It’s the last Thursday evening in July, and Elyn Jones is sitting beside the parking lot of Universal Studios giving an interview on her cell phone.
She and her husband, Jerome McIntyre and their daughter Breda, 12, have spent a scorching afternoon touring the worksite of numerous Hollywood stars, along with three of her nieces and her parents, all visiting from Ontario.
It’s a typical family tourist outing, except for one thing – Breda’s older brother, Darby, is nowhere to be seen. But he’s the reason they’re in southern California to begin with.
The 15-yearold Special Olympian is at the athlete’s village in Los Angeles, preparing to compete in his biggest race so far on the same track where some of the world’s fastest runners trained for the 1984 Olympics.
The previous Sunday night was nerve-wracking for Jones, who hadn’t seen Darby for a week. “I FaceTimed him once, and had a couple of sporadic text messages from him, but hadn’t really talked to him, so we didn’t know where his head was at or anything,” she says. “We didn’t get a lot of sleep, and got to the (Loker) stadium on Monday morning, and that’s when he did the 1,500 (metre). He ran the most awesome race. He set a personal best for his time – 4:56. He’s never run a 1,500 that fast.”
That was the first of two “divisioning” races – preliminary rounds to determine who he would compete against in the 1,500m and 5k finals of the Special Olympics World Summer Games.
After the race, Jones could see him scanning the stands for familiar faces. “That day there were about 15 or 20 of us in the stands, and we were all wearing these t-shirts my niece had made up. And there’s four different slogans, like Darby’s on McIn-fire and Darby Never Gets McIn-tired.”
When she finally caught his attention, “I just got the most amazing hug from him that I’ve got. Ever. I swear. And I was totally crying and stuff. You could tell that he really missed us,” Jones says. “Then he just went around to everybody – my mom, my dad – and he was hugging his aunts and uncles and his cousins.”
The 5k divisioning race the following day did not go quite as well. He registered a respectable 18:59, but finished well behind two runners who set a lightning opening pace, including a runner from Kenya who clocked a “worldclass” time of 16:13. “He was a little bit bummed about how it went, so hopefully it can be a different race tomorrow, because he won’t be running against that super-fast Kenyan guy,” she says. “I had a nice, positive exchange with his coach afterwards, so that gave me comfort. I didn’t want him to be disappointed, because 18:59 is a super great run,” Jones says. “The other challenge is that it’s so hot here. They’re running in the morning, thank goodness, but when he was done at the end of the 5,000 he was just drenched in sweat.”
On the first Tuesday in August, Jones is back in Whitehorse, less than 48 hours before she and Darby fly to Fort McMurray, Alberta, where he will compete in both 3k and 5k races at the Western Canada Summer Games.
The CBC Radio reporter cheerfully agrees to spend a few more minutes in the unfamiliar role of interviewee.
The answer is already public knowledge, but it has to be asked: how did things turn out in LA? “I was a nervous wreck on Friday morning,” she admits. “That was the first morning we were driving in LA traffic, so we got up extra early, and we’d been out late the night before, trying to do the touristy thing.”
They made it from Long Beach on time, but then faced the anxiety of knowing Darby was about to tackling the 5k final with the memory of a disappointing preliminary. “We got to the track and we were all gathering in our big family group. That really helped, just having all our family from Ontario and from Nevada and from the Yukon, friends as well.”
Thankfully, L.A. was a little cooler that morning, but still hot by Yukon standards. The race started fast, with a New Zealand runner out front for the first 200 metres, until Darby overtook him. “And he led the rest of the race. The last lap, the Lithuanian runner tried to bridge the gap and meet him, but by the last 200 metres for sure we knew that Darby had it,” Jones reports. “He beat him handily, so that helped a mom watching on the sidelines, for sure. It was a beautiful run, and he owned it the whole time. It was great.”
In Special Olympics tradition, spectators cheer on every athlete and all the competitors in each race get to share the medal podium.
Still, “It was really exceptional to see Darby on the top of the podium, smiling and just showing his beautiful teeth,” the proud mother exclaims. “We were saying his orthodontist would be happy, except when Serge (Michaud), from Special Olympics Yukon, got him to bite into the medal. Maybe that isn’t good for his teeth, but it was a fun picture for sure,” she laughs.
With no playing of national anthems at Special Olympics events, Jones didn’t even need the “five packets” of tissues she carries to all her son’s racing events.
The next day, perhaps to everyone’s surprise except his own, Darby came from behind to capture bronze in the 1,500m. He even shaved another four seconds off his five-day-old personal best.
When they arrived late at Eric Nielsen International Airport at midnight the following Monday, a surprise cheering squad was there to greet them.
It was a fitting welcome home for a 15-year-old who had become a star in LA.