Categories
LATEST SPORTS NEWS

How WWE’s Gable Steveson became your favorite wrestler’s favorite wrestler

[ad_1]

How many 275-pound men do you know who can do a backflip?

While you’re ruminating on that seemingly trivial question, let’s take this thought exercise a step further: How many 275-pound men do you know who can backflip, capture the attention of Triple H and Ric Flair with their athletic prowess, win an Olympic gold medal and sign a multiyear deal with WWE before graduating college?

I reckon not many aside from Gable Steveson come to mind.

That’s because the tantalizing heavyweight freestyle wrestler is one-of-a-kind, a bona fide original.

“When and if I can win, put on a good show for America, that flip is coming,” Steveson teased to NBC Chicago of his signature post-victory backflip ahead of his awe-inducing run at the Tokyo Olympics in August.

In due time, the ultimate showman made good on his promise.

There’s a fine line between confidence and hubris, and Steveson walks it masterfully. The 21-year-old’s keen sense of self and his belief in his otherworldly abilities is what enabled him to cruise through the first three matches of his Olympic debut without giving up a point.

It’s a feat that’s particularly impressive when you consider one of his opponents was Taha Akgul of Turkey, the defending Olympic champion. Steveson — The University of Minnesota Gophers’ heavyweight, reigning NCAA Division I National Champion and winner of the Dan Hodge Trophy — made light work of Aiaal Lazarev of Kyrgyzstan in his opening match, taking only 2 minutes, 2 seconds to win 10-0. He followed that up with an 8-0 drubbing of Akgul before winning his semifinal match against Lkhagvagerel Munkhtur of Mongolia 5-0 to advance to the men’s freestyle 125kg wrestling final.

“He’s the best heavyweight wrestler to probably ever step foot (on the mat),” Steveson said of Akgul after their quarterfinal showdown last month. “But his time is up. I came here for business. I came here to win. … Ain’t nothing going to be given to me. I’ve got to go get it.”

And that’s exactly what he did in an incredible comeback win over Geno Petriashvili — the 2016 bronze-medalist and three-time world champion (2017-19) of Georgia — in the final.

Steveson was born in 2000, and America hadn’t won an Olympic gold medal in men’s heavyweight in his lifetime (Bruce Baumgartner, 1992). If you know his story, it’s not surprising that the Apple Valley, Minnesota, native would be the one to get it done.

That is not to say the Team USA standout’s mom set this all in motion by choosing to name her son after wrestling legend Dan Gable (Steveson’s middle name is Dan), who was a two-time national champion wrestler at Iowa State and an Olympic gold medalist in 1972.

Who am I kidding? That’s exactly what I’m saying. The whole thing felt preordained. Maybe that’s why the charismatic superstar was so fearless and brash about what he intended to do. He was born for it.

“You can see that when the lights get bright, Gable comes to perform,” he told the Associated Press. “And I think that’s number one with me. And I think that’s what people can expect with me wherever I go.”

If the wrestler choosing to address himself in the third person and the above quote gave you strong Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson vibes, you’re on the right track. The pinnacle of athletic achievement, winning an Olympic gold medal, was just the first item on a long list of aspirations for Gable — a stepping stone on the way to his ultimate goal: Becoming a WWE superstar.

It’s not presumptive to say the wrestler’s plan to use the accomplishment to springboard his WWE career was a resounding success. On Thursday, Steveson signed a NIL deal with WWE that will allow him to attend the University of Minnesota for his senior year and defend the Division I national championship at heavyweight. WWE will also set up a remote training facility for Steveson near campus where he’ll learn the finer points of in-ring work with WWE coaches.

While only time will tell if he will eventually be afforded opportunities like The Rock or Steveson’s mentor, fellow Minnesota great and WWE champion, Brock Lesnar, his ascension to superstardom feels about as certain as a post-victory backflip.

“When you’re a kid, you don’t really know how to make it to the WWE, but when I got to the University of Minnesota, I learned how Brock went about things and how to make connections,” Gable told Gopher Sports.

“My relationship with Brock has been awesome. It’s outstanding that a guy like that has noticed me and has gone out of his way to be there for me and guide me in the right direction.”

It was never a matter of if Steveson would go down the professional wrestling route, but when. Which is the same energy I’m bringing to the question of whether we will ever get to see him face off with Lesnar.

Steveson has already made a ton of noise in the professional wrestling space without ever stepping in the ring. From appearing in the crowd at NXT TakeOvers and WrestleMania to waving at Vince McMahon on Twitter (and eventually meeting up with him at SummerSlam 2021 after his Olympic victory), Gable kept his name top of mind among the WWE brass and stars alike.

Then there was the famed picture of the Team USA standout with Roman Reigns and his manager Paul Heyman.

“The picture of me, Paul (Heyman), and Roman Reigns is gonna go down as maybe one of the best wrestling photos in history,” Steveson said. “Just because the path that I’m taking with it and the path that Roman Reigns has set in stone being a champion, that’ll probably never be defeated again. The path that Paul Heyman has done for wrestling. He’s probably the greatest spokesperson. (He’s going to the) Hall of Fame.”

Steveson’s expectations for his future are larger-than-life, but why shouldn’t they be? Thus far he has been a walking, back-flipping testimonial for the benefits of doing it big.



[ad_2]

Source link

Categories
LATEST SPORTS NEWS

Olympic gold medalist Steveson signs with WWE

[ad_1]

Gable Steveson, the heavyweight freestyle wrestler who won a gold medal at the Olympics last month, has signed a multiyear deal with WWE, Stevenson told ESPN.

The 21-year-old signed an NIL deal with WWE that will allow him to attend University of Minnesota for his senior year and defend the Division I National Championship at heavyweight. WWE will set up a remote training facility for Steveson near campus where he’ll be able to learn the finer points of in-ring work with WWE coaches.

He’ll also have access to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, where his brother, Bobby Steveson, currently trains. After Gable graduates in May, his multi-year talent contract with WWE begins; he’ll be a full-time performer with the company (but also appear on WWE programming during the school year.)

“I’ve been on WWE since I was really young,” said Stevenson, WWE’s first gold medalist since Kurt Angle. “I was on guys like Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman for a very long time. So growing up watching them, me being an entertainer on the wrestling mat, it just felt like it was the right choice.”

The 6-foot-1, 265-pound Stevenson held talks with the UFC and also contemplated pursuing a career in the NFL; he was a hot commodity coming off the Olympic gold-medal win in Tokyo, a last-second victory over Geno Petriashvili that he celebrated with a backflip.

Sources told ESPN’s Marc Raimondi the UFC wanted Stevenson to gain experience on the regional MMA scene before potentially bringing him onto Dana White’s Contender Series to compete for a contract. The formula would have been similar to what the UFC did with former NFL All-Pro Greg Hardy. Stevenson said “we never talked about that so I have no clue.”

“We all saw his physical ability prior to and at the Olympics,” said Nick Khan, WWE President and Chief Revenue Officer. “What we also saw was that Gable has as much charisma as he does ability. Marketability and ability are both of great importance to us.”

