When lockdown happened earlier this year all sporting events were immediately postponed or cancelled – including the Tokyo Olympics which has been pushed back to 2021. For athletes in the final stages of preparation who were gearing up to the games, this means four years of training and the chance, not just for personal success but to represent their country on the world stage, temporarily put on pause. For some, it was easy to develop new training regimes at home, keeping motivated while still missing the physical connection with team mates and coaches. For others, a sense of wellbeing came from spending additional time with family, making the most of the enforced break from competing to recover both physically and mentally, and slowing down to enjoy their sport without a set structure. Here, six international athletes share their thoughts on the meaning of a Richer Life and how the pandemic has affected them.
"Like most young people I had lots of aspirations growing up but I never imagined that I could get to six Paralympics and have so much success.”
Please share a bit about yourself. Who are you? What do you do?
PR: My name is Peter Rosenmeier, I’m Danish and I play table tennis. I was born with a disability which means that I have three fingers and 1.5 legs. I’ve participated in four Paralympic Games (2004-2016) and won a medal at each (two gold, two bronze). Alongside playing table tennis I work at the National Paralympic Committee of Denmark. In my private life I’m married to Marleen and we live in Sweden with our two girls, 11 year-old Stella and Alix, age six.
MS: I’m Megan Shackleton and I play table tennis for the GB Paralympic team.
TF: I’m Tobias Fankhauser, a paralympic handcyclist from Switzerland. A cycling accident when I was 13 years old left me paralysed from the neck down. I have competed in two Paralympic Games (London and Rio) where I won a silver and bronze medal respectively. Besides sport, I also studied Business Administration at the University of Applied Sciences and Arts Northwestern Switzerland. It has always been important to me that as well as training and competing, I spent time immersing myself in a completely different subject.
SM: My name is Stephen Miller; I’m from England and was born with cerebral palsy. I compete in club throw which is the Paralympic equivalent of the javelin for athletes in my impairment classification. So far I’ve taken part in six Paralympic Games, the first in Atlanta, in 1996, when I was 16 years old. I have won six Paralympic medals, including three gold, and held the club throw world record from 1997 until 2008. I’m still competing and am aiming for the Tokyo Paralympics next year.
Away from sport I have a degree in Business Information Systems and have worked as a web developer for 14 years. In 2013 I founded a non-profit organisation called SMILE Through Sport which aims to create opportunities for people in my local area. I was awarded an MBE in 2016 for services to sport. I am also a public speaker and currently delivering online experiences with Airbnb which focus on how to build a positive mindset.
SG: Hello, my name is Sofia Gonzalez. I am 19 years old, a student and Swiss Paralympic athlete. When I was born I had a deformation of my right leg. The doctors tried to save it with operations but at the age of three they decided to amputate above the knee. Since then I have had a prosthetic leg. I compete in the 100m sprint and long jump. I live in Switzerland near Lausanne.
AIF: My name is Adiaratou Iglesias Forneiro and I am a Spanish parathlete. My disciplines are 100 and 200m sprint.
How did you get to where you are today?
MS: I got to where I am today with the help of my family who took me to all my training sessions when I was growing up and always supported me in pursuing my dream of becoming an elite athlete.
PR: That’s always a difficult question to answer but I would say that my perseverance is the result of having a really strong family and extremely resourceful parents.
SM: By having the support and courage to try different things in life, embracing challenges and not being scared of failure. This helped me discover my strengths and weaknesses, and also accept my vulnerabilities. I’ve always loved sport and been competitive; I started doing club throw at a young age and once I found my unique way of throwing backwards, I focused on trying to improve a little bit at a time. I competed at my first international event aged 15 and that helped me qualify for my first Paralympics a year later. I went to the opening ceremony and it is still one of my biggest memories from that Paralympic Games.
"Just because you don’t look like everybody else you don’t have to prove yourself more than anybody else.”
Photo: Jannik Andersen
TF: A combination of huge support from my family, coincidence, luck, determination, stubbornness and a lot more...
AIF: Through hard work and appreciating what I do. I’m new to this world though: my first international competition was in Dubai last year.
