“I wasn’t thinking about Phelps’ record. My only aim was to win”

With 22 medals after London 2012, Teresa Perales is Spain’s most decorated Paralympic athlete

Perales with her six medals from the London Paralympics.
Perales with her six medals from the London Paralympics.SANTI BURGOS

"It didn't go too badly," says Spanish Paralympic athlete Teresa Perales, smiling modestly as she holds up the six medals, one of them gold, she won in the London Games.

Since returning from London last week, the 35-year-old swimmer, who has been in a wheelchair since the age of 19 when she was struck down by neuropathy, has been doing little else except talking to the media, and apologizes for arriving late for the interview. "It's been like The Truman Show; I have never seen so many cameras. It's hard to take all this seriously. I really have to make an effort," she says.

Now a sporting superstar, Perales has equaled the legendary Michael Phelps' Olympic medal tally (22), after winning gold in the 100m breaststroke at the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

Considered the best Spanish Paralympic swimmer of all time, she also brought back three silvers and two bronzes from London. Spain finished in 17th place in the medals table with eight golds, 18 silvers and 16 bronzes, down from 10th position in Beijing.

There is always a way to get round being paraplegic; death is the only thing that we can't escape"

Her success has made her a trending topic on social network Twitter. "It's amazing. When it was announced that I had won, 800 signed up to follow me; I now have 4,700. I wasn't thinking about beating Phelps' record. My only aim was to win, but people associate you with a totem, and to tell the truth it was quite dizzying," she says.

"It's not easy to win so many medals, but this gold is worth more than all the others, because this shows I'm the best at something," Perales says.

She says that she's "tremendously happy" with the gold, which she had been "chasing during the whole competition," and confesses to swimming "the last 10 meters without taking a breath and that she "cried a little," knowing that her family were cheering her on from the sidelines.

On her way to the heights of sporting excellence, Perales says that the biggest obstacle she has had to overcome is other people's pity. "I can't stand it when people feel sorry for me. I remember when I would go out and people would look at me, feeling pity. Now I sense that they admire me. Of course, I am the same person I always was. My bottom is stuck to this chair, but it hasn't stopped me from achieving important things. I am a mother. There is always a way to get round being paraplegic; death is the only thing that we can't escape. It is selfish to feel sorry for oneself, it is all too easy to just sit in the corner and hide away from the world. You have to look to the future."

Not content with sporting achievements, Perales has entered politics, and is a member of the regional parliament of Aragon for the Aragonese Party. "If you want to change things, then you have to be part of the process of change, or bring it about yourself."

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