|Wednesday, 29 August 2012 14:43|
FROM Australia to Great Britain, South Africa to the U.S., TIME takes you around the globe to meet the compelling and inspiring athletes competing at the London Paralympics.
Wheelchair Fencing, Hungary
Pal Szekeres is the only athlete to have won medals at both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. He took bronze in the Team Foil event at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, and hoped to become a fencing coach after ending his competitive career. But in 1991 his plans veered off course when a bus accident left him confined to a wheelchair. He won a gold medal at the Paralympic Games in Barcelona the following year. Five more Paralympic medals – two in Atlanta, and one in Sydney, Athens and Beijing – followed. “I was the unlucky guy who was an Olympic medalist and had a bus accident,” he recently told the International Paralympic Committee. “But I think it has opened a door.” In London look for him to pass through it – again.
Wheelchair Racing, U.S.
McFadden developed strong arms out of necessity. Born with an underdeveloped spinal cord that left her paralyzed below the waist, she spent the first six years of her life in a Russian orphanage. The facility didn’t have a wheelchair, so McFadden depended on her arms to get around. An American woman adopted her in 1994, and nine years later McFadden, then 15, became the youngest member of the U.S. Paralympic track and field team in Athens. She won a silver medal in the 100m and a bronze in the 200m, and in Beijing she picked up four more medals. Now 23 years old, she will contest five wheelchair-racing events in London: the 100m, 400m, 800m, 1500m, and marathon.
Track and Field, Australia
As a teenager Cartwright was a promising netball player who hoped to pursue the sport indefinitely. But at the age of 15 she learned that she had cancer in her right leg and that doctors would have to amputate the limb. Unable to play her chosen game, she turned to the track. Success came slowly. According to the Australian Paralympic Committee’s official bio for Cartwright, “her proudest moment was running for the first time with her proper running prosthesis without falling over” in 2007. A year later she finished sixth in the 100m sprint at the Paralympic Games in Beijing, and she subsequently set the world record in the 100m, 200m and long jump events in her leg amputee classification. Outside of athletics she enjoys hiking – she climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2009 – and spends time with her Burmese cat, who also underwent an amputation.
Wheelchair Tennis, Great Britain
In 1979 a motorbike accident robbed Norfolk of the use of his legs. Then in 2000, following complications during spinal surgery, he lost full use of his right arm and shoulder. Since then Norfolk has become a legend of Paralympic sports. In Athens he won a gold medal in the Quad Singles (that’s tennis for athletes with quadriplegia) and a silver in the Quad Doubles. In Beijing he won gold for a second time in singles, and a bronze in doubles. Known affectionately as “The Quadfather,” he now spends much of the year traveling on the wheelchair tennis circuit. “I don’t always see my children as much as I want to, and I’ve missed some family affairs,” he recently told Time Out London. “But it is still worth the commitment.”
Table Tennis, Poland
According to the IPC, most table tennis players use their free arm to serve and to maintain balance. Natalia Partyka, who was born without a right hand and forearm, doesn’t have that luxury. Even so the 23-year old table tennis player chases down balls with the speed and precision of the world’s best able-bodied players. She made her Paralympic debut in Sydney at the age of 11. In Athens she won a gold medal as an individual and a silver medal as part of Poland’s team. She earned another gold and silver in the same events in Beijing. Besides climbing to World No. 1 in the Paralympic rankings, she’s also broken into the top 50 among Olympic table tennis players. The mental strength required in Paralympic tennis may give her an edge over some able-bodied competitors. As she said in an interview with the International Paralympic Table Tennis Committee in 2008: “Disabled players have to think more and find a good way to win a point because many of them can’t move so fast.”
Equestrian, Great Britain
In a short film made for Channel 4, the British network broadcasting the Paralympics, equestrian Lee Pearson described himself as “the disabled James Bond.” His tricks and secrets on the saddle have helped him earn nine gold medals at the Paralympics – three in Sydney, three in Athens, and three in Beijing. But unlike Bond, Pearson lives his life in the open: he is one of only two openly gay Paralympians competing in London. Pearson, who won the 2003 British National Championships competing against able-bodied riders, is also known as a gentleman. In Athens he gave his winner’s flowers to another rider whose horse had died during the competition.
