Para Sprinter Mitch Joynt is one of a clutch of emerging athletes selected to compete for New Zealand at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai in November. Steve Landells speaks to the 24-year-old to discover more of his inspirational story.
“Always seek out the seed of triumph in every adversity” is a quote from American author Og Mandino and perhaps few athletes better personify this phrase than Kiwi Para sprinter Mitch Joynt.
Six years ago Mitch was coming towards the end of his shift as an arborist at Mangawhai in Northland with just one remaining stick to place through the wood chipping machine.
Opting to kick the piece of wood he slipped on the gravel, lurched forward and trapped his foot in the blades. The injuries sustained led to a below the knee amputation yet far from lingering on the negative following such a harrowing incident he chose to adopt a positive mindset.
In late-2017 Mitch, a full-time truck driver, took up athletics and two years on is all set to appear for New Zealand at the World Para Athletics Championships as a T64 100m and 200m sprinter – a moment he describes as “the proudest” of his life. It has been some journey so far and given his potential we could well see his best to come.
Born and raised on a livestock farm in Kaipara Flats north of Auckland, Mitch grew up a typical sports-mad youngster. He played hockey and rugby for Mahurangi College in Warkworth. A keen snowboarder he also excelled in archery; winning the junior world title at the age of 15.
“I got into archery because I liked Legolas from the Lord of the Rings,” he explains. “Archery was just a sport I had a knack for and I probably didn’t appreciate the achievement (of winning the World Junior title) at that time.”
Interestingly, athletics, apart from some exposure at school, barely registered and he was certainly no sprinter.
“I was more of a distance runner,” he explains. “I placed at school over cross country but I didn’t really do any sprinting,” he explains.
“I was by no stretch of the imagination a superstar athlete and unlike archery, which came easily to me, athletics is something I’ve had to work really hard at to get any results.”
Leaving school he maintained a “decent level of fitness” only for the accident with the wood chipping machine to complete re-frame his future.
From the outset he was fully aware of the seriousness of his injuries, but refused to become downcast by the outcome.
“I was positive the whole time and the injuries probably affected my family way more than it did me,” he explains. “As soon as the amputation happened I realised my lower leg was not coming back, so I quickly moved on. As far as disabilities go, it is fairly minor and it doesn’t hold me back too much.”
Within two months on the accident he wore his first prosthetic and six months after the accident, Mitch was back working as a full-time arborist. He continued to snowboard and in 2017 completed the Auckland Marathon in five hours and three minutes to tick off an important “bucket list” item.
It was while entering the marathon that Parafed Auckland became aware of Mitch. Hamish Meacheam, the then CEO of ParaFed Auckland and one of New Zealand’s leading Para athletics coaches, asked Mitch if he wanted to compete in athletics and after completing the marathon it was an opportunity he grasped.
“After the injury I probably realised how much I’d previously taken for granted,” explains Mitch. “I knew (as a person with a disability) I had a chance of maybe one day competing at the Paralympics, so I probably committed to the sport far more than I had before.”
In late-2017 Mitch opted to attend a few of Hamish’s training sessions at AUT Millennium and enjoyed the experience.
Sprint to it
During his maiden competitive season in 2018 he tried the long jump, javelin and sprints. However, after impressing at the New Zealand Championships to place fourth in the 100m (13.43) and fifth in the 200m (27.52) - despite competing on long-distance blades - he realised his future was as a sprinter.
“I was excited because I knew by pursuing athletics I could get to the Paralympics and possibly even pay some bills,” he explains “I’m not a natural athlete, but I am determined and I have a good work ethic.”
Training 12 times a week in the winter of 2018 – the aim was to lose some weight, build-up he general fitness and also start to hone his sprinting technique.
Fitted with a sprinting blade in May last year. Mitch believes he has come on massively over the past 15 months and he insists Hamish, his coach, who also works as Athletics NZ Community Manager, has been key.
“Hamish is top notch and I definitely wouldn’t be anywhere without him,” he explains. “It helps that he has so much experience with Para athletes. He is really good at tailoring every individual exercise to whatever your strength and weaknesses are.”
Training too with a quality group of athletes, including T38 sprinter Keegan Pitcher and T37 sprinter/jumper Alyssa Baxter, who like Mitch both won selection for New Zealand to compete at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai in November, has its benefits.
“I think you always push yourself that bit harder when you train with others and the fact Keegan and I are good mates away from the track makes that even better.”
Mitch made a slow start to the 2019 season but an encouraging PB of 25.08 seconds for the 200m – in what he regards as his stronger sprint event - at the Auckland Championships offered hope he was on the right track.
Then at the Jennian Homes New Zealand Track & Field Championships he moved to another level by running 12.41 for the 100m and blitzing to a 24.00 clocking for the 200m (just above the allowable legal limit of a 2.2m/s tailwind for an official PB).
“That time blew me away,” he explains of his 200m display. “Our aim was just to run below 25 seconds, so I was ecstatic to run 24 flat.”
At the Australian Championships in Sydney he went on to run a 100m PB of 12.25 and ran a wind-aided 23.91 for the 200m before securing 100m and 200m selection for the New Zealand team to compete at the World Para Athletics Championships in the United Arab Emirates.
Working as a truck driver – where he moves timber from Auckland to Ruakaka – this year he has shifted his work hours from 7am-5pm to 4am to 2pm. This allows for more time with his coach and has acted as a further boost leading into Dubai.
A recent bout of arthritis in his toe has not hampered his plans too much and with extra time devoted to the gym during this period he believes has led to greater strength and power.
So what does the 24-year-old believe he can achieve at the World Para Athletics Championships?
“In the 100m I hope to PB and in the 200m, I hope to run as well as I can and make the final,” adds Mitch, who is a keen fan of heavy metal music. “That would be a success.”
“Then with another season under my belt, I’d like to push for a medal in Tokyo.
Yet whatever the future holds; Mitch has already proved a success in Para sport and it is one he fully intends to fully embrace in the future.
“After the accident six years ago, I had no idea that in the future I’d be competing in athletics and that I’d be named on New Zealand teams,” he explains. “Growing up loving sport, I never expected to be competing in pinnacle events. The journey I’ve had has been pretty surreal.”