We’re less than a year away from the Tokyo Paralympics, and things are starting to heat up for our para-athletes across all sports. AUT Millennium is a training base for numerous athletes, including sprinter Mitch Joynt, who has been putting in the hours hoping to earn his ticket to Japan next year. We caught up with Mitch as he was preparing for World Champs. 

Laidback and chatty, Mitch’s attitude belies the challenges he’s faced over the past few years. It doesn’t take long to see why – his positivity is palpable and contagious. “As soon as my accident happened, I thought ‘Well, there’s nothing I can do about that now’, and started thinking how I can take advantage of what had happened,” he recalls. Without gory details, Mitch had to have his right leg amputated below the knee after an arborist accident involving a wood chipper. Do the maths and you can see how the result would not be pretty.

Following a brief hospital stay, Mitch had to learn to walk again, and his attitude was his number one tool for getting through that. “It hurt, for sure, but I knew it was something I just had to go through,” he says. “All the physical barriers are mental, so I knew I just had to battle through it.” His motivation and dedication to his rehab saw him returning to work as an aborist five months after his accident – and yes, that included climbing up trees! However, another injury made him realise perhaps it wasn’t the best occupation for him. “I broke the ankle on my left leg and the rehab for that was way harder than learning to walk on a prosthetic!” Not long after, he changed his line of work to something less risky, and now drives trucks for a living.

Mitch in full flight. Image: Alisha Lovrich.

Journey to sprinting

“I started thinking about para sport almost right away,” Mitch recalls, touching on how he wanted to explore ways to capitalise on what had happened to him. After exploring rowing and snow sports, in which he has represented New Zealand at a World Cup, he leaned towards athletics, via long distance running. “I did a half marathon on my regular ‘day leg’ and I would not recommend that,” he chuckles. “Running is kind of awkward when you don’t have any ankle movement.” He signed up for ParaFed Auckland and was encouraged towards athletics by its CEO, Hamish Meachaem. “I’d seen the Rio Paralympics and had it in the back of my mind, but I wasn’t really putting any thought into it,” Mitch says. He attended a handful of training sessions with Hamish and became hooked.

Initially, it took time for Hamish and Mitch to decide what his focus would be. At Paralympic level, only some disciplines are available for each disability classification. As a T64 athlete (lower limb prosthetic), Mitch could choose between 100m, 200m, javelin and long jump. In his trademark relaxed style, he jokes “I couldn’t do long jump, and I sucked at javelin, so sprinting it was.” Since settling in the sprint distances, Mitch has improved significantly, and surprised himself with his performance at National Championships earlier this year. “I ran a one second personal best, which I wasn’t expecting,” he says. “I didn’t really trust the process before that, but I guess my coach knows what he’s doing!”

Ticket to Tokyo

At the time of our chat with Mitch, he was 12 weeks out from leaving for the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai in November. He understands that the easiest way to book his seat the plane to Japan is to place in the top four. Currently ranked sixth in the world for 200m, his preferred distance, he knows he’ll need to be at his best to confirm that place, but does have a contingency plan. “If you’re ranked in the top six by the end of the year, you win a slot for your country. Being ranked sixth currently is a good thing, and I should run quicker between now and December. I’m quietly confident of getting there.”

Working full time makes for a busy week, as he also trains regularly – up to four track sessions at AUT Millennium, two gym days as well as a recovery session. Recently, to get over a niggling injury, he tried Deep Water Running, and found it to be a great addition to his routine. “I’d not heard of it before, but it was perfect for me,” he says. “It’s zero impact, but I was able to do everything I do on the track. It’s slowed down, so I could focus on my form and technique. While I used it as recovery, it’s a different type of fitness session and was so good for my muscles.”

One thing that’s never far from his mind is funding. He saves every dollar he can as the majority of his trip to Worlds is self-funded. He is grateful to his sponsors, mostly small local businesses who know him personally and have got in behind his running. “I have done a bit of begging and pleading, and the businesses who have come on board, such as Torpedo 7, Active+ Physio, Fitter Faster Stronger Whangaparaoa and New Balance, are legends,” he says. It is their support, as well as generosity from the general public, that enables him to keep training at the levels which will help him represent New Zealand at the Paralympics.

Power of positivity

Losing a limb is definitely a life-changing experience, but Mitch has always been philosophical about his new reality. “With technological advancements, losing a leg below the knee like I did is not the end of the world,” he says. “The prosthetics are so good these days, you can get around pretty much just how you used to.” It’s that mentality he’d like to pass on to anyone facing a similar challenge to him. “I think we often hear stories of people who lose a limb who have gone on to be really, really successful. The bar is quite high in mainstream media, when it should really be just living your normal life, whatever that looks like to you,” he says. “Getting around easily and hassle free is the goal, with the help of these great prosthetics.”

Part of his attitude is fuelled by the knowledge that he took his body for granted. “The accident was both the worst thing to ever happen to me, and the best,” he muses. “It’s put me in a position I would never have been in with two legs. I didn’t have the motivation or skillset to get to this level with two legs, and now I’m on track to qualify for the Olympics. I would never have dreamed of that six years ago”

Throughout everything, Mitch’s parents Bronwyn and Jimmy and his girlfriend Bambi have been instrumental in their support and encouragement. He’s looking forward to repaying their faith and love through his efforts in Dubai. “The accident was harder on them than it was on me, Mum especially still gets upset,” he says sincerely. “Part of the reason that I’ve worked so hard is to prove to them that I’m going to be alright. I would like to think that when I pull on a New Zealand singlet in November, it will bring them some closure. Maybe it’ll even make up for what I’ve put them through, and pay them back for everything they have done for me.”

If you’d like to support Mitch in his Paralympics journey, you can do so via Give a Little: