in — and a major drop in his times every year.
“I know he can qualify for the IPC for 2020 and definitely get his 800 time down,” he said. “Joel has compensated well in regards to his vision challenges.
“As a Wave, Joel improved most when he realized that consistent training was needed and natural talent only went so far. I look forward to his endeavors and have been privileged to be part of his development.”
Already the fastest middle-distance runner at his north San Diego public school (part of the San Dieguito Union High School District), Joel is mastering race tactics as well.
“If the race goes out slow, I kind of like being in the front and control the race,” he says. “In the frosh-soph invitational that I won this past track season with a time of 4:38, I was in the front for the majority of the race, and it came down to a kick finish.”
He thinks he and a rival ran the last 400 meters in 62 seconds — “which was flying for a mile.”
In a fast race, he says he finds a regular rival to “stick on their tail and hopefully at the finish be able to pick them off.”
Given his vision issues, Joel isn’t big on social media and “never been into video games.”
“My Instagram has only 180 followers,” he says.
Joel is shy about talking grade-point average, but figures it’s 4.00. He’s also not ready to stress over his college choice. But he’ll factor in track first.
“As a miler, I’d love to get recruited by Oregon,” he said. “But I’m definitely going to have to go sub-4 because that’s nearly the standard to get into Oregon nowadays.”
He’s also interested in Northern Arizona University (“They have a really good distance program as well”) and Stanford.
Joel knows some of the history of high school miling, and even met Jim Ryun at the Festival of Miles at Balboa Stadium marking the 50th anniversary of the Kansan becoming the first prep to go sub-4.
That day, Joel won his age-10 race in 5:45.86.
With his parents in the stands, Joel sat cross-legged at the 10 yard line — the only way he could watch a grainy black-and-white video of 18-year-old Ryun beating Olympic champion Peter Snell at Balboa Stadium in 1965.
“He’s just my hero. He’s awesome,” Joel said at the time. “I want to be like him basically. I want to run like him.”
Updated at 3:30 p.m. Dec. 13, 2018
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