The happy taste of victory sharply tearing one’s lungs, defeat stuck as a massive lump in one’s throat, a hymn for human power, often threatening the health of its demonstrators… Olympic Games are a show of extremely strong feeling, and after they are over, the most loyal supporters feel a lack of emotions at least for a few days. But the biggest sporting event in the world does not really end with its closing ceremony.
Since 1988, slightly different games follow each Olympics. Although the participants of Paralympics are a bit more restricted in their movements compared to healthy athletes, their most important battle is not for results or position of the representative country in the final standing. Paralympians are mostly fighting the stereotypes and beliefs that a person with disability is a different person, not able to fully live one’s life.
This battle is getting more and more attention from the society. The whole movement started in 1948, when a local competition for the Second World War veterans was held in Great Britain; almost 4 000 athletes were participating in the 2012 London Paralympics. 2.7 million tickets were sold and nearly four billion people watched the games at home.
Despite the growing visibility around the world, the main spectators of Lithuanian Championships for people with disability are their coaches and competitors. Not many people know that during the 26 years of Lithuania’s independence and six Paralympics, Lithuanians managed to win thirty medals, four of them gold. No other Baltic country can boast of such results (Estonia has 19 medals, Latvia – 11), although the numbers of medals won by Lithuanians in the Olympics is the lowest from the three (Estonia has 41, Latvia 26, and Lithuania 25 medals).
It is not only the spectators that do not pay enough attention to the achievements of the Paralympians. National prizes for Olympic and Paralympic Games’ winners differ significantly. Medalists of the Olympic Games get almost 116 000 Euros for the first place, 58 000 Euros for the second, and 43 000 Euros for being third. The medals of the Paralympians are valued, respectively, 17 000, 9 000, and 6 000 Euros each, i.e., around seven times less. After finishing their professional carreers, all medallists of the Olympic Games, World and European Championships, as well as record breakers, get national annuity. When it comes to people with disability, only the Paralympian champions are eligible to get it. In Lithuanian history, only three athletes managed to do that.
Obviously, sheer enthusiasm of the athletes and their close ones is not enough to motivate them to reach their goals. The sports of people with disabilities are progressing and attracting more investments. So if one wants to compete in world-class, mom’s massages, volunteer coaches, and students doubling as assistants are not sufficient anymore. London Paralympics were the first summer games where Lithuanian athletes did not win any medals.
Despite the inside problems of the sport of people with disabilities, athletes are hoping for the best. Swimmer Edgaras Matakas, four track and field athletes Mindaugas Bilius, Ramunė Adomaitienė, Jonas Spudis, and Kęstutis Skučas, rower Augustas Navickas, judoka Osvaldas Bareikis, and the goalball team are getting ready for the competition. Big part of the national team are world champions and record breakers, having clear goals in the Paralympics. Whether they will be able to reach them is just a question of time, but each personal story, hiding behind the seconds, centimetres, and scores, reminds us that in this battle, there are no losers and can never be any.
Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
Lithuanian Paralympians came back from Brazil with three medals. Mindaugas Bilius won the shot put gold and the discus throw silver. The goalball team did not lose any of the games they played in Rio. They were also the best in the final.
As soon as Paralympic Games had ended, Algirdas Butkevičius, the Prime Minister of Lithuania, promised that National prizes for Paralympic Games’ medallists will become two times bigger than they are now. Dalia Grybauskaitė, the President of Lithuania, suggested making them equal to the prize money for Olympians.
“Yes, I’m afraid. The fear makes me nauseous,” says Edgaras Matakas and wipes small drops of chlorinated water off his forehead. His muscular coach Ramūnas Leonas laughs silently and pulls out a small stopwatch from his pocket while keeping a close watch of his student. Edgaras is still sitting on the bench at the corner of the pool. With his eyes closed and his head down, he is nervously stroking his blond hair. Swimming for time is the most exciting moment of this training session, so Edgaras needs a little bit more time to set his mind straight. After the command “Ready”, he slowly stands up on the wet floor and, after his coach takes him by his elbow, carefully walks towards the start position. From this moment on, Edgaras is on his own. He stands on the edge of the platform, awaiting for the whistle. After it sounds, he will jump into the crystal clear water, and, at the same time, into complete darkness. Edgaras has not been able to see since he was 15 years old.
S11, Edgaras’ disability class, is reserved for those whose visual impairment is the most severe, i.e., the blind. Competing against other athletes in this category, the 17 year old Lithuanian reached three A level standards and can take part in freestyle swimming of 50, 100, and 400 meters in Rio in 2016. He is the only swimmer in the national team of Lithuania for these Paralympics.
“Actually, I like long distances, when one thinks: ‘I’ll quit, I’ll give up, but no, I have to swim on and touch the wall as fast as possible.’ Then you get motivated, you start swimming even faster, and suddenly you’re at the finish line. “It’s over,” you think to yourself, but then the coach shouts “Op!” and everything starts all over again,” Edgaras smiles when talking about his training routine, but the smile wanes quickly. Even though he is only seventeen years old, he rarely jokes and is more into listening than talking. In order to be fully ready for his first Paralympics, Edgaras starts almost every single day at the pool, swimming from one end to the other and counting strokes. He likes it, because when training, he is able to be alone with his thoughts, to feel the pressured water run through his fingers, and to think that he can almost push off it. Edgaras describes water like a wine-grower talking about wine: he says he can feel if the water is soft or hard right after diving into the pool.
But he cannot dream for too long, as his coach Ramūnas, resting his leg on the platform, always awaits Edgaras at the edge of the pool. Ramūnas looks after his student so that he would not bump into the wall and lightly pokes his back with a special stick once the swimmer is approaching the end of the distance. Today this scheme looks very coordinated and usually works without saying a word. Edgaras remembers the times when orientating in the pool would not go so smooth: “It would hurt, I would bump into the walls often. My finger joints would be hurt so bad that I couldn’t bend them. I’d swim onto the ropes very often, dive into other lanes, scratch myself. It was just insanely hard.”
Even today Edgaras has bruises on his back. Stroke counting, coach’s efforts, tried and tested methods cannot fully save one from the excitement during the competition, and this excitement can lead a young guy not to the award podium, but to contender’s lane. Watching Edgaras training, his coach Ramūnas writes down results and notes in a journal and slightly clenches his lips. In his opinion, it is almost impossible to forecast how Edgaras will perform, because in his category, the chance of being disqualified is way greater than in the sport of the healthy.
“Last meters are the hardest. Legs become immobilized, can’t feel one’s arms… It’s really hard for Edgaras to deal with it, because when a blind person weakens, he can be easily carried astray. Then he will get tangled in the lane, lose his speed… That’s why I never predict anything. Maybe I expect something but I never talk about it out loud.” Ramūnas concludes his thought and throws an intent glance at the face of his student, as if trying to see what effect his words had. Edgaras stays silent.
Edgaras is familiar with the Girstutis pool, where he is training for his first Paralympics in 2016. He spent his childhood here. Two years ago, Edgaras became fully blind; until then he would wear glasses with thick lenses, he would be able to distinguish different shades of light and various contours. When he was eleven, Juozas Miliauskas, the president of the Parolimpietis club, invited Edgaras to his first swimming practice. Back then Edgaras was not thinking about professional sport but, being acquainted with the swimming techniques when his vision still was not fully gone helped him reach his current results. Edgaras can still imagine what correct movements look like, and this gives him some advantage against competitors who are blind since birth.
Still, memories alone are not enough to perfect a swimming technique, and Ramūnas is trying to find new ways of teaching: for instance, he lays Edgaras down on the bench, takes his hand and shows him how a proper stroke is performed, and what his legs do then. This process is not very easy and, as Ramūnas says, he started training Edgaras only because he came to him when he was still able to see a bit. Otherwise the job would have been too difficult for Ramūnas. Even now the coach still sometimes tries to show which mistakes should be corrected until Edgaras sticks his head out of the water and says “you know, coach, showing doesn’t really help.” Then, as if nothing had happened, the workout continues.