SG: I was a happy kid and always did lots of different sports, such as horse riding, dancing, tennis and skiing. In 2016 I discovered a sport blade which helps with running – that was when I decided to try athletics and begin training. In 2018 I did my first international competition, the European Para Athletics Championships Berlin; last year, at the World Para Athletics Championships in Dubai I finished fifth. I also perform in Diamond Leagues around the world. The Tokyo Olympics will be my first Paralympic Games.
Did you always want to do what you are doing now?
TF: Yes and no. I was always fascinated by the unique spirit of the Olympic Games. The first time I followed actively was Nagano 1998 but back then competing was nothing more than a little dream. After my accident, I started practising handcycling because I wanted to be in a training group and meet teenagers with a similar handicap. I took part in some junior races in Switzerland and began to like the feeling of competition. Step-by-step, I got more into competitive sports and finally onto international level. As a little boy, I liked writing and wanted to become a journalist; during my studies I specialised in communications so this part of my childhood ambition came true.
SM: Like most young people I had lots of aspirations growing up but I never imagined that I could get to six Paralympics and have so much success. I’ve always tried to focus on what’s in front of me and not think too far into the future; I think this has helped me remain grounded and humble. It can be hard to know what you want to do in life. I try to focus on the opportunities that interest and excite me, then try to maximise my potential.
MS: After watching the Beijing 2008 Olympics when I was nine, I knew I wanted to become an elite athlete. Since then I've never really looked back and I'm proud to say I have achieved my goal.
PR: Growing up my biggest dream was to become a football player. When I was eight years old, in 1992, the Danish team won the European Championships and I spent all my free time kicking a ball. Although my body isn’t compatible with the sport I still managed to play at my local club for five years and had a fantastic time. As I got older I realized that I probably wouldn’t make the national team so I started playing table tennis and it took off from there. But the things I learnt from the early years in football and the friendships I gained have been important for the rest of my life.
SG: No. I always loved sport but I had no idea that I would become a professional or that athletics would be such a big part of my life. When I was 11, my parents took me to the Paralympics in London. It was such a good experience but at the time I never thought that I would be competing. Now my dream is to be on the track at the Paralympic Games, not sat on the seats watching.
AIF: I have known since I was seven years old.
Who/what are your inspirations?
SM: My parents are my biggest inspiration, the way they raised me and made sacrifices for me. They helped me accept who I am and push my boundaries, instilling me with a positive outlook on life and supporting me in building my confidence and developing the skills I needed.
AIF: I look up to Rafael Nadal among others.
PR: What’s the definition of inspiration? I don’t see myself as a person that has idols in the common sense. I still love to spend my spare time watching football but I can’t see myself reflected in these players because our starting points are so different.
"Believe in yourself, be courageous.”
Photo: Guido Schärli
TF: I don't have a classic role model. I try to learn from people I meet, hear of or read about, taking inspiration or advice in what I find out about them.
MS: When I was young, my sporting inspiration was Rebecca Adlington. Watching her win two gold medals in 2008 made me realise I wanted to follow in her footsteps as a British athlete. I also really admire Michelle Obama; she has always remained compassionate and a great role model to young women.
SG: My inspiration is my parents. They are my first fans and supporters, and have always been there for me.
Looking to the past, what advice would you give your younger self?
PR: Just because you don’t look like everybody else you don’t have to prove yourself more than anybody else.
TF: Believe in yourself, be courageous.
SM: Don’t compare yourself to others; don’t put so much value on the opinions of others over your own opinions.
AIF: I would tell her to be more confident.
SG: Believe in yourself and don’t be afraid of who you are. Never listen to negative opinions and always look forward.
MS: To focus on the process as opposed to the outcome, that way things won't seem as daunting.
And in the present, how has the pandemic affected your day-to-day?