Wheelchair Tennis, The Netherlands
Esther Vergeer is the Steffi Graf of wheelchair tennis. In singles she has won 21 Grand Slam titles and three Paralympic gold medals. She has also won more than 450 matches in a row – a streak that stretches back nearly a decade to January 30, 2003. “I’ve never felt comfortable calling myself the best or the most dominant athlete,” Vergeer told TIME ahead of the 2011 Championships at Wimbledon. “But I suppose I’ve stopped worrying about my record because it does seem pretty unlikely that anyone will match it, at least in the foreseeable future.” Vergeer lost the use of her legs when she was eight years old as the result of surgery meant to correct a spinal defect.
Track and Field, Brazil
Blind runner Terezinha Guilhermina was already a Paralympic star ahead of last year’s World Championships. She took the bronze in the 400m at the Paralympic Games in Athens, and then followed up in Beijing with a gold in the 200m, a silver in the 100m, and a bronze in the 400m. Her family’s poverty may have spurred her to even greater success. According to her official biography, she went to her father’s house after the Beijing Games to show him her medals, and he had to hold them up to candlelight because he didn’t have electricity. She pledged to buy him a new house – and her subsequent earnings allowed her to do so. At the 2011 World Championships, she won four gold medals and set world records in the 200m (24.98s) and 100m (12.13 seconds) races. Six months later she reduced her 100m time to 12.04s. Last November she said publicly that she would break the 12-second barrier soon. "I’m fine physically and will improve…breaking my own records,” she said. “I’m wearing the shirt of Brazil and I will honor that privilege."
Track and Field, U.S.
Singleton holds degrees in mathematics, physics and industrial engineering. He also happens to be known as “the fastest amputee on the planet.” At last year’s world championships, Singleton became the first man in seven years to defeat South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius in the 100m dash. But, as he made clear in an interview with the Guardian following the U.S. Paralympic Trials in July, he knows that hard work—not merely the memory of past success—is what will earn him a Paralympic medal. “I really trust my coach to put me in a position where I can shine at the Games,” he said. “He’s the expert at what he does and I’m the student, trying to learn.” Given his scholarly background, he should be wearing a Paralympic medal very soon.
Track and Field, South Africa
The world-record holder in the 100m, 200m and 400m races, Oscar Pistorius is the world’s most famous Paralympian. Born without calve muscles, he had both of his legs amputated when he was 11 months old. As a teenager the 25-year old played rugby, and only turned to running in 2004 as part of therapy to mend an injured knee. Within months Pistorius, then 17, had bagged two medals at the 2004 Paralympics: a bronze in the 100m and a gold in the 200m. His time in the 100m dash was only 1.31 seconds behind the winner of the Olympic 100m race. Although he lost the 100m final to Singleton at the 2011 Paralympic World Championships, Pistorius will be riding high from the recent Summer Games. At London 2012 the “Blade Runner” became the first double leg amputee to compete in the Olympic Games. He made the semi-finals of the 400m, and participated in the final of the 4 x 400m relay.
Born without hands or a left forearm, Sarai Gascon took to the pool like a fish to water. She began competing internationally at the age of 9, and by 15 she had won a silver medal at the Beijing Paralympics. She made an even bigger splash at the 2011 European Championships where she won seven medals—including gold in the 100m breaststroke, 100m butterfly, and the 50m and 100m freestyle races. But she did so in the absence of South Africa’s legendary Paralympic swimmer Natalie du Toit. Their showdown during the 200m individual medley on Sep. 6 promises to be a highlight of the Games.
Natalie du Toit
Swimming, South Africa
Natalie du Toit lost a leg in a motorcycle accident in 2001. She was just 17 years old. Already an established swimmer at the time, she didn’t let the setback rob her of a swimming career. She managed to place eighth in the 800m freestyle event at the 2002 Commonwealth Games, where she competed against able-bodied athletes. She went on to win the same event at the 2003 All-Africa Games—again competing against non-disabled swimmers—and narrowly missed qualifying for the Olympic Games in 2004. During the Paralympic Games in Athens, however, she walked away with five gold medals and a silver. She then captured five gold medals at the 2008 Summer Paralympics. Having placed fourth in the 10km open water swimming world championships in 2008, she represented South Africa in that event at the Olympic Games, too, where she finished 16th.