After the training session is over, Ramūnas usually takes his student home. Edgaras, on the other hand, says he cannot stop thinking about swimming even when far away from the pool: “My thoughts are always about sport. Even when I’m asleep, I dream I’m swimming, I feel the lane. It can be said that I never leave the swimming pool. Only in my dreams there are no people around me, nothing at all, just me, swimming with my thoughts.”
Ramūnas, who once was a swimmer himself, is fascinated by Edgaras’ spirit. He knows that his student has never been to any sport camp, and the Girstutis pool, with its 50 meter tracks, will be closed for summer only one month before Rio Paralympic Games: it is a waste of finances to keep it open. On the other hand, the coach also understands that, despite training conditions, Edgaras still hopes to someday step onto the highest step of the Paralympic award podium.
“I’m a strict person, I train him as if he had no disability. I mean, I’m trying to train him that way. Sometimes I even catch myself thinking: ‘Damn, don’t demand so much from him…’ Once I attended one of those dinners that happen in total darkness. I understood that to not be able to see is to live a completely different life. It’s really hard for Edgaras, but he does everything well. He requests efforts from me and I try to give him as much as possible,” says Ramūnas. He adds that often, after a morning training session, which lasts for more than two hours, Edgaras refuses to go home and asks for a few more rounds. Usually, the coach does not yield, raises his voice instead and chases the breathless swimmer off to the dressing rooms. At moments like that, Ramūnas tries not to speak, so he would not give away that he is actually smiling.
It does not matter if Edgaras was instructed to do additional exercises or not, after his swimming practice he always comes home. His mother Sandra, woman of average height, fair hair and equally fair face, waits for her son there. She and Edgaras’ father, together with their three children, live in a small two bedroom apartment in one of the suburbs of Kaunas. Edgaras has two sisters, one of which was born only three months before the Paralympics. Even though there is not much stuff in their apartment, it looks like all things are in their places: a closet, a small sofa, a TV, a bunk bed of Edgaras and his sister Liveta, and a tiny bed of the newly born Viltė. There are no medals or framed diplomas hanging on the walls, so if one did not know that Edgaras has three A level Paralympic standards, no one would be able to tell that an active athlete of the Lithuanian national team lives here. Despite the modest appearances, Edgaras’ family is very proud of his achievements.
“We found out about it late in the evening. I instantly started crying with joy. I’m very proud of my son. When I think of Edgaras’ dream coming true, I feel euphoric, because he would always tell us: ‘I’m going to do this and it doesn’t matter how.’” To this day, there are tears in Edgaras’ mother’s eyes when she remembers the day when her son reached Paralympic standards. She never talks with her child about sport as it disturbs his state of mind before competitions, plus, when he comes back from practice, Edgaras goes straight to bed. Short messages like “All is fine”, “I have a medal”, or “I’m on my way home” are usually the only alternative to talking about swimming, and that is why Edgaras’ parents always have their phones with them. His sister Liveta also wants to help her brother. Even though she is only in the 8th grade, she helps her 11th–grader brother do homework: she reads out loud the literary pieces for her brother until Edgaras is able to retell them.
Edgaras’ parents are surprised at how persistent their son can be. Although the father always tries to drive his son to practice, sometimes he does not have enough time for it. Then, Edgaras goes to practice on his own. With the white cane in his hands, he checks for any obstacles in his way, bypasses well-known poles in the yard, lifts his foot before and onto the sidewalk, and when he reaches the stop, he is the first one to hear the trolley coming. Good orientation in familiar surroundings misleads the passersby, and sometimes, when Edgaras needs a little help, they are not always willing to cooperate. There were cases when, when asked to tell which trolleybus is coming, people would reply: “Why are you asking, what, like, can’t you see?” And when Edgaras is sitting down and does not know that there are elderly people standing right next to him, sometimes people try giving him a lesson.
“Once I was in a trolleybus with him and went to buy the ticket at the driver when suddenly I heard a woman shouting at Edgaras. ‘I can’t see. My mom will come soon,’ my son told her. ‘Stand up!’ replied the woman and almost hit my son’s back with her purse. ‘Move, an old person wants to sit down,’ she shouted. My poor child didn’t know what to do, so he just stood up…” sighs Sandra. She says she would only be able to calmly sleep at night if people in Lithuania changed their attitude towards people with disabilities and all the traffic lights in Kaunas had sound signals.
Edgaras understands his mother but talks about the problems unwillingly. He laughs that after bumping into the walls of the pool he is no longer afraid to hit something in the street. Sandra says that her son is optimistic and really does not like complaining. Even when his sight started to fail, Edgaras stayed silent. For a long while, all that parents were able to understand is that something was going on and their son did not want to talk about it. His vision was becoming weaker, everything went blurrier and blurrier, and the light that he used to see started fading away. The last sign of this appeared one evening, when Edgaras pointed his finger at a roll of trash bags and said that he wants some of that chocolate.
“It was hard for me, because he’s my son. He is young, he should enjoy life, but he can’t see. He walks with his mom holding his hand. I didn’t come to terms with his illness for a long time and went to all kinds of doctors with only one thought in my head: ‘Maybe. Maybe there is still hope?’” After these words Edgaras’ mother becomes silent and it feels like there is not enough air in the room.
After some time Sandra continues: “I would sit and cry and he, as if sensing that something isn’t right, would ask: ‘mom, are you crying?’ ‘No, I’m not…’ ‘Yes, you’re crying,’ he would say.”
Time went by, and Edgaras’ family got used to his blindness. His dad Virginijus says that his son’s eyes are healthy, the problem is in the nerves, and it is not yet possible to cure them, so his son must learn to live a happy life without seeing it.
Edgaras does that. He spends a lot of time with his friends, asks his mother to describe his newborn sister, and dreams about books that would write about his victories and records. He knows that he must work hard and be persistent. He also believes that one day, when science advances, he will once again be able to see the sun and the trees, the contours of which he still remembers.
Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
As it was planned, in Rio Edgaras took part in 50, 100 and 400 meters swimming distances. He was eight in the 400-meter final (5.30’66 min.), tenth in the 100 meters (1.06’09 min.) and eleventh in the 50 meters (27.86 seconds and Lithuanian record).
His coach Ramūnas Leonas claims that Edgaras is still young enough to compete at least at three Paralympic Games.
Four adults and a two year old girl come to the windows of Republic Klaipėda Hospital’s reanimation department almost everyday. They have been doing this for a month now and each time they stop in the same place. There, adults talk about various things and discuss recent news, and the little one shouts and sings. Everybody tries to make as much noise as they can, looking at an open window from time to time. Usually nothing happens and after a few hours the small crowd slowly turns towards home without seeing the person they came here for. This routine will only change in the autumn of 1997, when a doctor will call and say that Ramunė Adomaitienė, the mother of the little girl and the daughter and sister of the adults, will have finally woken up from coma. Her first word, he will add, would be “running”.
Several world records, two gold, three silver, and a bronze medal in the World Championships, second and third places in Europe is the information that one can find on Ramunė on the website of the International Paralympic Committee. Ramunė cannot confirm these numbers are true, because, as she jokes, she has never tried to count her awards. The only thing she knows for sure is that there is still no Paralympic medal in her collection. In the 2012 London Paralympics, where she participated in the long jump event, her result of 4.67 meters was only one centimetre short from bronze. However, she came back to the Lithuanian team and will be its only woman going to the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.
“I can’t remember how old I was when I started going to the gym. I’d stand there wearing a dress up to my belly button, sandals, and a hair bun and try to boss the older sportsmen around. Even though I wasn’t doing any training myself, I was part of the process and knew everyone,” laughs Ramunė and says that she still cannot remember the day when she saw a stadium for the first time. Her mother Algina Vilčinskienė agrees that sport was always a part of Ramunė’s life, because she became acquainted with it before she could walk. Ramunė, laying in the stroller, would see her mother, who was a coach back then, train other people for competitions. Surrounded by an athletic family and carrying the genes of a decathlete and a record-holder, Ramunė developed affection for physical activity quite early. When she started attending school, Ramunė decided to become a professional athlete and one day compete in the Olympics, which she would always watch on TV. From that day, when asked what she wants to be when she grows up, Ramunė would always answer “Only an athlete!” and the main subjects of her childish drawings would be running, jumping, and throwing.