“This is just the starting line and nowhere close to the finish line,” Khan added. “So our investment is based on how much we think of Gable now and how much bigger we think he can become.”

WWE has a rich history of transforming top freestyle wrestlers into main-event Superstars. Angle won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and parlayed that success into a long run as both a WWE champion and headline act. Lesnar, who like Stevenson, won the national championship at the University of Minnesota, is currently signed with WWE where he’s featured as one of the biggest stars in the company.

Stevenson calls the former UFC heavyweight champion a “great mentor to me,” and envisions a WrestleMania match against Lesnar in the not-too-distant future.

“Being able to learn how to take bumps and with the wrestling background I have right now, I think I can adapt to all of it really quick,” Stevenson said. “I think with the charisma and the confidence and the attitude that I bring to the wrestling mat, it will translate over to the WWE really fast and I feel that I can … go on screen and have a good role and know what to do perfectly.”

In the meantime, Gable will focus on the college wrestling mat, where he’ll defend his national championship while completing his studies. He grew up in Apple Valley, Minnesota, watching Triple H spit water in the air at WrestleMania as a member of D-Generation X. Now, he’ll learn the craft of a WWE Superstar, and that same man will be integral to his development.

“Gable impressed us well before he became a U.S. Olympic gold medalist,” said Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE EVP, Global Talent Strategy & Development. “He has all the tools to be a generational talent: a world-class athlete with size, speed, determination – and the ability to captivate an audience with his incredible charisma.

“The introduction of NIL allows us to create a more direct path from college to WWE, a benefit to athletes as well as the WWE Universe as Gable will have an immediate presence with our company while working towards earning his degree and defending his national championship. The future is bright for him in WWE.”

Stevenson said his breakthrough moment “might come sooner than you think.” And as for that all-important finishing move?

“I think I got one in mind,” he said. ” … It’s crazy how long I’ve been following them and now I’ve reached that point where I’m going to be walking out in front of WrestleManias and SummerSlams and people are going to do my signature look when I’m an old man, too.”

[ad_2]

Source link

Categories
LATEST SPORTS NEWS

Olympic gold medalist Stevenson signs with WWE

[ad_1]

Gable Stevenson, the heavyweight freestyle wrestler who won a gold medal at the Olympics last month, has signed a multi-year deal with WWE, Stevenson told ESPN.

The 21-year-old signed an NIL deal with WWE that will allow him to attend University of Minnesota for his senior year and defend the Division I National Championship at heavyweight. WWE will set up a remote training facility for Stevenson near campus where he’ll be able to learn the finer points of in-ring work with WWE coaches.

He’ll also have access to the WWE Performance Center in Orlando, Florida, where his brother, Bobby Stevenson, currently trains. After Gable graduates in May, his multi-year talent contract with WWE begins; he’ll be a full-time performer with the company (but also appear on WWE programming during the school year.)

“I’ve been on WWE since I was really young,” said Stevenson, WWE’s first gold medalist since Kurt Angle. “I was on guys like Brock Lesnar and Paul Heyman for a very long time. So growing up watching them, me being an entertainer on the wrestling mat, it just felt like it was the right choice.”

The 6-foot-1, 265-pound Stevenson held talks with the UFC and also contemplated pursuing a career in the NFL; he was a hot commodity coming off the Olympic gold-medal win in Tokyo, a last-second victory over Geno Petriashvili that he celebrated with a backflip.

Sources told ESPN’s Marc Raimondi the UFC wanted Stevenson to gain experience on the regional MMA scene before potentially bringing him onto Dana White’s Contender Series to compete for a contract. The formula would have been similar to what the UFC did with former NFL All-Pro Greg Hardy. Stevenson said “we never talked about that so I have no clue.”

“We all saw his physical ability prior to and at the Olympics,” said Nick Khan, WWE President and Chief Revenue Officer. “What we also saw was that Gable has as much charisma as he does ability. Marketability and ability are both of great importance to us.”

“This is just the starting line and nowhere close to the finish line,” Khan added. “So our investment is based on how much we think of Gable now and how much bigger we think he can become.”

WWE has a rich history of transforming top freestyle wrestlers into main-event Superstars. Angle won a gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and parlayed that success into a long run as both a WWE champion and headline act. Lesnar, who like Stevenson, won the national championship at the University of Minnesota, is currently signed with WWE where he’s featured as one of the biggest stars in the company.

Stevenson calls the former UFC heavyweight champion a “great mentor to me,” and envisions a WrestleMania match against Lesnar in the not-too-distant future.

“Being able to learn how to take bumps and with the wrestling background I have right now, I think I can adapt to all of it really quick,” Stevenson said. “I think with the charisma and the confidence and the attitude that I bring to the wrestling mat, it will translate over to the WWE really fast and I feel that I can … go on screen and have a good role and know what to do perfectly.”

In the meantime, Gable will focus on the college wrestling mat, where he’ll defend his national championship while completing his studies. He grew up in Apple Valley, Minnesota, watching Triple H spit water in the air at WrestleMania as a member of D-Generation X. Now, he’ll learn the craft of a WWE Superstar, and that same man will be integral to his development.

“Gable impressed us well before he became a U.S. Olympic gold medalist,” said Paul “Triple H” Levesque, WWE EVP, Global Talent Strategy & Development. “He has all the tools to be a generational talent: a world-class athlete with size, speed, determination – and the ability to captivate an audience with his incredible charisma.

“The introduction of NIL allows us to create a more direct path from college to WWE, a benefit to athletes as well as the WWE Universe as Gable will have an immediate presence with our company while working towards earning his degree and defending his national championship. The future is bright for him in WWE.”

Stevenson said his breakthrough moment “might come sooner than you think.” And as for that all-important finishing move?

“I think I got one in mind,” he said. ” … It’s crazy how long I’ve been following them and now I’ve reached that point where I’m going to be walking out in front of WrestleManias and SummerSlams and people are going to do my signature look when I’m an old man, too.”

[ad_2]

Source link

Categories
LATEST SPORTS NEWS

Tony Hawk serves up nostalgia, sings Millencolin’s ‘No Cigar’ from ‘Pro Skater 2’ soundtrack

[ad_1]

Here’s hoping you like your Tuesdays with a hearty dose of nostalgia.

As anyone who came of age in the early 2000s can tell you, “Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater” was more than a video game — it was a way of life.

When the aforementioned interactive masterpiece was released on Sept. 29, 1999, it changed the video game landscape forever. Both it and its sequel (Pro Skater 2) sold over a million copies on the PlayStation in 2000. The gravitational pull of the Hawk games was the only thing strong enough to derail a quest to catch Pokemon and replace it with a desire to do kickflips and don cutoff jeans.

While many strongly associate Goldfinger’s “Superman” with the OG game (track No. 4 on the soundtrack, No. 1 in our hearts) there was another song that perfectly encapsulated our collective early 2000s angst from the Pro Skater 2 soundtrack: “No Cigar” by Millencolin.