SG: Like a lot of athletes, I’ve had to train at home. I was really lucky because I have a garden so although I couldn’t do 100m at least I could do a bit of jumping and get moving. At the beginning, it was hard to be motivated: the goal was there but it wasn’t in two months anymore, so I had to re-plan and refocus. I had a lot of sessions with my mental coach on skype; it helped a lot to talk about the situation and she made me feel positive again. It has been frustrating not to train with my coach or team mates at the stadium though - that was something that I really missed – but I was able to spend more time with my family. We played board games and started baking together. My goals are still the same, they are just postponed.
PR: It has made a huge impact. I should have been in Tokyo right about now and in the best shape possible. That plan changed in spring and since then I’ve dedicated a lot of time to my family. I have been training during the pandemic and kept in touch with the national coaches throughout. We would all be in extreme training now; instead my training is at a maintenance level while we wait for the International Federation to announce a plan for the future.
MS: The pandemic has meant that I have had to engage in my training for the Paralympics at home over zoom with teammates. That has been a huge adjustment to make over the last few months.
SM: It’s been strange not to be training as normal – this is probably the first time in nearly 30 years that I haven’t competed over the summer. It does take a lot out of you physically and mentally so it’s been nice to have time off and let my body recover but I have missed seeing my team mates and travelling.
“[The pandemic] has made us all value what we have in different areas of life...”
Adiaratou Iglesias Forneiro
The pandemic has also caused day-to-day challenges in going out, shopping, meeting friends: I’m a very independent person but need help with some things and COVID-19 has shown how much more consideration needs to be given to provisions for those with disabilities.
TF: All my plans were leading towards the best possible preparation for the Paralympics in Tokyo and this included finishing my small part-time job in March. When the Paralympics were postponed, I was left with plenty of time on my hands. Luckily the lockdown in Switzerland wasn't as hard as in other countries and I was always allowed to train outside. For the first time in years, I enjoyed riding my bike outdoors in spring without a strict training plan so I went on a lot of longer rides and got to know new routes near and far from my hometown. I do miss having a job, something different from sport, but in the current situation it's hard to find anything suitable. I also miss the shared experience of travelling to competitions with other athletes.
AIF: I have been able to adapt and train at home; the most difficult thing for me is not having my coach with me. Competitions have re-started now which is good. It gives me the opportunity to try for the times I need to qualify for other events.
How has the pandemic affected your vision of the future? For yourself and for others.
TF: I sincerely hope that the solidarity we’ve experienced during this first phase of the pandemic stays intact and that as a society we can continue with the good things that have happened during this time. Personally, it has shown me what's important and helped to work out which roads I want to take in the future.
MS: I think the pandemic has shown just how adaptable people really are when thrown into life changing situations. For me personally, I think it has been great to slow down and reflect on the last couple of years and my achievements whilst spending time with family.
SG: The pandemic has made me want to enjoy every moment and realise that we can’t control everything. I’m more focused on my everyday goals as nobody knows what the future will bring. I see what’s going on in the world and I wouldn’t be surprised if the games don’t happen next year; I have to admit this is a possibility but I’m staying positive anyway. I would love to win a medal but all my team mates that have been to the Paralympic Games say it’s just as much about the experience. It’s also a movement: we’re there to show that people with a disability can play professional sports at a world level, that we’re just as valuable as athletes that don’t have a disability. I think you go for yourself and to be proud of yourself, but also you go to represent your country.
AIF: It has made us all value what we have in different areas of life: family, work and sport.
PR: I don’t think that we will get back to anything near what we see as a normal state for a long time. I’ve always been a person who lives in the present, without thinking too much about what could have been, so this hasn’t affected my approach to life. I feel lucky that this happened in the later stages of my career. Now I have a job on the side and a family; it doesn’t make a difference to me if Tokyo is this year or next year. If it had happened when I was studying, when I had a career plan that I wanted to stick to, then it would have been a major set-back.
"I keep moving forward by staying focused on my short-term goals and always reminding myself to keep going, that I can do it.”
I think that we as a society will have to look at the way we live and make some changes. Maybe it’s a gift for the environment… do we need to have a plane landing every second in the big airports? Do we have to travel to work daily or can we work from home twice a week and be more efficient…?