“As for sports, Ramunė would always be persistent. Even when she would get detention, she would throw her backpack through the window and run away to the training session with her friends. She didn’t even go to her graduation party because she didn’t want to miss a session,” smiles Algina now, although forty years ago she could have been mad at her daughter for such behaviour. Anyway, she always supported Ramunė who continued to train even after she moved to Vilnius from Klaipėda: at first she studied geography at the Pedagogical Institute, but almost immediately transferred to the Faculty of Physical Education.
Here Ramunė started seriously preparing for heptathlon and renounced the life she had outside the stadium. Dates, student parties, even the Christmas Eve dinner and everything else that could distract Ramunė from her training sessions had to be put behind. Her youth, ambitions, and power were devoted to Ramunė’s jumps, runs, and throws, which are all parts of heptathlon. After some time, her hard work turned into results and she won silver in the Lithuanian Championships. It seemed that the time was ripe to achieve even more, but after graduating and not getting into the Soviet Union team, Ramunė had to come back home to Klaipėda. Without prospects in sight, her thoughts about becoming a professional athlete were fading away, when one day they disappeared completely. Then, instead of the Olympic outfit, which she had dreamed of wearing since childhood, Ramunė put on a sports suit and started working in a high school as physical education teacher.
After leaving professional sports, Ramunė did not part with physical activity. She would sometimes race with boy students from higher grades. The only events which, for a short period of time, replaced the nostalgia of competitions and training sessions, were her wedding and birth of her daughter Roberta. However, not even true and deep love was able to part Ramunė and sport, so after two years she took Roberta to a kindergarten and went back to her job.
“It was the end of the summer, a very hot day. I returned from the maternity leave and had to prepare the school’s gym for the new school year. My husband came and offered me to go with him to bring some oil to Šilutė. I would always accompany him, so my colleagues said: ‘Go. There’s nothing much to do here, we give you to him.’ So we departed. Departed and never reached the destination,” Ramunė talks calmly, even casually about one of the turning points of her life. She does not remember what exactly happened that day, but witnesses said that they drove across a railway crossing even though the red traffic light was on, one of the wheels got stuck in the rails and a train crashed into the car. Ambulance, surgery, and a month in coma followed.
“Ramunė’s mother in law called. ‘Kęstas died,’ she cried. I couldn’t understand a thing. I asked: ‘What happened? What?’ After a while, we got a call from the hospital and were asked to come for identification. I wasn’t allowed to come inside so my husband went instead. When he came back all he said was ‘I couldn’t recognise her.’ She didn’t have any face left…” says Algina. She still remembers every detail of the incident that happened nineteen years ago. That night she spent waiting behind the operation room doors, both waiting for the answer and afraid to hear it, trying to say the prayer she learned when in exile in Siberia. Finally, after eight hours of surgery, doctor Vytautas Grikšas appeared.
“He didn’t look like a person. All pale and exhausted… Streaming with perspiration… I asked him: ‘So, will she live?’ He just shrugged off and later said ‘I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,’” continues Algina. Ramunė was then in a worse condition than her husband Kęstutis’, who, differently to what his mother thought before, was alive. He felt better and better every day while in rehabilitation, but after some time he got a stomach ulcer. Neither doctors nor Kęstutis knew about the chronic illness. He felt pains in his stomach the whole summer but never went to get it checked. The illness was not diagnosed in time, doctors were not able to save him, and Kęstutis died.
“My mom told me it’s not good to wear a cross, that it harms karma. However, my husband gave me this necklace that year. It was my birthday and I wasn’t thinking about karmas or anything, so I put it on,” says Ramunė and starts whirling the little cross between her fingers. She was the last person to find out about the passing of her husband. At first she was in coma, later she woke up from it but thought that she was fifteen years old and her surname was still Vilčinskaitė. When her memory came back, her family was told by doctors to wait until she gets used to the loads of information she has to digest. But the longer they waited, the harder it was. So, when Ramunė was in rehabilitation in Palanga, where she was learning to walk again, they told her everything.
“She just went silent. I didn’t know what to do next,” remembers Algina. Kęstutis’ sister broke the bad news to Ramunė. After finding out the truth, Ramunė was silent for three days, but she still would not say why she behaved like that. She says she did not get to fully experience marital life in those two years, she did not know what it was like before, and she still does not know now.
On the other hand, it would have been a luxury for Ramunė to be depressed, as she had her little Roberta. At that time Roberta was not able to understand what happened to her family, but saw everything in her grandparents’ faces. The first meeting with her mom happened in the hospital, the neurosurgery room. The girl started crying immediately. Ramunė says that she recognised her daughter instantly. “‘This is my Roberta crying,’” I said… I thought she was sad because of the bedding in the hospital, which was white, whereas at home it is colourful. So I asked to bring me the colourful one… I didn’t think she was crying because of my face, which was stitched like a pear. I hadn’t seen myself in the mirror for two months. And she was afraid of me, she was shaking. She was only two years old when she saw her mother like that…”
When she left the hospital and went to Palanga for rehabilitation, Ramunė knew that she will not stay there for the assigned two weeks. Even though her whole left side of the face, her teeth, jaw, and nose have been medically replaced just a little while ago, and she sat in a wheelchair, Ramunė wanted to go back to Roberta as soon as possible, so she spent every day training in the gym of the sanatorium. After four days of rehabilitation she walked into the canteen using crutches, and after two more she went home.
After coming back home, Ramunė had to come back to her life, too. She tried to do everything the way she was used to, and started training her woody and outlandish body. Then Ramunė did not think about any competitions, but later, after seeing the victories of Aldona Grigaliūnienė, another Lithuanian athlete with disabilities, asked herself: “Maybe I should try doing sports professionally?” And, after making a decision, she came back to the field and almost immediately met new obstacles.
“We went to Jurbarkas, to the Lithuanian Championships for people with disability. There she ran and fell, ran again and fell again… but still won the javelin throw. When it was time for awards, they removed her from the stage and said: ‘We aren’t going to give you a medal because you’re a healthy person,’” one can still feel repressed anger in Algina’s voice. According to Algina, not wanting to emphasize her disability and not showing that every step means pain, is the reason why, even after she was assigned disability group F38 – motoric disability, Ramunė still receives comments as “Why are you faking? How much did you pay for your group?” But she does not pay much attention to this nonsense and each day wakes up with the sunrise so that she could start her day exercising with her dog. The dog, Ramunė says, was with her from the first day when she began slowly rising from the bed. The Games in Rio is her third Paralympics but Ramunė does not know that women with disabilities have never made up more than one third of all Paralympians. According to world statistics, as much as 93% of women with disabilities do not participate in any sports.
But even if she knew these numbers, she probably would not pay any attention to them just like she does not pay much attention to the fact that she can barely feel and cannot control the left side of her face. It only gets a bit uncomfortable during winter, when the healthy side turns white and the injured one turns red. “I just put a scarf on and go,” laughs Ramunė.
Her walk is also not too smooth as one leg still disobeys Ramunė’s commands; she calls it a prop stuck in a bowl. On the other hand, she says she does not need it when doing long jumps, as the movement is in her blood. Despite the fact that long jump is the only heptathlon event left for her, the consequences of professional sport do not scare her. Although during her childhood she would draw the Olympic rings and not the symbol of the Paralympics, she now thinks that she has to be happy with the things she has: “I don’t know if I should thank God or not but he is the one that got me closer to my dream. And now it looks like I’ve always been this way and will stay like that to the end.”
Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
As in 2012 in London, in 2016 in Rio Ramunė was only one centimetre short from bronze medal. She jumped 4.52 meters. However, when Ramunė came back to Vilnius, she claimed that she is not going to leave the track in the nearest future.
Dumbbells of various shapes and sizes and long thin barbell bars clatter on the shiny floor in one of the popular gyms of Kaunas. Training equipment for shoulders and biceps is favoured by guys, while girls are checking themselves in the mirrors to see if there is already that much coveted line between their ribs, the one that disappears above the belly button. There is a different person next to this diverse group, training alone. Wearing cotton t-shirt with “Lietuva” written on it and grey shorts, he is using only one leg to keep his balance on a thing called the balance pillow, a bit similar to a ball cut in half. He notices me looking at him and asks: “Do you see my calves? Are they still different from each other?” “Yes,” I answer shyly; he sighs and looks at his left leg, which is almost twice thinner than his right one, and says that he will do everything it takes to make them look the same one day. This is Mindaugas Bilius who, after experiencing 58 fractures of 27 different bones, is getting ready for a trip to Rio de Janeiro, where he hopes to reach the highest step of the Paralympic award podium.