Last week, Hawk — who recently lent his own blood to a line of limited edition skateboards (unrelated, but it felt worth mentioning) — appeared in a new cover of the song you used to blast from your CD player.

The skateboarding legend sings lead vocals as he effortlessly skates his way through the music video. The Birdman was joined on guitar by Mikey Hawdon of Fairmounts, as well as Millencolin’s Nikola Sarcevic on bass, pro skater Steve Caballero on a guitar (shaped like a skateboard), and Punk Rock Karaoke and former Goldfinger drummer Darrin Pfeiffer.

The vibe of the video is immaculate as the aesthetic is designed to look like Pro Skater 2. The graphics include an overall score for each of the “players” as well as a special trick bar that slowly loads throughout the video.

Anybody else have a sudden urge to hit up Hot Topic?

[ad_2]

Source link

Categories
LATEST SPORTS NEWS

NHL players to participate in ’22 Beijing Olympics

[ad_1]

The NHL and NHLPA have come to an agreement with the IIHF and IOC that will allow NHL players to participate in the 2022 Olympic Games in Beijing.

The agreement does carry an opt-out clause: the NHL and NHLPA can pull out of the Olympics, should COVID-19 conditions worsen, or if the 2021-22 NHL schedule has been disrupted by cancelations, and the league feels it needs to use the Olympic break to make up games. The deadline for the opt out is believed to be in early January, sources told ESPN.

The NHL did not participate in the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, ending a run of five consecutive tournaments in which the league allowed its players to appear. However NHL players earned a massive win when they signed a new CBA with the league in 2020: the CBA included language to allow players to participate in the 2022 and 2026 Olympic games — contingent on an agreement with the IIHF and IOC.

The NHL, NHLPA, IIHF and IOC had been negotiating on and off all summer — and bypassed some arbitrary deadlines — but finally came to an agreement on Friday.

NHL players have uniformly fought to return to the Olympic games.

“As any Canadian kid, your dream is to play in the NHL, and then your dream is to play for Team Canada at the Olympics, I think that’s always how it is, and I’m no different,” Edmonton Oilers star Connor McDavid told reporters last week. “Obviously, with not going to the Olympics, it’s been a long time since we’ve been able to represent our country at a best-on-best tournament. So, my last time would have been a world juniors [in 2015], so it’s been a long time, and I’m certainly looking forward to, I guess, having the ability to chase down a spot and hopefully make the team and represent my country at the Olympics.”

As part of the agreement, the IIHF and IOC are picking up all travel and insurance costs for NHL players, and will cover for players’ guests if they are allowed to attend as well. A big hang up was COVID insurance. While the NHL and NHLPA found a provider, the IIHF and IOC did not want to cover for additional COVID insurance, so it will be up to the individual player to determine whether he secures that or not.

The NHL is scheduled to break from games from Thursday, February 3 through Tuesday, February 22. All Star weekend in Las Vegas — beginning on Feb. 4 — was going to happen whether players are participating in the Olympics or not.

Olympians who attend All Star will leave directly from Las Vegas and travel to Beijing.

All players who participate in the Olympics will be required to take the vaccine, however there could be very limited exemptions on a case-by-case basis. Multiple league sources have told ESPN “an overwhelming majority” of NHL players are already vaccinated.

One thing the NHL wanted out of an Olympic agreement was expanded media and advertising rights.

In a February 2020 meeting with the IIHF, the NHL outlined some of the things they wanted — NHL logos and advertisements featured in Olympic games, the ability to use Olympic highlights on NHL Network or NHL.com — which the league hoped would help promote the game.

However sources say the NHL was largely denied most of their requests. The climate has changed since that February 2020 meeting — including the NHL parting with broadcast partner NBC, which also carries the Olympics. Also, sources involved in the talks said the IIHF and IOC knew it had leverage considering NHL players have been so vocal about their desire to return to the Olympics.

Participating Olympic teams must submit their “long lists” of players by October 15. The provisional playing rosters will be announced by January. National teams are not allowed to host in person orientation camps, but they can host virtual meetings before the games.

According to sources, players are being told to prepare for strict protocols during the Olympics. That includes a bubble environment enforced by the Chinese government, daily testing, significant restrictions on interactions and movements, and the possibility of wearing GPS location devices to assist with contact tracing an ensure protocol compliance.

[ad_2]

Source link

Categories
LATEST SPORTS NEWS

Simone Biles, on her competitive future and new business ventures

[ad_1]

After what she describes as a “unique” Olympic experience and a grueling extra year of training due to the pandemic, Simone Biles remains uncertain about what’s next for her competitive gymnastics career and a potential bid for the 2024 Paris Games.

But she’s more than OK with that.

Instead, she’s been enjoying her long-awaited free time with her family and friends, preparing for the upcoming “Gold Over America” tour and working on a slew of ventures with her sponsors, including her own collection of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) with Autograph that launch on Monday.

“[I’ve been] relaxing, resetting, working on these new projects,” Biles said. “Been in the gym a little bit here and there to train, but not too much. Just taking time off, enjoying life.”

Any training, at this point, has been casual.

“[I’m] still very much undecided [about returning to full-time training],” Biles said. “The most training that I’m thinking about right now is tour, because coming off of not only [an] Olympic year but an extra year because we had to train for five years, which was totally unplanned, your body takes a beating. So trying to recover from that and get through a tour.”

Biles, 24, earned a silver with the U.S. team as well as a bronze on beam at the Tokyo Olympics. An overwhelming favorite to defend her 2016 Olympic all-around title, she withdrew midway through the team competition citing her mental health, then withdrew from all of the individual events until balance beam.

Competing a routine with a lesser-degree of difficulty than normal on beam, Biles received a large ovation from the crowd that was in attendance and received messages of support from fans and peers around the world.

“I definitely felt that love and support,” said Biles. “So I couldn’t ask for anything else because I just wasn’t expecting that. I didn’t really know what to expect [ahead of the beam final], but to just feel the love and support and have everybody rooting for me, after everything that had gone on and not the way I planned, was so good to see.”

Biles said the Games weren’t what she expected, but she remains grateful for the overwhelming encouragement she received.

She even received a “heartwarming” text message from tennis star Naomi Osaka, the four-time major champion who sparked an ongoing conversation about mental health earlier this summer, which Biles admits she still needs to respond to.

“I’m so bad at texting back,” Biles said. “But she’s inspired me in so many more ways than just being dominant recently. I know she knows exactly the feeling that I was going through, so it’s nice to relate to somebody on that high level.”

It was Osaka’s involvement with Autograph and NFTs that got Biles most excited for the partnership. Biles is hopeful her collection will sell out in just a few minutes, like Osaka’s did.

She will then turn her attention to the tour, which includes many of her Olympic teammates, as well as other elite and NCAA stars of the sport. The tour gets underway on Sept. 21 in Tucson, Arizona.

