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LONDON 2012

The Paralympic champions

Some of Spain's disabled athletes reveal their motivations and fears ahead of London 2012 They explain how sport has helped them overcome their problems

Paralympic archer José Manuel Marín Rodríguez, during a training session in Roquetas de Mar, in Almería.
Paralympic archer José Manuel Marín Rodríguez, during a training session in Roquetas de Mar, in Almería.FRANCISCO BONILLA (EL PAÍS)

L oida Zabala says there is nothing else like the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games; nothing like that moment when you emerge from the tunnel and are enveloped by lights, applause, and the deafening collective roar of tens of thousands of fans gathered in the stadium: "For an athlete it's the greatest thing there is." Loida remembers her first Paralympic experience at the Beijing Games, and is looking forward to repeating it at the opening of the London Paralympic Games today.

To come out from the shadows into the light; from silence to welcoming applause, could be a metaphor for Loida's life. As a child, her life was suddenly changed by an illness that left her in a wheelchair, but by the age of 25 she was an international Paralympic sports star.

Loida, who can lift up to 100 kilograms, is one of the 127 physically disabled athletes who will be representing Spain in London over the next two weeks. She says she will be fighting for a place on the podium against tough competition from Nigeria, which dominates women's Paralympic weightlifting. "I managed seventh in Beijing, but this time round I am hoping to make fourth place at least," she says.

For Loida, as with the rest of the Spanish Paralympic team, taking part in the Games is a dream come true, and proves that despite her disability, like anybody else, she can lead a fulfilling life.

There will be 127 athletes representing Spain in London over the next two weeks

The same goes for Carlos Soler: "There are obviously things that we are unable to do, but I spend as much time as the Olympic athletes training," says Soler, the only Spaniard - in either the Olympic or Paralympic categories - to classify in the fencing category, and who has been confined to a wheelchair for the last 22 years. The same commitment pushes César Neira to new achievements in cycling, a sport he returned to after a terrible accident that left him with two titanium plates in his skull. It also motivates José Manuel Marín, who has been disabled since he was injured at work, and is now an expert archer.

Loida's sporting career began at the age of 11 under tragic circumstances. One morning she woke up with severe pain in her legs; as the pain worsened, her mobility was reduced. Soon, she couldn't even bend her knees, and finally, she couldn't move her legs. After many months seeing different doctors and specialists, she was told by Toledo hospital, which specializes in paraplegic injuries and illnesses, that she had transverse myelitis, an inflammation of the spinal cord that had left her unable to work in just three months.

Fencer Carlos Soler has been confined to a wheelchair for the last 22 years

"I was given my first wheelchair in the hospital at Toledo. It was wonderful to be able to be outside again, to feel the breeze on my face," she remembers. "I didn't really suffer psychologically, but my parents did; it must have been very hard for them."

Loida left the small community of Losar de la Vera in the western region of Extremadura, where she was born, when she was 19 to train full time as a weightlifter. Until that point, her coach, Lodario Ramón, had been sending her training programs by post from the northern city of Oviedo, where he was based. "Then one day he told me that if I really wanted to improve, I was going to have to move to Oviedo, and so I decided to see what would happen."

Weightlifting has made me stronger. I can go where I want without getting tired"

Starting a new life in a strange city, finding somewhere to live, a job, and new friends is not easy in a wheelchair. "At first it was a bit hard, until I started to meet people. This is something that is very fulfilling; and anyway, I realized that I was much more sociable than I had thought," says Loida. In the six years that she has been based in Oviedo she says that she has now made the city her home. She holds down an administrative position in a company based around half-an-hour from Oviedo, and the rest of her time she spends running through an intensive training program - around six hours a day lifting weights - and relaxes by playing video games, chatting with her family on the phone, or watching horror movies. "I guess I'm a bit of a goth - I accept that. I used to watch horror films with my dad when I was younger, and it affected me for life," she says with a chuckle. She adds that she has just broken up with her boyfriend, but doesn't seem unduly affected by the split. "It was my decision; I'll get over it."

Loida says she is proud of what she has achieved. "By luck or hard work I have managed to follow the path I wanted," she says. And in large part that has been thanks to weightlifting. "It has made me stronger. I can pretty much go anywhere I want without getting tired. I live a very energetic life, and I feel good about myself both inside and out." Her goal is to become a champion by her early thirties. "This is a sport where it takes a lot of time to reach the top."

My accident was like the end of the world. It was as if I had no future"

Archery is also a sport that takes many years of hard work to perfect, as 41-year-old José Manuel Marín can testify: "It's a sport for mature people, it's not a sport for the impatient: patience is perhaps the most important quality in archery."

José Manuel says archery has helped him overcome the emotional and physical pain he went through following an industrial accident when he was 18, which he prefers not to talk about.

Global Paralympic potential

- Paraplegic swimmer Teresa Perales, who won five medals in Beijing, will be leading the Spanish team at the opening ceremony.

- The official program includes 20 sports over the 11 days of competition, in which some 4,300 athletes with a range of physical and mental handicaps from 164 countries will be competing.