Both events in which Mindaugas will take part, shot put and discus throw, have been familiar to him since he joined the athletics in twelfth grade. Although he was good at sports, he had never thought about becoming a professional. After three years at Šiauliai University, where he studied pedagogy of physical education and sports, Mindaugas went to the US for a summer job. There he established his own company and, instead of the three planned months, stayed for eight years. Little by little, thoughts about coming back home slowly got lost in the daily routine and Mindaugas got used to his new life. He appreciated his new friends and was happy to be able to spend his holidays riding cutters or skiing in the mountains between Nevada and California. But all the stability in his life was a fragile illusion that shattered to pieces one night.
“I know that I was going to play bowling with my friends. I opened my eyes, saw a yellow hospital room, and thought to myself: ‘Damn, that’s not what a bowling alley looks like.’ There was a nurse sitting next to me. She was the one who explained to me what had happened,” says Mindaugas. He remembers that when he woke up from two weeks of coma, he weighed 55 kilos instead of 110, but was still able to joke about finally losing some weight.
To this day Mindaugas cannot remember the accident that landed him in a hospital, so he retells the story as told by police officers: “It was something like this: I was driving in reverse from my front yard when suddenly someone drove into the back of my car. I started rolling and tumbled directly to some kind of a trailer or a bus that stood close-by.” According to Mindaugas, the hit was very hard and, after examining his overall condition, doctors told his parents in Lithuania that their son’s expected survival rate is 10%.
“They put me together like a jigsaw puzzle. All my ribs, collarbone, and a humerus were broken; there was blood effusion on the right side of my brain. That’s the reason why my left side of the body is still a little different: I can’t feel my leg and part of my hand,” tells us Mindaugas, who at first sight looks like a completely healthy 34 year-old. The only signs of the major injury in the past are his uneven calves and his habit of distributing the full weight to his right side when standing or walking. But, as he says, this is nothing compared to times when even five meters seemed like a long journey, and a walk to the toilet would be a heroic quest. Step after step, Mindaugas left his hospital room. His first goal was to enter the hallway, then to visit the cute nurse, and finally he was able to independently walk in the garden of the hospital.
Until the accident, Mindaugas was surrounded by various people, but he spent most of his time in the hospital alone. From the big group of friends, the only one who visited him was Tomas from Chicago, who lived 2 000 miles and 30 hours away. He worked as a truck driver and tried to deliver as many packages as he could through California, where Mindaugas was. It was not always easy to do so, so Mindaugas’ main support was everyday calls to his parents in Lithuania. Long phone calls and three lonely months in the hospital finally made him realise there is nothing holding him in the US, so he went back home.
Mindaugas returned to his studies in Šiauliai University. While doing internship at Šiauliai covered stadium, he got a suggestion to try himself against other athletes with physical disabilities. He agreed and in six months became the champion of Lithuania and broke the national record. Mindaugas says that his early days’ experience in sport helped him become the best in the country in such a short time, but he also thinks his easy victories are determined by systematic problems in Lithuanian Paralympic sports: “There are a lot of people with disability in Lithuania, but our championships seem poor. We have several great athletes, but the others are too far behind them. That’s why I haven’t been participating in these events for a few years now.” He adds that Lithuanians achieve their world-class results mostly on their own initiative, helped only by volunteers and unofficial structures. Mindaugas gives an example from his own experience. Rimantas Plungė is a former Olympian and honoured coach of Lithuania who has been training Mindaugas since 2012, but has not seen a cent for his job as he does not own a coaching license. Rimantas says that it is not about the money at all: “Even though I’ve spent my whole life as a professional athlete, I was shocked when I went to the London Paralympics. The stadium was packed with 80 000 people, crowded as a beehive. Spectators were there from early mornings ‘till late evenings to watch how so called athletes with disability are doing things the mighty wouldn’t be able to. Understanding that human strength is neither his or her muscles nor body, but something else, is the reason why I want to help Mindaugas.”
Rimantas’ honest help is now, practically, his second job, as he spends almost every summer morning with Mindaugas. The two men meet at Ąžuolynas court, right behind the Darius and Girėnas stadium in Kaunas, to polish Mindaugas’ throwing technique before Rio Games. The duo is noticeable from far away as Mindaugas trains very emotionally and follows almost all of his throws by a powerful yell. Rimantas, on the other hand, comments quietly and smiles when Mindaugas’ progress is noticeable. After the morning session is over, which happens during Rimantas’ lunch break, he comes back to his job in the office, and Mindaugas, after a short rest, drives to the gym to confront his body once again. His disability class is F37, one sided paralysis, but Mindaugas does not think there are things he could not do. He smiles culpably and says that due to the constant preparation for the games, he and his wife have not had a proper holiday for a few years now. Nevertheless, after a little while, he adds that he cannot imagine his current life without this tiring but beloved routine: “I believe that that accident had to happen in order for me to be where I am right now, to come back to Lithuania, to be a part of sport community, to graduate from university. My life is interesting now, I like traveling, doing sports, and helping others. I think that this is the purpose of my life.”
His diligence and devotion help Mindaugas manage things that seem uncontrollable at first. While establishing the Šiaulietis sports club for people with disabilities and graduating (in 2013 he graduated in MA of diplomacy and international relations from the Vytautas Magnus University and in 2016 in MA of tourism and sport management from the Lithuanian Sport University), he also broke the European shot put record by throwing it 16.07 metres and became European champion not only in this event but also in discus throw. Achievements and good physical form during workouts leads others to whispering behind his back about the possible medal in Paralympics. But Mindaugas tries not to pay attention to the growing pressure and says that if he is not successful in Rio, there is always Tokyo. Only his coach Rimantas knows what truly is happening in Mindaugas’ mind.
“It’s hard for everyone, and for him, too. Just like in every other individual sport, Mindaugas greatest competitor is himself, and he cannot beat this opponent, just put up a good fight. Overcoming oneself is the most important challenge. That’s why in Rio I wish for Mindaugas Bilius to win against Mindaugas Bilius and leave nothing undone,” says Rimantas, glancing towards something in the distance with a mysterious and wise smile.
Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
While competing in Rio de Janeiro, Mindaugas did not forget the lesson his coach Rimantas had given to him. He improved two personal and one European record, won the shot put gold with the result of 16.80 meters and the discus throw silver with 53.50 meters!
However, even after these victories, Mindaugas is not going to leave athletics. He says that he is ready to encourage systemic changes within disability sport in Lithuania.
“There was no gym. We used the hallways of the school. We would run up the stairs, through the hallway, and down the stairs to the other end of the school. Among all the schools in Lithuania we were third. A team of five blokes from Ubiškės won bronze in the Lithuanian Championship!” laughs Jonas Spudis when remembering the beginning of his journey towards the big sports. Now he is 36. Every day he puts his sneakers on and leaves for the training session with a slight limp in his step. He is preparing for one of the most important games in his life. Jonas was hoping to test the Olympic track 12 years ago in Athens, but his dream needed to go through a few challenges more. Five years ago Jonas got into a car accident, and in 2016 into the national team of Paralympians.
In 2013, two years after his injury, Jonas decided to try himself in sports as person with disability, and in 2014 he won the European Championship in javelin throw. Another two years had passed, and he won a silver medal in the same competition, broke the Lithuanian record, and reached the standard for Paralympics. At first, Jonas’ result did not guarantee him a place at the Rio de Janeiro Games, but when the International Paralympic Committee gave two extra quotas to Lithuania, Jonas spot in the Paralympics was sure. “I didn’t tell anyone about this until I got used to it myself. I was afraid of the possible burst of emotions,” says Jonas, lowering his bright happy eyes. Later he adds that his current achievements would not be possible without long years spent in the “healthy” sports, where he had a lot of hopes and experienced quite a few disappointments.
