Friday, September 21, 2012
Spanish paralympic swimmer will not stop at 22 medals
By Teresa Larraz Mora
MADRID (Reuters) - Perched proudly in her wheelchair next to the communal pool at her apartment block in Zaragoza, a beaming Teresa Perales can barely lift the 22 Paralympic swimming medals hanging around her neck and covering almost the entire upper part of her body.
A mother and a former local politician as well as one of a handful of Paralympians with more than 20 medals, the 36-year-old Spaniard added a gold, three silvers and two bronzes in London to her combined haul of 16 at the Sydney, Athens and Beijing Games, putting her level with the athlete many consider the greatest Olympian, American swimmer Michael Phelps.
The Paralympic medal record belongs to another American swimmer, Trischa Zorn, who won 46 medals at seven Games between 1980 and 2004, and while Perales may have her work cut out to match Zorn's feat she has every intention of competing in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and possibly beyond.
"Phelps must be amazed if he sees Twitter, wondering 'who's this Teresa Perales, what has she done?'," Perales joked in an interview with Reuters.
"But he is on a completely different planet, he's a very professional athlete, I'm just an amateur," she added.
"I believed I could succeed, I went for it and I trained hard, otherwise it would have been a complete failure for me."
Zaragoza native Perales lost all feeling in her legs in three months when she was 19 due to neuropathy, or damage to her nervous system.
She turned to swimming by chance, enjoying the weightlessness and independence of being in the water, and quickly discovered a passion for competition.
"Your initial reaction (to being disabled) is that everything is disrupted," she said.
"But I remember one day I stopped looking at my feet to see if they would move and I told myself: 'Get out there and live your life, stop being self-centred, it gets you nowhere and it's selfish'.
"There are things in life you can't change; my dad died when I was 15, that was a huge shock, so in a way I told myself I had to live for both of us."
Perales had a stint in politics and was a legislator in the Aragon regional parliament between 2003 and 2006, after which she was a regional director of care for the disabled for a year.
"If you want things to change you have to be part of that change, start it yourself," she said.
"Even if sometimes you fall flat on your face because the machinery is much slower, it is difficult to get things moving".
These days Perales, who has an engaging, toothy smile, does coaching and is a motivational speaker at schools and businesses.
"I like to encourage changes of attitude in people, see the look on their faces," she said. "Many years ago I hardly dared to take a microphone, now I enjoy it very much."
Motherhood was another challenge she had to plan carefully so that it did not disrupt her career. She took two-year-old son Mariano to London and proudly presented him with her medals.
She is a member of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) Athletes' Council and hopes to help Madrid to beat Tokyo and Istanbul to win the right to host the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.
Despite the country being mired in recession and heavily indebted, she staunchly defends the Spanish capital's decision to bid for a third time having failed to get the 2012 and 2016 Games.
The London Paralympics, which ended on September 9, attracted a huge following, with a television audience of more than four billion compared to 1.9 billion eight years ago in Athens.
Ticket sales totalled almost 45 million pounds, far exceeding organisers' original target of 35 million.
"It's a long-term investment, we have to think about the future, we have to bet on projects with a positive impact on Madrid and Spain," Perales said.
"We can't miss this opportunity. Sports puts a country, and especially a city, on the world stage."