Joel Gomez chats with NBC's Lewis Johnson after 400-meter semifinal at Tokyo's Olympic Stadium.
Joel Gomez chats with NBC’s Lewis Johnson after 400-meter semifinal at Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium. Photo via Gomez family

Classes began at Purdue University on Aug. 23, so when Joel Gomez of Encinitas attends his first sessions Tuesday, he’ll be running behind. But no worries. He has a good excuse.

He competed twice this week at the Tokyo Paralympics, wearing the red and blue of Team USA.

“He’s arriving two weeks late, but has been in contact with all instructors and his academic adviser,” said Rynn Whitley Gomez, mother of the 18-year-old freshman. They’ll be flying out of Narita, Japan, Saturday with a direct flight to Chicago, renting a car and getting to the Indiana campus Sunday.

Gomez won no medals — taking 10th in the 1500-meter final Tuesday against fellow visually impaired athletes and sixth in a 400 semifinal Wednesday. His one-lap sprint rivals averaged 28 years of age; in the 1500, they averaged 27.

But the experience gained? Priceless.

“I felt like a pinball the entire race, just getting pushed around,” he said in a FaceTime interview from the Olympic athletes village. With 500 meters to go, 2016 Rio Paralympic silver medalist Tamiru Demisse of Ethiopia got “very, very physical” and pushed him to the back of a speeding-up pack.

Gomez finished the “metric mile” in 4:02.41 — equivalent to a 4:22 mile. (His best 1500 is 3:56.) The first two laps were a pedestrian 2:15, but the final sprint saw a 52.5-second last lap by gold medalist Anton Kuliatin of Russia, 30, whose final time was 3:54.04.

Gomez said he needs to be stronger, physically and mentally, when it comes to preserving his position.

“I wasn’t ready for that,” said Gomez, born in San Diego with blue cone monochromacy, a rare genetic condition that causes low vision, color blindness and photophobia. “Just one Ethiopian throwing arms — it was just insane. … I think that distracted me a little bit from my running.”

In the call room, in fact, he said his legs looked like twigs compared to the “old man strength” of his rivals.”

About 36 hours later, he lined up for the 400-meter dash — using blocks for the first time in two years.

Gomez reported that his roommate, three-time Paralympic sprinter Jarryd Wallace of Georgia, said a group of 15 teammates watched the race from the village and were betting whether he’d beat 53 seconds. (His best was 53.37.)

“They were all surprised how fast I got out of the blocks,” he said. (His reaction time easily topped the field — 0.153 second.) He finished in in a personal record 52.06 seconds

He said he had no expectations going into the 400. With 100 meters left, he knew he wasn’t going to make the final.

“But I kept going as hard as I could,” he said. “I also looked around and enjoyed the stadium for the last maybe 40 meters. It was really cool.”

Even cooler — while lingering on the track that night he was interviewed by NBC’s Lewis Johnson, who quizzed Olympic champions several weeks earlier. The 6-foot-6 broadcaster — who took eighth in the 800 meters at the 1987 NCAA Championships with a best of 1:47.00 — missed a beat, however, failing to ask:

Why was the Classical Academy of Escondido graduate running the 400 instead of the 800?

Simple. Tokyo didn’t contest an 800 in his category.

“Trust me,” he said. “I would be doing [the 800] because that would probably be my best event. That would have been my greatest chance at medaling. Hopefully in Paris [in 2024], they have it back. They had it in Rio and they had in 2017 at the world championships. Just no Dubai (2019) and no Tokyo.”

With the 2022 World Para Athletics Championships in Kobe, Japan, Gomez looks to progress toward his goal of a sub-4-minute mile. Beating the T13 world record for the 1500 of 3:48.29 would be “kind of like a baby step,” he said.

Besides being interviewed by NBC’s Johnson, among his favorite memories at Tokyo was training at Yokota Air Base northwest of Tokyo.

“The awesome thing there is the [running] path runs right next to the runway. So planes would be taking off while I was running,” said Gomez, accompanied to Tokyo by his mother. (She stayed at a garden hotel in the “Little Italy” section of Tokyo.) “It was absolutely unreal. That was so cool.”

Uncool was being awakened at 6:50 a.m. in the Athletes Village — the day he’d planned to sleep in.

“One of my roommates said: ‘Joel, they’re here for your drug testing,'” he recounted. “It was fine. A blood test — less painful than when I get tested for iron back home.” (He gave a urine sample at the Minnesota Paralympic Trials in June.)

In West Lafayette, Indiana, his next destination, he’ll study industrial engineering technology at Purdue Polytechnic Institute. But his track coach will remain San Diego’s Joaquim Cruz, the 1984 Olympic champion at 800 meters.

During Thursday’s chat (Wednesday night San Diego time), Gomez said he was unsure if he’d run for Purdue. On Thursday, head coach Norbert Elliott told Times of San Diego that he was sorry he didn’t have room for Gomez on his track or cross country teams.

“We absolutely cannot accept not even one more male walk-on at this time,” Elliott said via email. “If you know of any females here at Purdue that ran in high school, we would gladly accept them.”

Collegiate fame or not, Gomez expects his best years will be in his late 20s, when his crowning glory could come at the 2032 Summer Paralympics in Brisbane, Australia. (The 2028 Games are in Los Angeles.)

“I have plenty of time to win medals,” he said.