“We lived in a house in Ubiškės. On the other side of the road there was a field where I used to throw javelin during the summer. My PE teacher would even let me bring the javelin home. I also liked throwing rocks, we would compete amongst friends who would throw them the furthest. I felt that I had a good hand for that, and rocks would fly well. Once I threw a rock so far that it broke a window somewhere,” silently laughs Jonas, remembering his childhood. Long days in the yard playing with friends and Spartan methods of using school’s scarce infrastructure proved to be very effective in attaining good results. Third place in the Lithuanian Championship, regular victories in Telšiai district tournaments, and good personal performances let Jonas and his friends to get noticed by the Telšiai sports school teachers, who offered them to become a part of their team.
The opportunity to put a pair of spikes on and run the paths of the covered stadium was appealing, so the group of friends unanimously decided to use it. A new stage of life began: after school, the guys would go to Telšiai. Their training sessions would often continue long enough to miss the last bus home. All tired and equipped with sports bags, they would go to the train station. “Our little town was in the forest, so the train wouldn’t stop there. We had to get off at the next stop and walk four more kilometres along the railway. It was easy, even fun. Around 9 PM we would be home,” Jonas tells an optimistic story. And when would they do their homework? He just shrugs the question off and says that they were gifted children and would manage their time well.
Time passed by, and the amount of friends who did sports started decreasing. The older boys enrolled into the Military Academy, others became police officers. Jonas, being in the twelfth grade, thought about doing something similar, but his plans were turned upside-down by a phone call from Telšiai sport school. The principal told him that a coach from Šiauliai is looking for him. Virginija Žiedienė spotted Jonas at the Lithuanian Winter Championship, where he participated in decathlon. Even though Jonas tried most of the events for the very first time there, he caught the attention of the coach.
“Back then I didn’t know any of the coaches or their names… They just told me to go to Šiauliai for a meet and a chat. A new study program had just appeared that year in Šiauliai, pedagogy of physical education and sport,” remembers Jonas. He made a quick decision, enrolled in this new program, and began disciplined preparation for decathlon. Legs, strengthened by the school stairs, and the arm, developed by throwing rocks, determined his strongest abilities: javelin throw and 1500-metre run. Jonas says that the more technical events would at first be tougher on him: “When I’d fall asleep at night after the training, I’d start kicking the end of my bed. My roommates would laugh saying ‘Juonis is hurdling again.’”
Nevertheless, his desire to win and hard work helped Jonas reduce the gap between his strongest and weakest events and become champion of Lithuania several times. After making it into the national team, he took part in the European Cup for five years in a row. Jonas even hoped to get to the Olympic Games and was included in the list of candidates, but he did not meet the standard and had to stay home. The rivalry was growing, the years were passing, and the money was scarce, so Jonas started training children. Quietly, without any official announcement, almost unnoticeably he left the big sports, leaving only his name in the top twenty list of the best decathletes in Lithuanian history.
When he left professional sports, Jonas did not think of it as a break and did not expect to walk back into the international arena wearing Lithuanian colours. He also did not expect to end up on the operation table when he got behind the wheel of his car one night. It took only a split second to spoil the better part of his plans.
“There was nothing special about that accident. It was simple inadvertence. My thoughts were somewhere else, I drove into the crossroad, and got hit on the side. It ripped my intervertebral disc and strangulated the leg nerves. I wasn’t scared or anything. I was just mad, because I saw the green traffic light and thought why I was hit. I didn’t even understand that the crash was so strong, that my car turned around and I was looking at the wrong side of the traffic lights,” Jonas’ voice becomes more silent, the pauses between sentences lengthen. Further events were a chaotic mess; Jonas crouched and got out of car, called his eighth-month-pregnant wife, and managed to get home by himself. He only called the Šiauliai hospital next morning, when he understood he can barely move his legs. After several examinations, Jonas was immediately hospitalised and spent long hours taking painkillers and waiting for surgery. The latter would be postponed twice, at first because it was the weekend, then because it was not a “surgery day”. Finally, Jonas called the Klaipėda hospital, explained his situation, was transferred right away and operated the next morning.
“I don’t feel sorry for myself. I feel sorry for my wife as it was harder for her. Everything fell into one: she was about to give birth to our second child,” Jonas’ story stops here as his chin quivers. But he drinks a few sips of water, wipes his red eyes and continues.
After the surgery in Klaipėda, he was sent to Palanga for rehabilitation, and a few days later his wife gave birth to their daughter Gerda. He wanted to surprise his girls and his son Kristupas and, before the rehabilitation period was over, he sneaked out of sanitarium.
Time passed by and his life came back to its usual rhythm. Jonas got a job as an educator of children with behavioural disorders at a socialization centre and renewed his training of athletes at the Šiauliai covered stadium. His right leg recovered fully, but the left one is still paralysed from the knee down. Jonas was limping, but perfecting his moves every day, and one day that got noticed by Deimantas Jusys, who works with athletes with physical disabilities. The negotiations lasted for three years, but Deimantas finally talked Jonas into coming back to the field and competing against other throwers with disabilities. New reunion with the long-forgotten javelin brough out the repressed dreams. After two years of hard work, Jonas was able to throw the javelin 52.72 metres and improved his after-injury result by ten meters.
“I know I can do better but I’m afraid to push myself too much as I don’t know how it could end. I’m constantly walking the line, testing myself and my limits. And that’s how I go forward. Slowly but surely I reduce the difference between the results I have now and the ones I had before the car crash,” says Jonas and starts smiling again. He understands that the class F44, where the majority of athletes lack one or more limbs, is not assigned him by accident. He also knows that he must put a special belt on and insert a foot splint in his shoe so that his ankle ligaments would not break. However, despite the circumstances, Jonas silently, as if it was some sort of secret, tells us that he wants to do sports for the rest of his life. He does not care much about the modern prostheses of his competitors, about the pressure of the fans abroad, and the lack of them in Lithuania. From the days he spent playing outside with his friends, Jonas kept not only the long Samogitian o sound or the diminutive name of Jonukas, used mostly by his family, but his boyish enthusiasm, too. Seeing a crossbar, he still cannot resist the urge to check if he can do ten pull-ups, and, from time to time, gracefully throws a rock or two as far as he can.
Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
Being sixth after his first attempt of 50.79 meters, Jonas did not improve his result in the following session. After third round he had to close his 2016 track season with a tenth-place finish in Rio.
Jonas says he is not satisfied with his performance and hopes to compete better in the nearest future.
“Most often we would get glanced at. When I and my wife Renata would be walking down Laisvės alėja, almost every single one would look at her with sympathy. I believe they would think things like ‘Good Lord, girl, where’re you going?’ I wouldn’t even try explaining things as it wouldn’t have changed anything. I wanted to prove to every one by doing things that you can live happily even if you’re sitting in a wheelchair,” says Kęstutis Skučas, a PhD in social sciences, sitting in a spacious laboratory of Lithuanian Sports University. It has been twenty years since he came here for the very first time, since he became the first student with disability in the then Lithuanian Academy of Physical Education. Neither teachers nor his student friends had any suspicion back then that one day this quiet and calm guy would become an associate professor in the Applied Biology and Rehabilitation department or would win a silver medal in the Athens Paralympics.
“It was a miracle. When I went there, I got ill and spent five days before my start in bed with high temperature. Physical form? What form? Logically thinking, I didn’t have any… But I did very well, broke the European record, and won silver,” tells Kęstutis about his experience in the 2004 Paralympics, and his near-black eyes turn very warm. In his second Paralympics, being 37 years old, he swam 50 meters by backstroke, in the S4 category, in 47,62 seconds. He only lost to a swimmer from Mexico, who in turn broke the world record that day. Even though Kęstutis has never reached or improved this result of his, he represented Lithuania in all of the Paralympics since then. Due to various illnesses, the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics almost became the first games he would miss. After failing to achieve the required results in swimming, Kęstutis decided to test his strength in the athletics, and, to his own surprise, managed to get into his fifth Paralympic Games. By replacing pool with stadium, Kęstutis began training for two events at once: discus throw and 100-meter wheelchair race. He says it was not too hard for him to transfer from one sport to another, as his main physical preparation actually happened many years ago, when he did not even consider doing professional sports.