- Spain is an emerging Paralympic power, and has remained among the top 10 medal winners since the Barcelona Games in 1992. In Beijing the country's athletes won 58 medals, 15 of them gold, 21 silver, and 22 bronze.

"My accident seemed like the end of the world to me at the time: it was as if I suddenly had no future," he says. But over time, he found the strength to rebuild his life. He got married, had a child, and is now able to live from his sport, helped by a state pension. Archery has helped him not just professionally, he says: "When I pick up the bow, and put an arrow on the string, everything changes - my body readjusts, and I feel alive. The thing about archery is that you have to do it without thinking. Your head has to be clear, your mind free of thoughts, and simply ready to execute something that you have trained for many times. You have to be able to concentrate to the maximum. It is very demanding."

Before his accident, José Manuel had been interested in pistol shooting, but he soon decided to focus on archery. "I started back in 1996, just for fun really, in the hospital in Barcelona where I was recovering from the accident. Then in 2001, I decided to take it up seriously." He trains for around five or six hours a day, and knows what he faces in London, having competed in Athens in 2004, and Beijing in 2008. "Athens was a very big thing for me. The result wasn't too bad either. I think I was 18th, but it was important in terms of experience. In Beijing we competed in teams, and were given a diploma. In London I will be giving it my all; I'm not going out without a fight." That said, he admits that the South Korean team will take the top prizes as usual: "In South Korea, archery is a national sport, like soccer is here."

His moment of truth will come early in the two-week event, on Thursday and Friday. Carlos Soler, who has qualified for the fencing, will have to wait until September 6 to make his bid for gold. "Let's see what happens. We have been training hard. These are the most important Paralympics that I have attended. But until the moment of truth, I really have no idea how I will perform," he says.

Soler, who has just turned 40 and has three children, is among the more fortunate on the Spanish team. He has managed to find two sponsors in his native Málaga. He says he adjusted relatively easily to his disability. "I had no problems, and sport wasn't a way of escaping from my situation. I have always loved sport and I do it because I continue to love it."

I have always loved sport and I do it because I continue to love it"

Soler's accident took place in 1990, when he was doing his military service. "The electricity went down at our barracks, and I climbed up an electricity pylon to change a fuse. But I suddenly got a tremendous electric shock, and fell 13 meters." Overnight, Carlos realized he would be spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair. "I was admitted to the hospital for paraplegics in Toledo, and began trying out different sports in the rehab unit. I started with basketball, but I fell out of the chair half-a-dozen times, and decided it wasn't for me."

He was approached by the regional fencing federation, and took to the sport. Within months he was taking part in his first competition, in Italy. Since then he has competed around the world in the major events, with the exception of the Sydney Games in 2000 due to an administrative foul-up. "I took part in the Atlanta Games in 1996, and came sixth, and then again in Athens in 2004, where I received a diploma, as in Beijing the next time around." He now believes he has a serious chance of a medal in London, following months of intensive training with his coach Antonio Marzal.

I am a professional sportsman, I have a grant, and I intend to hold on to it"

César Neira will be cycling in four events next week in London. The 32-year-old lives in a small village 80 kilometers south of Madrid. "I was married here, and bought a small plot of land, and built a house on it, and still live here with my wife and two children," he explains. The eldest, aged 12, was already born when he suffered a terrible accident working as a blaster at a quarry.

What had started out as a routine day ended tragically when a compressed air unit he was using suddenly exploded. The pressure from the blast threw him back off a ledge seven meters to the ground. He was rushed to hospital where surgeons performed an emergency procedure while his life hung in the balance. Two titanium plates were installed in his skull. He made it, but suffered long-term physical pain. "It was very hard. I can say that after that I felt as though I had been born again. I lost the ability to speak, and I also lost my memory. I forgot absolutely everything. I even had to learn how to walk again. The process of rehabilitation was incredibly tough, and very painful. But with help and a lot of hard work, I have slowly been able to get back to something like normal. And the rehab hasn't just been physical; I have had to work with psychologists and with speech therapists," he explains.

Weightlifter Loida Zabala, in her home in Oviedo.
Weightlifter Loida Zabala, in her home in Oviedo.PACO PAREDES (EL PAÍS)

Carlos had already been a keen mountain biker before his accident, but decided to concentrate on indoor time trial racing once he began to recover. He discovered that racing was a very effective therapy, as well as bringing him success. Neira won two medals in Beijing: a bronze in the chase, and gold in the time trial. He also won gold in the 2010 World Championships. "I would really like to win a second time around, but we'll just have to see," he says, aware that he is still occasionally subject to relapses. "I recently had a relapse, which provoked epileptic attacks that produce really bad headaches." But he has continued training, and says that cycling is now his life.

"I am a professional sportsman, I have a grant, and I intend to hold on to it," he says. His income is supplemented by a pension, money that he is putting aside for the future. "Sport has proved to be a fantastic way for me to overcome so many of my problems, and it has given me a new start in life. Just like in any other profession, you hope to do more, and to do better. You can't be complacent, you have to fight, whatever comes up, you just have to find a way to beat it."

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