“I’m most looking forward to seeing and meeting all the fans,” said Biles. “We’re going to 35 cities and that’s always super exciting to see and perform in front of the fans, especially without having a crowd in Tokyo. … It’s always really fun, especially if we have days off and we can explore the cities. And we’re like a family, so it is really nice to continue that journey and have a little bit of a party around the U.S.”

[ad_2]

Source link

Categories
LATEST SPORTS NEWS

South Africa’s silver surfer Bianca Buitendag inspired by mom’s cancer fight

[ad_1]

Competitive surfing consumed Bianca Buitendag’s every thought until her father’s sudden death in 2015 sapped her motivation. But then her mother’s two bouts with cancer inspired her to a silver medal performance at the Olympics in Tokyo.

Her mother’s struggle with colon cancer, which was removed, and then lymphoma, which she still has, reignited the fire inside Buitendag, which helped her in the final against gold medalist Clarissa Moore.

The South African surfer, one of only two people to medal for the country at the Games, was seeded 17th out of 20 when surfing made its Olympic debut, and her shocking place in the final was all she needed to confirm her decision to retire immediately afterward.

Buitendag, who often considered quitting the sport after her father’s death, says she only went to Tokyo at the urging of her mother, and didn’t ever contemplate reversing her decision to leave the sport behind her once the Games ended.

“I’m going to get emotional now,” Buitendag told ESPN. “During [the] COVID [pandemic], we did quite a few hospital runs. She went through chemo and stuff. … We were in the ICU and she was like, ‘I didn’t survive two cancers for you not to go to the Olympics.’

“I felt like I was bringing some positivity to her life and South Africa was also going through a wild time when I left. There were protests, looting and burning in Durban [following the imprisonment of former president Jacob Zuma].

“A lot of factors kind of contributed to my motivation. It really fuelled me [to] bring good news home, because there hadn’t been much in a long time.”

Those were not the only adverse conditions that spurred Buitendag on in the water. When news broke that a typhoon was heading toward Japan, Buitendag must have been one of very few Olympians, if not the only one, to see it as good news.

“My goal was to qualify [for Tokyo]. Once I did that, I was happy [and thought] it couldn’t get better than that. I definitely did not go to the Olympics to get a gold, silver, bronze or anything like that,” Buitendag admitted.

“The first few rounds were in very small conditions, which is not my forté, because I’m so much taller than any other girls. I was really struggling at the start, but I was trying to make opportunities that weren’t there — trying to catch all the waves I could find. I really worked hard in the first two rounds.

“On the last day, there was a typhoon that hit Japan, so the swell was huge. When I saw that, I thought, ‘Here’s a chance for an underdog like me. With the changing ocean conditions, it’s anyone’s game.’

“Everything just fell together. When someone needed a heat score in the last 10 minutes, they didn’t get it. I call it divine intervention, because I honestly believe it really was a miracle, but there were these moments when it could have gone either way and it just went my way over, and over, and over again — all in one day.”

Buitendag stunned seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore in the last 16 en route to the silver medal. Rather than a reason to reconsider her retirement, Buitendag saw this as the ideal moment to go out on a high.

“I made up my mind a long time ago [to retire]. I always promised myself that I would stop my career on a highlight. I don’t want to be one of those struggling athletes — I wanted to go out on a bang,” she said.

She did, however, lament fellow South African Jordy Smith’s absence in Tokyo due to injury, claiming that the conditions would have been ideal for him.

“It’s such a pity that he wasn’t there. He would have done so well in those conditions as well, but he’s got a good decade of professional surfing ahead of him and I’m looking forward to seeing him take down everyone at the next Olympic Games,” Buitendag said.

Asked if she foresees much development in South African surfing as a whole, particularly for women surfers, she said, “I hope now that the sport has been included in the largest scale of professional sports worldwide, that more resources would be available for prospective talents coming through the ranks.

“If that will happen? I can’t say, but I sincerely hope so.”

Buitendag was rewarded, after some speculation and controversy, for her efforts in the waves, as she and Tatjana Schoenmaker were awarded medal bonuses nearly a month after leaving Tokyo.

She said of the financial rewards for being an Olympian: “I actually haven’t heard much — not a lot of information, but in sport, you don’t really do it for financial gain.

“Whatever we get is a bonus. I’m obviously very grateful for all the support we’ve had from South Africa, but I’m not too bothered about it.

“I just had a fantastic time with the SASCOC team at the Olympics. They really made our trip wonderful and really looked after us there, so if it comes, I’m very, very grateful.”

[ad_2]

Source link

Categories
LATEST SPORTS NEWS

How Paralympic gold only served to fuel Andy Lewis’ fire to help others — just don’t call him superhuman

[ad_1]

Content warning: The following story contains descriptions of suicidal ideation.

Andy Lewis has a phrase tattooed on his left leg: Never Give Up. It’s more than a slogan; it’s a way of life for the 38-year-old. He is a father, a husband, who is also an amputee and a Paralympic champion with ADHD. He is now also a business owner who came close to taking his own life before a stranger — who became a friend — talked him round.

“If you ask our kids what’s our motto in our family, they will tell you it’s ‘Never Give Up’,” Lewis tells ESPN, recalling the time his seven-year-old son fell in a bike race but was adamant he was going to finish. “At the time [the tattoo] was a reminder to myself that things don’t always go to plan … just don’t give up.”

From struggling at school to having a life in the army snatched away from him, from taking the decision to amputate his right leg to winning gold in Rio, Lewis has never given up. Just don’t call him superhuman.

“I’m just human and that’s what I want people to really understand,” he says. “I remember when the Paralympics were on [in London in 2012], there was a [UK television] show called Superhumans and I don’t think the athletes appreciated it, because we’re not.

“Why do they make it out like we’re some sort of robots? We’re just people who love sport. I really just want people to realise that I’m just a dad, husband, someone that wants to have a job, enjoy what I do and just spend time with my wife, kids and family. I’ve given so much to sport and I just want to give back now, whether that’s in sport, school, business, education.”


ALTHOUGH BECOMING AN athlete wasn’t Lewis’ initial ambition when growing up in Gloucester, in the south west of England, sport did play a huge role in his childhood. At school, he seemed to excel at most sports he attempted but struggled inside the classroom. Lewis became frustrated, a self-doubt that only intensified when a teacher said he was “as thick as a brick” aged 9 or 10. It’s a comment Lewis will never forget.

“It just goes to show how important mentors and teachers are in our lives and our childrens’ lives,” says Lewis now. “As we’re growing up from a mindset point of view, they have a massive influence on what we think and do.”

It would be decades later before it became clear why Lewis struggled academically, when he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia.

Ironically, the person who helped Lewis at sport during his primary school days was the husband of the teacher who made that unforgettable comment. He credits this tutor for inspiring him and even though he met another encouraging influence in secondary school, Lewis was still undecided on his career path.

After a lengthy job search, he was offered a chance to join the Parachute Regiment in the British Army and was accepted after passing a number of fitness tests. Just as an exciting new chapter was about to begin, Lewis’ life changed in an instant at the age of 16.