When Kęstutis was 19, he went to serve in the military in the Northern Soviet Union. After long hours of night duty in Arkhangelsk Oblast, where the temperatures would sometimes fall to -40 Celsius, he started feeling sharp back pains. For a few weeks, he tried to cure them in the local military medical centre, where his main medication was iodine. Time passed, pains were progressing, and Kęstutis’ ability to control his body was declining. One day he could not move his leg, so when his father, who wanted to surprise his son, came to visit, he immediately had to change the plans and instead organise a trip to Arkhangelsk hospital.
“Before the surgery, I could only walk with the help of two other soldiers, I was no longer able to move my leg and the other one was getting worse, too. But after the operation, I couldn’t feel my body right up to armpits. My condition was horrible, but all the bad things are now gone from my memory. All I know is that doctors would ask my father: ‘You are going to be here ‘till the end, aren’t you?’” It is definitely not the first time that Kęstutis is telling this story, so his tone is not far from the one he uses to talk about the weather. He says the surgery he had in Arkhangelsk was meant to remove a tumour from his spine. Later, when they flew to a hospital in St. Petersburg, the doctors said that there might had been no tumour at all, and the real reason of pain had been the inflammation of the spinal cord. “So many different versions. Was it doctors’ fault, was it not, no one knows to this day. Whatever one may think about this situation, the most important thing is that I survived,” smiles Kęstutis. He is glad he was not alone during the time: his whole family came to Russia, even the little brother who asked their mother not to tell Kęstutis about his shaky knees. Everybody stayed with him until he was ready to come home.
“Even nowadays people who suffered some sort of severe injury are often put out to pasture. But in the Soviet Union, it was almost impossible to see a wheelchair on the street. I’d get mad when people would look at me and think that I can’t do things. That’s why I was trying to gain strength and prove to myself and others that I can be independent,” continues Kęstutis in a calm voice, but the look in his eyes becomes keener. He never wanted other people to feel sorry for him, so when he came back to Lithuania, he started training from morning to evening everyday. Kęstutis’ father, who then was managing a loom factory, made a lot of his son’s equipment himself: a walker, a barbell, some weights. He even built a special bike for Kęstutis to pedal using his hands, while other pedals would move his paralysed legs. “The whole room was full of these apparatuses. I wouldn’t count my time, I’d wake up and would go straight to the gym. Eventually, I started working with heavy weights. There was a time when I could lift 132 kilos, or lift a barbell of 50 kilos a thousand times, with breaks, of course. My dad was afraid he had made not enough weights for me and that he will have to find ways to get new ones,” laughs Kęstutis and remembers that, because of the muscular upper body, he once even got nicknamed Schwarz in a Wheelchair.
But even the biggest victories against oneself in the gym could not free Kęstutis from the isolation he found himself in after his illness. He understood he has enough physical strength and decided to go outside again: “I know how hard it must have been to look at me from the side. I didn’t know how to deal with stairs, so I’d just sit on each stair and would pull the wheelchair, weighing 20 kilos, behind me.” Nevertheless, each day his movements would get faster and more precise, and, after a few years, Kęstutis thought it was a time to compete not only with himself, but with others, too.
“I started riding my wheelchair a lot. Each day I’d drive 30-40 kilos on the roadside in the direction of Karmėlava. There were times were I’d skip this daily routine only once a year. Rain or snow – I’d go. There were all sorts of drivers: some would come to close, some would try to overtake from the wrong side,” says Kęstutis and adds that he decided to do professional sports after one of his first wheelchair races. That time, his opponents were weaker physically, but knew the technique better. But, after years of racing cars, he never lost a wheelchair race again.
He tried a lot of different sports, from weightlifting to table tennis, but Kęstutis’ favourite was swimming, which led him to a Paralympic silver medal. Never mind this award, after he is finished with professional sport, Kęstutis will not receive any help from the state. “The times of the winner and the runner-up are always close. If the pool had been longer by just one meter, I believe I could have caught up with the winner of the Paralympics, because he was already getting tired and I still had enough strength to finish well. Small things like this determine a lot. According to our laws, only the gold winners get the annuity,” says Kęstutis. If he had won silver in the Olympic and not the Paralympic Games, the situation would be different. “It’s hard to say what the attitude towards Olympic and Paralympic medals should be. There are countries where athletes are appreciated the same, they get the same support and financial prizes. We have been talking of priorities since the Athens Games, the discussion started back then: why is it that Paralympians get ten times less prize money than Olympians? What, are they ten times smaller in size or what?” smiles Kęstutis bitterly. He says that only the nominal inequality has changed since Athens, but not the official attitude. Now Paralympians’ bonuses are seven times smaller than those of the Olympians.
Inequal attitude towards the achievements is far from the only problem in sports for people with disabilities. Despite the fact that Kęstutis is training without a coach, he is still in need of an assistant who would help him get from his everyday wheelchair to the sports one or to get on the tall discus throwing chair, would bring the discus back after throws, or would measure his results. A student of his, Arnas Pečetauskas, helps him voluntarily, but, as Kęstutis says, this cannot be the foundation of a whole sports system: “The Paralympic committee gets funded only before the Paralympic Games, and that’s it. Overall, the whole sport of people with disabilities is based on a small group of enthusiasts who achieve the results on their own. But this is only a one-time-thing and when one digs a bit deeper, it is obvious that, let’s say, most of the disabled sport clubs have very few members. Our students, who graduate in applied physical practice, usually cannot work as coaches of people with disabilities just because those few open vacancies are given to the family members or close relatives,” concludes Kęstutis and turns towards the window.
He knows that these problems were here yesterday and are here today, but he jokes that it is easier to live when you believe that something may change tomorrow. Kęstutis is still getting ready for the Games, teaches at the university, and trains a wheelchair basketball team. This year, for the first time in history, their team was second in the European Championship B division and got promoted to a higher league. Kęstutis values not only the victories but the whole process; therefore, even without the right equipment, he tries to improve his results. Not only is he throwing discus every day in the Ažuolynas court, he also gets his old sports wheelchair – no breaks and weighing twice as much as his opponents’ – from the garage and drives around the city. Even though its wheels are worn down and it is dangerous to ride it, Kęstutis cannot afford to buy a new one for 6 000 Euros and risks his health and life every day. He almost does not notice pitiful looks of people in the streets and says that the attitude towards people with disabilities is changing in Lithuania. However, sometimes it takes very little to fall back, he says, even a careless phrase “look, a cripple” uttered by a child wipes off a big part of the long way we have come.
But Kęstutis never gets upset, puts on his helmet, and speeds forward in his unsafe wheelchair. When asked how he can be so persistent, he says: “One must try to achieve everything that is possible. And what’s impossible. Just challenge yourself into doing things others haven’t done yet.” He continues after a little pause: “Whatever happens, you have to enjoy each day and never exclude yourself from life.”
Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
In Rio Kęstutis was the last one in a 100-meter wheelchair race with the result of 21,03 seconds. However, he improved his personal record in the discus throw from 16.19 meters to 17.03 and finished fourth.
Not only his result did change after Rio Games. Algirdas Butkevičius, the Prime Minister of Lithuania, promised that National prizes for Paralympic Games’ medallists will become two times bigger than they are now. Dalia Grybauskaitė, the President of Lithuania, suggested making them equal to the prize money for Olympians.
“I really want to do something, to move. Sometimes, when I’m with my friends, I’ll do a summersault, a front flip, or just start jumping around. People may think I’m a bit weird but I just don’t want to sit in one place,” Osvaldas Bareikis, 23, talks calmly about movement, activity, and crazy sensations. It is not by accident that I use the word “calmly”. Either chatting or walking the tatami (special judo mat), even fighting, Osvaldas stays the same: calm. Even when in ten seconds time his opponent tackles him down seven times, he is calm. Osvaldas immediately stands up and grabs onto his opponents: shadows and silhouettes. Osvaldas’ sight is getting weaker everyday. He is partially sighted.
