ENCINITAS — Joel Gomez has come a long way since first starting track and field as a young boy looking for an accessible sport.
The 20-year-old Encinitas native and civil engineering student at Purdue University won gold in the T13 1500-meter race at the Parapan American Games in Santiago, Chile, on Nov. 24, and set a new Parapan American record with his time of 3 minutes and 56.28 seconds.
The Pan American/Parapan American Games host athletes with physical disabilities from across the Americas in the year before the Olympics. 2023 marked the first year that the games were held in a South American country.
Gomez competes in the T13 class, one of three groups for runners and jumpers with a visual impairment.
“For example, I’m not able to legally drive and I can’t distinguish details,” Gomez said. “I’m also colorblind, severely colorblind, in the sense that I’ll mix up red, black, orange, green, like I won’t be able to see orange cones on green grass. When it comes to running on a blue and a white track, I won’t be able to see the lines.”
Runners in Gomez’ division have the least impairment of the three. T13 is for runners with a restricted field of view, limited peripheral vision and blurred central vision, T11 is for runners with a near-total visual impairment and T12 is in between.
Over the past decade, Gomez has represented the U.S. at numerous international competitions, winning silver at the 2019 Parapan American Games in his debut. At the 2023 Parapans in Santiago, gold was the goal for Gomez.
“I felt like the odds were in my favor going into the race and it was more of just, you know, you have to execute the race and don’t mess up,” Gomez said. He delivered.
Gomez, who attended Classical Academy High School in Escondido, was first introduced to running when he was 10 years old, after having to give up competitive soccer due to a visual impairment.
“I was always really fast on the field, so my parents suggested that I try just running and not having to worry about a ball,” Gomez said. He joined his first track club and found he had a natural talent for the sport.
Gomez learned about Paralympic track and field after an official at a high school race would not allow Gomez to wear sunglasses. His high school coach advocated for Gomez, insisting that the sunglasses were not an attempt to cheat, and Gomez was able to compete with them.
After that, Gomez’s mom reached out to a member of the USA Track and Field team.
“He informed us that there’s a Paralympics, and I really had no idea what it was before then,” Gomez said.
This connection led him to Joaquim Cruz, a former middle-distance runner and Olympic gold medalist from Brazil, and the U.S. Paralympic team.
When not training and competing, Gomez is focused on his civil engineering studies at Purdue.
“Running is a massive part of my life, but I understand that running will not be there forever for me. I’ll have to retire at some point,” he said.
Gomez said civil engineering intersects with running more than you might think. He said he enjoys exploring new cities by running around them, and he notices the quality of running infrastructure like trails and paths in different places. As a runner, he focuses on having soft surfaces to run on for knee health.
In West Lafayette, Indiana, Gomez said running infrastructure is limited, and the school’s track is not open to people outside of the official team. Cruz has helped Gomez get access to the track as an exception, but it is still difficult.
“I have to text the head coach of the Purdue track team with about 12 hours notice anytime I want to use the track and they will sometimes unlock the track,” he said. “They will forget sometimes, though.”
When he’s back in Encinitas, he likes to run at UC San Diego. He said the school has been welcoming, but he wishes there was access to a track closer to home for his sake and for other runners.
“Ultimately, it’s all for representing USA on the world stage,” he said. “So that’s one thing I would love to see improvement on in the future for the community in general, is to have more or better access to tracks.”