July 10, 1999, will be a date that Lewis will never forget, yet he has no memory of what happened on the day he was knocked off his motorcycle by a 38-tonne lorry.

“From then, my life just drastically changed,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s the medication I had, whether it’s the accident or loss of brain cells, but I literally have got no recollection of any of it. My mum or wife will tell me stuff now about it and I can’t remember, it’s gone.”

What Lewis does recall is the months of pain, stress and turmoil that went into the recovery process in the hospital.

“I didn’t lose my leg straight away and I think that’s where things might have been different if I did,” he says. “They wanted to amputate it and to this day, I wish they did because I would’ve maybe had my life back on track. On the other side of that, I might not have achieved what I’ve achieved today.”

Lewis’ father, desperate for his son to keep both legs, wanted a second opinion and a professor assured the family that it could be saved. Following numerous trips across the country, his leg was eventually put in an Ilizarov cage — a metal brace — and although he could stand up and move around, he realised that people in his life were unsympathetic to his new circumstances.

“They rebuilt my leg but I couldn’t do anything,” he remembers. “I found that my friends disappeared off into the distance, no-one would allow me to come out with them as I was using crutches, I was slow and couldn’t watch or play sport any more.

“That was a massive thing for me because sport is a massive part of my life and straight away, it had gone. Most people at the age of 16, 17, 18 are going to the pub, clubbing and going to visit different places and I just missed out on all of that.”

Six years on from the accident, Lewis made a decision that would have even greater consequences: “At that point, in 2005, I had my leg amputated due to complications. They were going to repair it again and I just said no, enough is enough, I’m old enough now to make up my own mind.”

Despite pleas from family members, he was adamant about the decision but doubts creeped into his mind following the operation.

“You cannot imagine being laid in that bed,” he says. “As much as that leg was battered, seeing two legs, two feet and then coming round after the operation looking down at the bed, you still feel like you’ve got the leg there and you look down to the bedsheets and the foot is no longer sticking out.

“You look down and there’s just loads and loads of bandages around the end of your leg and you think, ‘What have I done?’ There’s no going back. That was a massive, massive turning point but I wasn’t prepared for what was to come and that hit me a bit hard after that.”

The experience of his brother, an army veteran, helped put what Lewis was dealing with in a new light. “I didn’t really have any support mentally,” he says. “I didn’t see anyone to help with that and there were times where I might have needed counselling.

“My brother is back from Iraq now and been out of the forces for a number of years and he suffers massively from PTSD — he can’t even sleep in the same room with anyone because he screams in his sleep. He tells me that he thinks I’ve got PTSD and I’m on medication now.

“That’s what people don’t know about me, they think I’m just this robot and not this human. They don’t realise what you still have to deal with in your head and that’s a really important part and it’s a challenge. When my leg was amputated, I just wasn’t prepared for the mental health scars and the physical element of not being able to do anything.

“Using crutches more often, a wheelchair, the way that people treated you differently — that hit me. Even those people who I thought I knew, they just avoided eye contact and communication and that was a hard pill to swallow. I suppose that stayed with me for a number of years where I wouldn’t wear shorts, I was hiding things away, physically and mentally.”

A year after the amputation, Lewis had entered a very dark place mentally and the situation spiralled out of control so much that he wanted to end his life.

“Around September or October in 2006, I remember going down to my dad’s field and I was just going to end my life. I decided I’d just had enough but I couldn’t figure out how to tie a proper knot and thought, ‘I can’t do anything.’ I managed to sort it all out and thought, ‘This is it’.”

“My dad’s field has a small model airplane strip but I thought no-one was there at this time. I thought my dad was going to find me before my girlfriend [but] then a guy came down there to fly his model airplane, found me and stopped me from doing it.”

When Lewis returned home that night, he was greeted with the news that his partner was pregnant with their first child. He remains close with the model airplane enthusiast, a mental health first aider, who saved him that day and is a fond believer that destiny played a role in him being around today.

“You have to ask yourself, was that fate?” asks Lewis. “Was that him being there for a reason to enable me to go on and bring up my daughter? I’m a massive believer in fate, that probably happened for a reason because of what I went on to achieve and who I’m helping now.”

Lewis found a new lease of life and learnt how to fly — full size planes rather than model ones — as he started to regain his confidence. He proved to himself that he was capable of excelling academically, and passed the exams to claim his pilot’s license that allowed him to enjoy solo trips around the UK and France.

He would go on to work at Airbus where a fellow colleague noticed that he had behavioural similarities to his child and advised Lewis to get tested. He travelled to Bristol, England, where he was diagnosed with ADHD and dyslexia and after years of believing he wasn’t intelligent, the news came as a huge relief.

“When I was in the test centre, around me on the walls were pictures of all these people who have dyslexia and ADHD and they’ve done very well for themselves,” he says.

“I was looking around and thinking: ‘Wow, and some of those people didn’t know they had it either at a young age and they’ve still gone on to achieve things.’ It was at that point where I thought ‘What can I do then?’ and that played a massive part in my life now and going forward.”


AFTER WATCHING THE London 2012 Paralympics, Lewis’ love for sport was reignited once again and he put together a message on his social media channels in the early hours one morning saying he would win a gold medal at the next Games. The post drew some negative comments which only stoked the fire inside Lewis to succeed and prove people wrong.

His first hurdle came in buying a running blade which cost around £10,000. But with the help of Airbus and the local community who raised funds, Lewis was able to focus on his new dream. In 2013, he went to Stoke Mandeville Stadium for a charity day on the track to test himself at Para sports. He was spotted by members from the Arctic One Foundation, who encouraged him to attempt triathlon. At first, Lewis was reluctant but after the foundation’s persistence, he accepted the challenge and found himself re-learning how to swim for the first time since he lost his leg.

He was disappointed with his performance when he took part in his first triathlon but later received a call from British Triathlon after someone had posted photos of him and his backstory on social media. He was then invited by the organisation to a talent day where he impressed and by the following year, he had left his £40,000-a-year job at Airbus to become an athlete who earned an annual salary of £10,000.

Although his wife “went absolutely nuts” at the idea, Lewis went on to win the British Paratriathlon National Championships and followed it up with victory at the Europeans in 2016, booking his place at the Rio Paralympics later that year. He stormed to an emphatic 41-second victory to claim gold but admitted he came close to not competing as the pressure built in the days leading up to the race as depression took hold.

He recalls taking antidepressant tablets before and after winning that race, and wants people to understand that success will not be an instant remedy for mental health struggles.

“I’m very open about that because even someone who’s achieved what I have, I’ve done it with depression and mental health issues in the background,” he says.

Lewis, who received an MBE for his services to triathlon in 2017, also believes that athletes need to be shown more support by the governing bodies after the event, where the comedown can be severe.

“That took a massive, massive toll on my life, suicidal thoughts came back into my head again,” he recalls. “I think people need to realise that being an elite athlete, being a professional sportsman or sportswoman, there will always be troughs and peaks. It’s very, very rare that an athlete that is trying to push their boundaries will just continue like this.