In 2013, this guy became the champion in the World Junior Judo Championship for Visually Impaired and participated in the International Blind Sports Association (IBSA) World Games in Seoul; he is also the winner of the Lithuanian Judo Championship for Blind and Partially Sighted. He also was the only representative of Lithuania in the event of judo in the 2016 Paralympics.
Awards and prizes do not seem to be prominent to Osvaldas, he is much more into telling stories on how he tried to defeat this or that opponent. So the awards are listed instead by his coach Algis Mečkovskis, who has trained 28 World, European, and Paralympic Games’ champions and medalists so far. Osvaldas usually competes against athletes his own age, whom he takes down without difficulty. However, when a 43-year-old Jonas Staškus, European judo champion of 1997 and bronze winner at the 2004 Athens Paralympics, takes up Osvaldas, the duel is completely different. It is something of a collision of generations, the young against the old. After Osvaldas is flung down to the ground, Jonas smiles and adds that “this kid has a future.” Experience defeats youth, but Jonas shares tips with Osvaldas and demonstrates the right way to do the moves. Osvaldas, still lying on the ground, listens carefully, but it only takes a minute for him to lift himself up and take up a fighting position again. This time Osvaldas is more successful, Jonas pounds his palm on the tatami and gives up. However, what we see is nothing but a result of many years of hard work.
Coach Algis remembers the moment he saw Osvaldas for the first time, when he came to the Lithuanian Sports Centre for Blind and Partially Sighted from Ukmergė. The encounter did not happen in the judo gym, first Algis saw Osvaldas playing goalball and taking part in swimming competitions. “In Lithuanian context, his results were very good in all of the sport events. Judo is a type of sport that requires all kinds of skill, from acrobatics and gymnastics to mobility and endurance. Osvaldas was versatile,” says Algis about his young wrestler.
Osvaldas, sitting on the tatami, counts on his fingers how many different types of sports he has ever tried: “Goalball, tennis, track-and-field athletics, even chess! But it wasn‘t enough, I wanted something different.“
The results of every sport that Osvaldas tried were promising, but they did not make him happy. One time in the changing rooms, one of the classmates suggested him to sign up for judo. Osvaldas got hooked right after the first training session: “I liked it. I had to construct my own game, to devise the moves, and when I’d succeed and win, it would be the coolest thing in this sport!”
His skills were quickly spotted by the coach: “There was no lack of blind and partially sighted judo fighters, but Osvaldas was exceptional for his coordination and ability to perform movements during a sommersault. He knew how to piece everything together, which is very important in this sport.”
Osvaldas could not wait for throws and falls to be added to his training sessions. He wanted to move and understand how his body reacts to the fight, to feel the contact with an opponent. But, at first, there were no throws or falls. He was studying judo and its rules, various stretching exercises, and defence. He vividly remembers the gym where his first training sessions were held and talks about it as if it was his home: “The gym was tiny, about 3 meters wide and 6 meters long, like a bedroom. But, since I was little, it appeared to be huge, everything was new and unseen.”
Despite the fact that now Osvaldas fights in international judo tournaments, defeats the strongest opponents and wins medals, judo, at first, was just a game for him. “I wanted to prove my manliness and the fact that I’m stronger, faster, better than everyone. I wanted to flaunt in front of the classmate who suggested me to join judo. He had been training for longer than I had, but I learned faster and finally he couldn’t win against me. I flaunted so much that the classmate gave up judo,” laughs Osvaldas.
When I came to the gym to meet Osvaldas for the first time, I had doubts if I am actually talking to the right person. His sight and orientation seemed just fine. There were no obvious signs that I am talking to a partially sighted person. There was no white cane around him. He did not inspect various surfaces with his hands or had any fear to bump into things, as blind and partially sighted people usually do. “Are you really that Osvaldas Bareikis?” I asked friendly. “That same one,” he laughed.
Osvaldas has glaucoma. It affects the optic nerve and increases intraocular pressure. “All I remember is that when I was a child, I was able to see everything, but in school they would already seat me in the first rows, because I couldn’t see the words written on the board. I didn’t notice that at first, just lived my life. Later I started to feel that I can’t read a book if the font is too small, or I couldn’t see some things anymore,” Osvaldas describes the first defects in his sight.
To Osvaldas, his poor sight is an encouragement to get more out of life. “Sometimes people don’t notice that I’m visually impaired, and when they find out, they are surprised. How can you be visually impaired when you’re doing everything a healthy person can?, they say. I just got used to living like that: I study, I do, and I succeed,” talks Osvaldas passionately.
And, he immediately adds, “one just learns to live differently.” Osvaldas had to learn to look at the sun, grass, and busy hard-working ants differently. “When I was little, I used to love watching ants and how they carry something bigger than themselves. I was very interested in them. But later I wasn’t able to see them… All I could see was that something’s moving. I started using magnifying glass, but soon it didn’t help either,” continues his thought Osvaldas.
He had to re-learn to recognise people, too. “I see people, their contours and silhouettes, but not faces. And when, for example, I see a friend walking in the distance, I recognise him from the way he walks: is he walking like a penguin, is he waddling, how his arms and legs are moving. This helps me orientate and recognise him,” explains Osvaldas.
As soon as Osvaldas steps his foot into the gym and sees tatami, he bows to it mentally: “All that’s in my head is the upcoming training session and how I’m going to exercise, leave all my energy here, and get tired. It’s going to be awesome.”
Osvaldas’ coach reveals that most people think that, for blind or partially sighted people, it is hard to do sports. But these are only myths and stereotypes. “They do everything just like the healthy. If they have to run, they run. If they have to jump, they jump. If they have to perform throws, they perform them. You simply have to demonstrate everything by touch, more physically. Sometimes the results of blind people in judo do not differ from the results of the healthy athletes. Not everyone with perfect vision could perform moves that these people do,” says A. Mečkovskis.
Personal and physical abilities of a person are more important when it comes to picking a good judo wrestler. And vision is not one of them. “Physical preparation is the most important. It is mostly related to speed and endurance. A fast person can train to endure, but an endurant person will hardly ever become fast. This sport demands the synthesis of speed, endurance, and strength,” these are the features of a successful judo fighter as listed by the coach.
He adds that Osvaldas’ strongest features are stability and disposition before the fight. “The right state of mind before the fight can create a miracle: one can win against a stronger opponent. State of mind is an art form.”
Osvaldas has a slightly different opinion: “One must be patient, endurant, obedient to one’s coach and a good listener.”
However, one of the hardest tasks for every athlete is psychological preparation. There is no universal formula here, so each individual has to find their own way to strengthen psychologically and prepare for the upcoming fights. Some read a lot of books on sports and state of mind before the tournaments, others watch video material of their own and opponents’ fights, some train a lot or isolate themselves from their environs.
Osvaldas is also looking for his own way: before the games, he tries to spend more time alone, to think through his tactics and moves. Sometimes imagination helps. “Sometimes before the fight I do a warm-up session with an imaginary opponent. I fight him, I try to foresee his moves. Then I step onto tatami and try to do the things I thought through,” the wrestler shares his tactics.
Nevertheless, he admits that sometimes he is not able to overcome his psychology, which can trip him up at the most important moment.
“When I’m at the games and I see that huge tatami, a crowd of people, cameras… I get so excited that I don’t know what to do anymore, my head becomes completely empty. I stress the most when I and my opponent meet in the middle. I have to devise a way to defeat him, there’s not much time, and I still don’t know how to do it all. I start the fight and, for example, I decide not to do a certain move: let’s say when I see a situation where I could do it but I am slightly afraid to go and do it,” even now, Osvaldas wrings his hands when remembering fights in his past.
There is one story on how difficult it is to handle one’s psychology and pressure before and during the games. The message from the IBSA World Games 2015 in Seoul on 15min.lt was a brief one: “The only Lithuanian judo wrestler in the Games, Osvaldas Bareikis, won once, lost once and did not partake in the battle for medals.” But there was way more going on in Osvaldas’ head than that.
“I was psychologically devastated. I was about to fight with an athlete from Japan but I wasn’t well prepared psychologically. Perhaps I was overconfident and that’s why I lost so fast and by such a simple move… When I stepped off the tatami, I couldn’t see my coach or anybody else. I found a corner where there was no one, and cried for a while. But then I decided to rise up. I’ll get him next time,” Osvaldas speaks more silently than usual.
