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The pandemic-delayed Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, which took place from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5, 2021, attracted a record number of competitors. A total of 4,403 athletes — 2,550 male and 1,853 female — competed across 22 sports and 23 disciplines. Here are a handful of the incredible men and women whose determination and grit shattered stereotypes and exhibited the amazing opportunities that can come from following your dreams.
Swimming — Daniel Dias
Brazilian swimmer Daniel Dias was a late bloomer. He took up swimming at 16 after watching fellow Brazilian swimmer Clodoaldo Silva win seven medals at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games. As it turns out, Dias — who was born with a partially formed left hand, a right arm that ends at the elbow, and a right leg that stops at the knee — was a natural at the sport.
Two years after his first swim lesson, Dias won five medals at the 2006 World Championships. Since then, the talented swimmer has competed in four Paralympics — from Beijing 2008 to Tokyo 2020 — and won 27 medals, including 14 gold. He has also won 40 World Championships medals (31 golds) and 33 Parapan American Games medals (all of them gold). Though Brazil's most celebrated Paralympian ever retired after the Tokyo 2020 Games, he will remain active in the sport by training other aspiring swimmers with physical impairments.
“What defines each of us is what is within us, and within us, there is a very great force capable of fulfilling big dreams, great goals," said Dias. "And that for me is what I would like to leave as a legacy that people understand that yes, we are different, but we are equal at the same time in capacity and that, for me, it would be very amazing for us to break this barrier of prejudice."
Table Tennis — Ibrahim Hamadtou
Table tennis may not seem a plausible option for someone with no arms — but Ibrahim Hamadtou doesn't believe in limits. The 48-year-old Egyptian Paralympian overcomes the "slight" hurdle by holding the paddle in his mouth and using his right foot to serve the ball.
Hamadtou, who lost his arms in a train accident at the age of ten, was drawn to table tennis after being challenged by a friend. "I was in the club where I was officiating a match between two of my friends," Hamadtou explains. "They disagreed on a point. When I counted the point in favor of one of them, the other player told me, do not interfere as you will never be able to play. It was that statement that fired me up to decide to play table tennis."
It took Hamadtou three years to master the sport. He says the biggest challenge was figuring out the best way to maneuver his body. “I was trying first to use the bat under the arm, and I also tried using other things that weren’t working so well. Finally, I tried using my mouth. It took me nearly a year of practice to get used to holding the racket with my mouth and making the serve; with practice and playing regularly, this skill was improved.”
The Egyptian's incredible talent came to light in 2014 when he was awarded the best Arab Athlete of the year. He won a silver medal at the 2016 African Championships, qualified for his first Paralympics in 2016 at 43, and then again for the 2020 Tokyo Games at 48.
The inspiring athlete says, “The disability is not in arms or legs, the disability is to not persevere in whatever you would like to do.”
Rowing — Asiya Mohammed
Kenyan-born Asiya Mohammed was just two years old when she lost her legs and a few fingers in a train accident. Her father died of a stroke shortly after, and her mother passed away when she was just nine. Raised by a cousin, Mohammad first turned to sports as a teenager when she wanted to lose weight.
The double-amputee initially pursued, and even competed in, wheelchair marathons. She then switched to wheelchair tennis, before taking up rowing in 2018, aiming to compete in the Olympics. In just three short years, Mohammed qualified for the PR1 rowing event at the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics. The 29-year-old was the first female to represent Kenya in the sport in either the Olympics or the Paralympics.
To those doubting their abilities, the athlete says, "If in your mind you think you are disabled, then you are. If, in your mind, you think you are able, you can do anything. It's all how you perceive yourself."
Resources: Olympics.com, CNN.com, Globatimes.com, Guardian.co.uk