Jonas Jacobsson is not a household name internationally, but Swedes count him among their country’s sporting heroes. The 47-year-old, who has been paralyzed from the waist down since birth, is the second-most decorated Paralympian in history. His treasure trove from the Games includes 16 gold, two silver and nine bronze medals. He won his first medals at the 1980 Paralympic Games in Arnhem, the Netherlands as a 15-year old. The thrill of the chase is no less exciting 32 years later. “I’ve managed to be able to get at least one gold at every Paralympics I’ve attended,” he told the International Paralympic Committee ahead of the Swedish trials in February. “It’s eight in a row, and I want to make that nine in a row.”
Rowing, Great Britain
In 2005 Aggar was a rugby player at the University of Warwick. During an evening out with friends, he slipped eight feet onto a concrete slab. He had broken his back, damaged his spinal cord, and lost the use of his legs. Aggar took up rowing as part of his rehabilitation in 2007 and has never been beaten. He won the Paralympic gold in Beijing in the single sculls event, and is keen to repeat that feat in London. “I’m so proud to have been selected into such a strong GB team,” he told the BBC in June. “I’m under no illusions that it will be tougher competition than Beijing but competing in a home Games is a great opportunity.”
Adopted from a Siberian orphanage at the age of 13 months, Long was born with no ankles or heels. Five months after she arrived in Baltimore, doctors amputated both of her legs below the knee so that she could learn to walk with prosthetic limbs. She learned to swim in her grandparents pool by pretending she was a mermaid. At the 2004 Games in Athens, Long—just 12 at the time—won three gold medals. She added four more golds, a silver, and a bronze in Beijing. She currently holds 20 world records and three Paralympic records. In 2006, after breaking 18 world records—including in the 100m freestyle and 100m butterfly—she became the first paralympic athlete to win the James E. Sullivan Award, given to the best amateur athlete in the United States.
Antonio Tenorio only knows gold. The 41-year old judoka has stood atop the Paralympic podium on four consecutive occasions, beginning in Atlanta in 1996. As a seven-year-old Tenorio lost vision in his left eye following a slingshot accident. Six years later, an eye infection led to a detached retina in his right eye, rendering him completely blind. London will not be Tenorio’s last Games. The Brazilian Paralympic Committee has already invited him to compete at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.
Chen Liangliang led China’s Paralympic goalball team to gold at the Beijing Paralympics. Developed after World War II by doctors hoping to improve the sight of visually impaired veterans, the sport is similar to handball. At the Paralympics a team can have six athletes, though only three may be on the court at any given time. Players attempt to hurl a ball, which has a bell inside, into the opponent’s goal—a skill Chen has mastered.
Wheelchair Racing, Australia
Born without a lower spine, 31-year old Kurt Fearnley has always been on the move. As a child he raced his wheelchair around the school track and played in the local rugby league. And as a 28-year-old he crawled the Kokoda Trail—a treacherous track that snakes 60 miles through the mountains and rain forests of Papua New Guinea. His record as a competitive wheelchair racer is unmatched. Fearnley has won 31 of the 43 marathons he has entered, and has captured nine medals—three of them gold—at the past three Paralympics. In London he’ll compete in the 800m, 1,500m, 5,000m, 4 x 400m relay and marathon events. His biggest test will come in the marathon, where he’ll face Great Britain’s David Weir, who has won the London marathon on six occasions. Weir will have home crowd support, but Fearnley has momentum. He won the gold in the marathon event at the Athens and Beijing Paralympics.
Cycling, Great Britain
Sarah Storey has a habit of winning—no matter what the sport. Born without a left hand, she won two gold medals at the 1992 Paralympics in Barcelona. She wasjust 14 years old. After winning a total of ten more medals in Atlanta, Sydney and Athens, she seemed a lock for more swimming success in Beijing. But several months after the Games a series of ear infections forced her out of the water. “When my ears were bad in 2005 and I didn’t have the opportunity to be in the pool training, I used a bike to stay fit,” she told the BBC last July. “I suppose you could say it got out of hand. By the time my ear infections had gone I was a world record holder on the track.” She won gold in both the time trial and individual pursuit events in Beijing.
Track and Field, Brazil
Despite being diagnosed with cerebral palsy as a child, Coelho took up soccer—Brazil’s national sport—and cycling. But six years ago, at the age of 24, she decided to try out track and field events. In Beijing she hurled the javelin 35.95m (118) feet to claim the silver. Now she has her eye on gold. She won first place at last year’s world championships, and also claimed a silver medal in the shot put.