SM: I think the world is going to be a very different place for the next few years. My heart hopes that the games will go ahead next year, in my head I’m not so sure it will happen. It has made me even more determined to embrace each moment, to live now and make the most of my time doing the things that are important to me. It has confirmed that life changes constantly and we have to be prepared to adapt at any moment. I need to enjoy the ride and grasp opportunities.
At a time when things seem rather uncertain, how do you keep moving forwards and achieving?
PR: Well… I don’t know if I can keep on achieving. I will have to wait and see when the competitions get up and running again. Maybe my fellow athletes around the world have been better than me in this break – I don’t know. But as I said before I have always lived in the present and that has helped me a lot in coping with this whole situation. I’m in a kind of limbo land, waiting for things to return to something like normal, and I’ll take it from there. Hopefully when competitions start again, I’ll have a feeling of renewal and all the emotions will come back that remind me of why I started competing in table tennis in the first place. For now though, I can’t do anything to change what’s happened so I just have to make the best of it.
SG: I keep moving forward by staying focused on my short-term goals and always reminding myself to keep going, that I can do it.
TF: As a sportsman, I have always made plans - training plans, competition plans, seasonal plans, four year plans, and nutrition plans - so this uncertainty is a big challenge for me. My main goal remains unchanged, only delayed. I have been setting myself new milestones towards Tokyo, such as doing the longest handcycle ride ever or the most elevation gain in one training session - things I otherwise couldn't do. I have also enjoyed being able to take a break and breathe deeply; I was on a very strict road to Tokyo this year and didn't have time to look much to the left or the right.
SM: I’ve always been good at focusing on one thing at a time and not getting carried away by success or failure. I don’t let success go to my head, or failure stop me; I see the latter as an inevitable part of learning and progressing. I try to approach each opportunity and goal with a fresh outlook, to embrace and enjoy challenges. I also let go of the past, accepting whatever happens, learning from it and moving on.
AIF: By always working hard and trying to remain unstressed.
MS: I like to try and keep working towards my goals as best as I can under the current situation, whether that’s at-home workouts to stay fit and healthy or starting my reading list to get ready for university.
"No matter how busy I am, I maintain balance by making time for the people that mean the most to me.”
How do you maintain balance?
TF: With handcycling, I chose the perfect sport. When everything becomes too much, I can go and ride my bike through nature and free my mind from the worries of everyday life.
PR: By trying to get the best out of a situation and embracing all possibilities that come from it. Over the last few months, I’ve been able to be with my family in a period where I would normally be training hard.
AIF: By trying to be positive.
SM: I try not to let the different parts of my life overlap, and give 100 percent to whatever I’m doing – whether that’s training, working, resting, socialising or playing, I try to be in the moment and not let my mind wander. I keep a diary to get worries out of my head and meditate to clear my thoughts.
MS: No matter how busy I am, I maintain balance by making time for the people that mean the most to me. After a week of training or competitions, I always meet up with friends and family.
SG: I maintain balance by studying in the morning and training in the afternoon. I have learnt to organise myself and be disciplined about training. By keeping my mind occupied with learning, it helps me not to always be thinking about my sport and the challenges.
What does a Richer Life mean to you?
AIF: Trying to do things better every day.
PR: Having the opportunity to follow your dreams and goals, despite any differences you have.
SM: Not being scared of what’s to come and not having regrets about what has passed.
TF: Going outside with my handcycle, enjoying nature and discovering new paths.
MS: Having gratitude for the simple things in life.
SG: That you are surrounded by amazing people who support and love you.
While there’s no doubting the impact on these athletes of postponing the Tokyo Olympics, and the ongoing uncertainty of having a top-level sporting career at such an unprecedented time, what’s clear is that each one has managed to glean some positives from the situation – whether that’s by living in the present and focusing on the success of short-term achievements or rediscovering a passion for their sport. For them, a Richer Life is about far more than competition itself. Instead, personal harmony comes from embracing challenges, finding balance and the enjoyment of the whole sporting experience: travelling to other countries, the camaraderie of team mates, and the feeling of being part of a much bigger movement that really matters.