“There’s always a comedown to anything but when you’ve been at the top and you’ve got a Paralympic gold medal, which is the pinnacle of any Para sport, to be at that point and then come down, it’s like coming down from the moon. It was a massive shock to the system. Even after that, you’re on a bit of a high, there wasn’t the support there that I would’ve hoped.”


AFTER RETURNING HOME from Brazil, Lewis decided he would take matters into his own hands and provide an environment for others to overcome challenges in their lives. He got in touch with friend Chris Powell, who he met around 2011, about the idea of setting up a business.

“I wanted to help other people who were suffering with mental or physical issues because I thought I’ve been through it, I’ve tasted it, lived it,” Lewis says. “I know I can offer other people advice, support and coping strategies to help them to get the best from themselves.”

Powell was keen to get involved after going through his own difficulties in the workplace. His background was in teaching but following a move to a new school and a change in roles, he began to feel that there was “kryptonite around my neck” that prevented him from going to work.

“I had my interview with the headteacher and they asked how did you deal with stress? And I was like, I don’t get stressed, it’s not me,” he tells ESPN. “Within six months, just travelling to school every morning, that journey was killer.

“My whole body was buzzing, I can’t explain it — anxiety must have been going through the roof and one day I just drove into Asda car park and it hit me, burnout. I went to my GP and ended up having six months off work and then just re-evaluated everything.”

The duo’s company, Bespoke Mentoring, was launched in 2018 and has kicked on a gear since Lewis officially retired from sports in September 2020. The former Team GB man has found a true friend in Powell which contrasts with those who turned their back on him after his accident.

“When I’m feeling a bit crap and can’t attend something, he can go for me or vice versa,” Lewis says. “It is absolutely nuts that my voice unlocks his phone on Siri and his voice unlocks mine. People say we’re like brothers. We have great banter and what makes it work is for us to accept each other.”

Powell lights up when talking about Lewis and reveals it’s a friendship based on trust and respect. Powell also underlines the importance of understanding his friend’s ADHD both in and outside of the workplace.

“People see his disability as being an amputee. It’s not,” Powell adds. “He’s conquered that and yeah he’s got things that get on his nerves when he goes into his wheelchair or crutches and the way people treat him a bit differently, but his ADHD is the hard bit for him.

“The hard bit is knowing that other people don’t [know]. In a meeting, he might be doing something and you know people are thinking, ‘What is he doing? He’s being so rude,’ but he’s just bored,” laughs Powell. “There are times where I have to support his mental health but a lot of the time, it’s supporting his ADHD.

“He was told once by a top American coach that he’s got the heart of a lion and a brain of a tractor. So I’m getting the absolute most out of that heart of a lion and I’m making sure that I’m the brain. I learn a lot from him and I hope he would take a lot from me.”

The business has continued to grow in Gloucestershire as they work with hospital services, one-to-one mentoring in schools as well as helping people with universal credit claims and providing support for individuals with learning difficulties to find jobs.

Lewis is eager to see the future growth of the business but there remains a hunger to get back involved in sport — not on the track, but among those in higher positions to develop a more open environment for athletes.

There is a message in one of the Bespoke Mentoring offices which reads: “BE SO GOOD THAT THEY CAN’T IGNORE YOU.” With everything he has achieved, Lewis has demonstrated that his work should not be overlooked by the sporting governing bodies if they want to create a healthier dialogue around mental health.

“I’d like to see higher-profile people talking about it and people within business talk,” says Lewis. “People in the workforce will not talk unless they see the managing directors having those types of issues, because they feel like it’s going to impact their career progression and it’s the same with sport.

“Athletes won’t talk about it and open up unless the people at the top say it’s OK to come and talk and they put a clear outline to it. I would love to be able to return to a governing body within a sport, to be able to sit down with management of that team and critique them and see, how can we make that better.”

Lewis has a new target, so don’t expect him to give it up. He never does.

[ad_2]

Source link

Categories
LATEST SPORTS NEWS

South Africa’s new blade phenom: ‘I’m not Oscar Pistorius, I’m Ntando the Great!’

[ad_1]

Having won a silver medal in the men’s 200m at the Rio Paralympics, aged just 14, South African sprinter and long jumper Ntando Mahlangu is ready to go a step further at this year’s Games in Tokyo.

This time, he is going for gold on September 3 in the T61 class [for athletes with double leg amputation above the knee] and is fervent in his desire to unite a nation behind him, amidst yet another COVID-19 wave and economic struggles.

Arguably, there has not been a South African Paralympic star better placed to do so since Oscar Pistorius, a national hero until he murdered his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, on Valentine’s Day in 2013.

Mahlangu, 19, has inevitably been compared with Pistorius throughout his career. Both are double amputees due to fibular hemimelia [where babies are born without their calf bone] — Pistorius amputated below the knee and Mahlangu above.

But Mahlangu, in his final year of high school in Pretoria, is adamant that the differences between the pair are many, and that his is the only story he wants to tell, despite always having to push aside the Pistorius-shaped elephant in the room.

“It doesn’t make sense for me to tell someone else’s stories about how they got to a certain point and then try to say that’s [my story too]. [Pistorius and I] live in two different worlds with everything — there’s no similarities,” Mahlangu told ESPN.

“I don’t think it [being compared] is a frustration… It’s just that people connect dots in the way that they want to connect things. If you get frustrated with it, then people tend to [take it the wrong way].

“You just have to tell people, ‘I am not who you see me as. I am Ntando Mahlangu and this is what I stand for and what my journey is.’

“At a very young age, I decided that I was going to call myself Ntando the Great, because I want to be the greatest and I am going to be the greatest one day — not because I’m cocky, but because that’s what I believe and I want to show the world that anything is possible if you believe in yourself.

“So yes, I would say that I am definitely not someone else. I am who I am — I am Ntando the Great.”

Mahlangu, now brimming with confidence, had to learn how to believe in himself the hard way.

Wheelchair-bound for the first 10 years of his life until he chose to have his legs amputated, and was provided prosthetics by charity Jumping Kids, Mahlangu says he was subjected to bullying by his peers.

He explained: “It was physical and emotional bullying. You know, you have people who take your stuff and run away. I didn’t have legs at that time, so I couldn’t chase them.

“You start talking to them, saying, ‘No, bring back my stuff.’ Then it becomes verbal bullying, because they start saying things that are hurting you.

“The moment I got my prosthetic legs, I was able to stand up and say, ‘Hey, stop what you’re doing — it’s not right. If you run away, I’m going to catch you.’

“The athletic side, I think, also had to do with the bullying side, where I had to stand up for myself. I had to catch the guy to get my things back.”

At the mercy of bullies, few would have been able to turn the situation on its head and find a silver lining. Mahlangu, however, gained not only athletic prowess, but also mental fortitude and unshakeable self-belief.

“I think it helped me a lot to stand up for myself. That’s what I’m doing right now — I believe that I am the best T61 athlete in the world,” he said.

“You have to say that, you have to believe it — because sometimes, we tend not to say it and when you don’t say it, you can’t believe it. That’s why when people ask me if I’m going for gold, I say: ‘Yes, I am going for gold.'”

His motivations have changed though, looking more outward than in the past, adding: “I always give my best when I come to races, but I am dedicating this 200m to my fellow South Africans during these difficult times. I’m going to run for my country — it’s not about me.

“I think that in 2016, I got the silver for myself. I can say that I did that for Ntando Mahlangu. Right now, this is so much bigger than me.

“On September 3, you want to watch the 200m, because it’s Ntando Mahlangu running for a nation — more than 50 million people. That tells you how much it means to me.”

As a result of a rule change which moved the former T42 athlete into the new T61 class strictly for double above-knee amputees, Mahlangu will not take part in any event bar the 200m and long jump due to the absence of other sprint races in his class.

“Long jump is an event that I have actually been doing from the beginning, but it’s an event that gave me a lot of injuries, so I stopped doing long jump,” Mahlangu said of his August 28 event.

“Before the classes were split, I had the opportunity to run in two events. There was no need to do long jump because I was running in two events — the 100 and 200. In 2019, they split the class, so now I only have the 200 and the long jump.”

If Mahlangu does make it to the top step of the Tokyo podium, it will be a crowning moment not only for him, but also for Jumping Kids, the charity that has treated him like family since he received his first prosthetics in 2012, with his supportive parents’ blessing.

“None of the schools in his home province [Mpumalanga] would take him, so he was staying away from family in a disabled school [in Pretoria] that predominantly caters towards mental disability, not physical disability,” Jumping Kids director Michael Stevens told ESPN.

“There were issues around the schooling and the education he would get. We were trying to get him into a mainstream [non-specialist] school and no school would take him.

“The only option we ended up having was if Johan [Snyders, the Jumping Kids founder] essentially fostered Ntando and took him into his home, then he could attend the school in Pretoria that Johan’s children attended.”

Off the back of his performance in Rio, Mahlangu started attending Afrikaanse Hoër Seunskool [Affies], a well-respected Afrikaans boy’s high school with a rich sporting history, which had taken note of his athletic achievements.

Having struggled to fit in at primary school, Mahlangu was astonished at how warmly he was welcomed at Affies, saying: “They didn’t even worry if I was disabled or not — they just treated me [like anyone else].

“We have this tradition at the school of being brothers and they saw me as one of their brothers. That tradition plays a big role, because you are coming to the school and you don’t have to educate people or show people [how to act]. They just treat you as who you are.”

While he is at the Paralympics, he will be studying for crucial exams which could play a role in determining his future, with business management studies at university his goal for next year.

“It hasn’t been the easiest job to do, because when I come back from the Paralympics, I have to write my prelims [the second last set of major exams in the South African schooling system],” said Mahlangu of balancing his studies with athletics.

“Then, I have a week, and then I have to go back to school. Then, I have two weeks and I’m writing my final exams. It’s very tough – when I’m at the Paralympics, I have to study.

“If it lets me do what I love, which is running at the top stage, then I would do it over and over again. It has been very difficult with the two, but I am at the place where I can balance both. We know that education comes first, but I try to balance the two.”

Samkelo Radebe, who won gold with Pistorius, Zivan Smith and Arnu Fourie in the T42-46 4x100m at the 2012 Paralympics, is an example for Mahlangu to follow. Radebe has succeeded outside the sport too and is an attorney.

However, if he wins gold in Tokyo, Radebe knows that Mahlangu will have a new challenge to face — dealing with the aftermath. Radebe says he felt ‘purposeless’ as he struggled to recreate the high of winning in London.

Radebe said of Mahlangu: “Look, there’s definitely pressure on him. This [200 metres] was a title that Richard Whitehead held for a number of years.

“[At the 2019 World Championships], Ntando then took the gold medal in the 200 metre event that is hotly contested by the double-leg amputees. There’s a lot of expectation on Ntando to do well.

“With experience, I’m pretty sure that he will manage the pressure very well even after the Games. It’s natural and normal that when you come out of a major event, as soon as you’ve achieved it, you’re left purposeless. It doesn’t mean that there’s no purpose in life — it just feels that way.”

With exams, university, and maybe another Paralympics or two to look forward to, as well as his ongoing work with youngsters at Jumping Kids, there is certainly plenty of purpose to Ntando Mahlangu’s incredible life.

[ad_2]

Source link

Categories
LATEST SPORTS NEWS

Tokyo 2020’s most unlikely team, the Refugee Paralympians want to make their mark

[ad_1]

Two refugee athletes led out the flag parade of the Paralympic Games opening ceremony on Tuesday, emerging from the tunnel into the joy and pandemonium unfolding at the Olympic stadium in Tokyo. The record books will note them as part of the first organised Refugee Paralympic Team, with a total of six athletes hailing from four countries — Afghanistan, Burundi, Syria and Iran. Let history also note that their journeys to Japan’s capital have been as remarkable as any in these Games.

At Rio 2016, two athletes competed as part of the Independent Paralympic Athletes’ Team, participating as one refugee and one asylee and becoming the first refugee team all but in name. However, this time around, the team has swelled to six members, competing in five sports, and will take part as the first refugee squad of its kind to be fully supported by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).

Ahead of the Games, ESPN spoke to all six athletes in the refugee team to share their often heart-breaking journeys to Tokyo and the motivations behind their relentless display of resilience, hope and ambition. Here are their stories.

Parfait Hakizimana – Taekwondo (K44 class)

At the Mahama Refugee Camp in Rwanda, hordes of children wearing white taekwondo doboks gather six times a week on the sandy basketball court and look toward their instructor, Parfait Hakizimana. He wears a black belt, the one he earned in his home country of Burundi before fleeing in 2015.

Hakizimana’s left arm is permanently debilitated from a severe gunshot wound he suffered as a child in 1996, as the violence of the country’s civil war came to his village. His mother died in the shooting that day, while his late father took 7-year-old Parfait to the hospital, where he spent two years recovering. Hakizimana escaped Burundi 20 years later, fearing the same fate as his mother, becoming one of the first settlers at Mahama, now Rwanda’s largest refugee camp. In 2017, it was home to 55,000 people of whom 51% were children. “You have to go a long way to walk and find water and feed your family,” Hakizimana says. “It’s not easy.” He is the only athlete on the team still living in a refugee camp. He resides there with his wife, Irene, and one-year-old daughter, Brinka. “Together, with my taekwondo family, I can manage it,” he says.

After the Games and the bright neon lights of Tokyo, Hakizimana will travel almost 12,000km to return to Mahama. He hopes to do so with a medal. “It will bring happiness not only to the children at the camp but also to all the refugees because this is our own achievement,” he says.

Televisions in on-camp health centres will play footage of Hakizimana’s contests, while the restricted access to internet through the community library will mean his friends and fellow coaches can spread the news of his exploits to the students. Maybe they will catch a glimpse of his performance. He often dreams that one day he will see one of them follow in his footsteps. “Many of the children have sent me messages,” Hakizimana says. “Most of them said they pray for me to win.”

Alia Issa – Club Throw (F32 class)

Alia Issa wears a gold wheat chain necklace with a large ‘M’ pendant attached at the bottom for her father, Mohament. Before she was born, he worked for four years as a tailor in Athens, Greece, sending money back to his wife and four children in Syria before he could bring them over, too.

Issa will be the first female refugee to compete at the Paralympic Games, doing so in the club throw. Family has been key to her journey to Tokyo. They were there for her when she suffered brain damage as a four-year-old after being hospitalised with smallpox, leaving her with difficulty speaking and needing support. The family came together, again, when her older sister was diagnosed with cancer, which she beat, until even worse news came: Mohament was diagnosed with a more aggressive cancer. He died in 2017. Issa was just 16 years old. “I have been thinking of him every day since I lost him,” she says. Issa bought the necklace earlier this year to remind her of her father.

After Mohament’s death, with no option to go back to Syria due to the conflict there, the family successfully applied for refugee status. Issa was introduced to club throw soon after. When she quickly fell in love with the sport, she began training four times a week, competing at the Greek National Championships and international competitions. But more is to come — soon, Issa knows, she will be a Paralympian.

“If my father was still alive, I’m pretty sure he would be very proud,” she says, her father’s initial dangling from her neck, next to her heart.

Abbas Karimi – Swimming (S5 class)

In 2015, when semi-retired Portland-based high school wrestling coach Mike Ives saw a video of Abbas Karimi swimming on Facebook, he jumped into action, sending him a message to ask how he could help. Karimi was in the midst of a three-year spell at four different refugee camps in Turkey. At one time, he would take an hour-long bus ride out of camp each morning to reach a swimming pool, where he would train before heading back for lunch. Karimi would repeat that trip each afternoon. Exhausted, he would sleep for most of the four hours of accumulated daily bus journeys. “I tolerated it because I really wanted to be a champion,” he says.

Karimi, who fled from Afghanistan to Turkey in 2013, was born without arms. He has dreamt of reaching the Paralympic Games for almost a decade. Yet during those tiring days in Turkey, it seemed further away than ever. That’s where Ives comes in. The pair chatted over social media for a while. “He never asked for money, which is rare,” Ives says. “He just wanted someone to talk to.” The American coach sent letters to the United Nations’ office in Ankara, Turkey, pleading with them to give Karimi the papers he would need to compete internationally. Eventually, he offered for Karimi to come live with him, which he did for four years. “I call him my American father. He’s everything to me,” Karimi says. “Without him, I wouldn’t make it here.”

The 24-year-old is perhaps the best positioned in the team to win a medal, which would be the first-ever won by any refugee at either an Olympic or Paralympic Games, and nobody is more aware of that fact than Karimi himself. “If I win, when I win, then it will be not just for me but for the 82 million refugees or displaced people around the world and 12 million refugees with disabilities,” he says. “It will bring hope.”

Ibrahim Al Hussein – Swimming (SB8, S9 class)

Ibrahim Al Hussein tries not to think about the past, yet what he has endured is “unforgettable.” He only needs to glance down at his legs to see the scars of his homeland. In 2012, as the Syrian civil war fanned across the country, his parents and his 13 siblings fled their hometown of Deir al-Zor toward safety. Al Hussein stayed behind. What came next changed the course of his life: Al Hussein watched as his friend was shot by a sniper; he ran to save him before an explosion sounded, costing him the bottom of his right leg. “He screamed: ‘Help me, Ibrahim. Please, help me.’ I had no other options but to help him whatever the price,” he says.

Al Hussein had always aspired to be an elite swimmer just like his father, who once won two silver medals at the Asian Championships. He eventually escaped to Greece, and was back in the pool soon after, competing again. That’s when his life began to change. He was asked to carry the 2016 Olympic torch through a ​​refugee accommodation facility after being spotted in a swimming competition. Word of the event reached the IPC headquarters, and Al Hussein was asked 10 days later if he wished to compete as one of the two independent athletes in Rio. He accepted, and he proudly carried the Paralympic flag into the Maracana stadium at the opening ceremony.

His mission since 2016 has been one of compassion. Al Hussein started a wheelchair basketball team for refugees in Athens, and he is in close contact with dozens of other refugee athletes across Europe. “Refugees have the persistence and the capabilities to pursue their dreams and achievements,” he says.

Shahrad Nasajpour – Discus (F37 class)

Months after arriving in San Francisco in 2015 as a political asylee from Iran, Shahrad Nasajpour picked up his phone and sent an email to the IPC. He had heard that the 2016 Olympic Games would feature a refugee team, a group of individuals tasked to “send a message of hope.” Nasajpour, who was born with cerebral palsy, wondered how long it would be until the Paralympics would follow suit. When he did not receive a response, he kept trying, finding the email individual addresses of IPC directors, but he was eventually informed there were no plans for a Refugee Paralympic Team for the Rio Games. But, when the IPC saw Al Hussein carrying the Olympic torch in Athens, they pushed ahead with the idea, and they knew exactly who to call when they needed another athlete. Finally, Nasajour was going to be a Paralympian.

Walking out into the Maracana Stadium for the opening ceremony, he thought of the journey he had been on: the long, sometimes aimless walks around unfamiliar American cities, the loneliness, trying to get by with broken English. In Tokyo, he plans to harness that experience to help his teammates. “We speak different languages and have different cultures,” he says. “But we’ll have a strong relationship.”

Anas Al Khalifa – Paracanoe (KL1, VL2 class)

Anas Al Khalifa did not harbour dreams of competing in Tokyo until recently. It has been two-and-a-half years since he fell from a roof in Halle, Germany when installing solar panels, a job that meant he was able to send money home to his family (his parents and only brother) in Syria. He had endured hell in reaching the European country in the first place, making the treacherous journey from a Syrian refugee camp, first to Turkey, then Greece and finally onto Germany, hitchhiking, jumping onto trains and spending long nights in the woods. “The journey of death,” Al Khalifa calls it.

When the accident happened, he could not bear to tell his parents. He only told his brother Abdu Almalik that he was paralysed from the waist down and now confined to a wheelchair. Al Khalifa fell in love with paracanoeing when he was introduced to it by a friend of his physiotherapist. He threw himself into the sport. His coach, former Bulgarian champion Ognyana Dusheva, was impressed when he first fell into the icy-cold water and vowed to return the next day to train again.

Al Khalifa’s parents called in December to deliver some grave news: His brother had been killed in a skirmish despite desperately trying to avoid the war. Al Khalifa tried to quit paracanoe when he was told. He would have done, too, had it not been for Dusheva’s insistence. It was then that he told his parents about his injury, that he again turned his focus to the Paralympic Games, and that he refuelled his motivations in the face of grief.

“My message to the world and to myself is that as long as you have a dream you have to fight for the result,” he says. “You can do it as long as you believe in yourself.”

[ad_2]

Source link