This young judo wrestler has to withstand huge responsibility and pressure, but he is not afraid and walks onto tatami without hesitation. He is not afraid to go completely blind one day, either. Before anything else, he is afraid to disappoint the ones that believe him the most: his mother, father, sister, girlfriend, closest friends.
“Sometimes I want to give up everything, enough of this training. Then I am encouraged by my family and friends: ‘Come on, what else will you do? You can’t live without sport. Go and bring us a medal, we need you to make Lithuania proud.’ And I believe them. I repeat to myself: yes, I can really do this, I will bring you a medal, I will prove it to you. Parents and friends’ support keeps me going,” talks Osvaldas about people closest to him.
After the International Paralympics Committee redistributed the quotas, Osvaldas got a wild card to Rio de Janeiro. He delayed breaking the news to his family and friends until the last minute, when he was 100% sure that he will go to the Paralympics. “My mom was really happy, and I’ve already promised my sister to bring her various gifts from Brazil,” says Osvaldas.
After he found out that he will participate in the Paralympics, he started even heavier and more physically exhausting training. Almost every day he spent 1,5 hours in the judo gym where he exercised, fought with opponents, listened to his coach’s commands, and perfected his technique.
Osvaldas had 2 main tasks. The first one was to be psychologically ready, and the second one was to lose some weight as he weighed 3 kg too much (69 kg instead of 66 kg, which is the category in which he will be competing). “If I am at the Paralympics and I weigh a hundred or even fifty grams too much, the Games will be over for me. I have to lose this weight, attend training sessions, and be psychologically ready. It’s going to be hard,” sighs Osvaldas. Nevertheless, he managed to accomplish this task.
Osvaldas wasn’t very nervous so far, his whole attention was put towards training and preparations. He was sure, though, that he will start being afraid, excited, and shaky a few days before the Games. “I know I’ll be thinking if I’m actually ready or not. Can I go to Rio de Janeiro? Can I win?” these are the doubts of a young wrestler.
The gym, where we were talking to Osvaldas, was getting fuller as we speak. Jonas was waving his hand from a distance, coach Algis was also here, somebody was lifting a barbell. A training session had to start in fifteen minutes. The sounds make Osvaldas’ body go tense, as if he is only waiting for the whistle to attack his opponent.
“All the time, I am proving to myself that I can do it. This is a constant battle with myself. I can go to Rio. That is the reason why I went to the training sessions and to the tournaments, why I worked hard and worried a lot: all of that just to participate in the Paralympics. There will be a lot of big names, but I’m very persistent and my wish to defeat the strongest is what moves me forward. All the time, I am trying to prove that I will not come back without a medal,” Osvaldas fixes his blue kimono, tightens his black belt and ends the conversation.
Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
Osvaldas competed with 12 strongest fighters in men’s judo (weight category -66 Kg) and won the 5th place. In a fight for bronze medal he lost to three times Paralympic champion 41 years old Satoshi Fudzimoto from Japan.
When Osvaldas came back from Paralympics, he was happy with his results and assured that he is already eager to train for Tokyo Paralympic games.
“Same time tomorrow,” says Augustas to his assistants, who are carefully putting his oars on the metal holders. There are dozens of boats around the athlete, their thin boards absorb his voice softly. The boats are waiting for other sportspeople in Klaipėda Rowers’ Base, a huge place dimly lit by fading summer sun. Augustas’ exceptional boat is also amongst them. Just as its oars, which were gliding the Danė River but an hour ago, the boat is heavier and shorter. Augustas’ boat is adjusted to his disability: he has not been able to move his legs for more than three years now.
Augustas Navickas is the first and only Lithuanian Paralympian rower. He grew up with the sport and had been training a lot before the spine trauma. His dedication to sport and the support of the people closest to him helped Augustas overcome the hardships that life threw at him. At the end of May, 2016, he got a wild card to Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.
“It’s a really hard sport, it’s a sport of endurance. And pain,” smiles Augustas while calmly talking about the strains he has to go through. The 26 year old athlete does not seem to have ever encountered anything that would break him psychologically. His reaction to all his troubles is cold and composed: this trait of his shows up at the very moment of meeting. In the training sessions he is always concentrated, of few words, and answers all the questions in a calm tone.
To prepare for the Rio Paralympics, Augustas trained twice a day. If the weather is good, he drives his disability-adjusted car to the Klaipėda Rowers’ Base, waits patiently for the assistants to bring out his boat, and, using his arms, transfers himself to it from the wheelchair. If the weather is bad, you can always find him in the gym, training his muscles enthusiastically on the machine that mimics rowing. Augustas’ training sessions rely a lot on the previously mentioned assistants, who do not get paid and help him out of their own good will. No money is officially assigned to assistance like that: the two people who help him get out of and into the wheelchair, carry his boat and oars, and meet him after his rowing practice, are the janitor and one other worker of Klaipėda Rowers’ Base.
“It’s a challenge; I want to reach my goals, improve my times, get stronger. I want to reach my limit and push it, further and further,” comments Augustas on his wish to constantly progress. During 2016 he tried to pass the Paralympic qualification bar on his own, but failed due to exhaustion and overstraining. “Rowing teaches you discipline. I was a lazy person, and I still think of myself as one, sometimes it is hard for me to find motivation, but the discipline remains. I know that things can be better, I can do more.”
Currently Augustas and his girlfriend Ema live in Klaipėda, in their apartment, quite comically located on the Irklų (Oar) Street. However ironic that may sound, this is but another proof of his life revolving around sport. It is hard to find a spot in his home which is not somehow marked by rowing: in one corner, there are pictures of Augustas smiling in his boat, in another, there is a compact rowing machine, similar to the one he uses in the gym. But there was a time when sport was not such a big part of his life, when this lack of it led Augustas to look for changes: changes that cost him the ability to walk.
Four years ago, Augustas had a sedentary job and noticed that he put on some weight. Looking for solutions, he eventually decided to move to his grandmother’s in the countryside, where he could exercise more. One day, he went for a bike ride on a mountain-bike trail, failed to hold on to his bike during a jump and fell on the handlebars. “I lost my consciousness for a moment, and, when I woke up, I realised that I can’t move my legs. I was in shock, but it all was clear to me,” he says. Ambulance took him to Šiauliai hospital where he spent a night before the operation in Kaunas clinics. The doctors diagnosed spinal fracture.
“I went there to change my life – and it did change. And even though I cannot walk anymore and I sit in a wheelchair, I’m actually happier than I was before the trauma,” says Augustas surely, and throws a glance at his girlfriend. He met Ema right after the trauma: she was his physical therapist. Together, they have already travelled a lot, moved in together, and established an association of disabled athletes called EJNA. Augustas says that this relationship has helped him find the right way of life, not only healthier, but also the one that makes him happier: “I now have goals in life, I have returned to sport, and I have a significant other. We’re happy and healthy. Everything has changed, including my attitude towards and understanding of life.”
When you hear Augustas and Ema talk about their travel adventures, it is immediately clear how dear they are to each other. It seems like this not only helps Augustas feel more sure about his decision to take up rowing, but lets him retain his humorous side, too. They joke while reminiscing of one of their funniest travels, when, after Ema graduated, they went to volunteer to Slovakia together. The Tatra Mountains were a true challenge. “We had to stay in a small house on a mountain and there was no path leading to it. It was hard to push the wheelchair up, so I would simply get out of it, they’d hold my legs and I’d crawl up on my hands,” remembers Augustas.
Such serene and jolly attitude towards life and its problems helps Augustas achieve better results in sport, as well as take his disability more optimistically. When Ema mentions their neighbour, who once looked at Augustas and said “Oh you poor thing”, Augustas replies that physical impairment is not such a big burden. “Everything is possible as long as you want to do it. Maybe you can’t go somewhere, or there are stairs in your way, but that’s what friends are for, you ask them to carry you there. There’s a solution to every problem.”
Even though Augustas is the only Paralympian rower, he, like every other Lithuanian Paralympian, faces financial problems. This is one of the reasons why he and Ema established EJNA. Unlike in other countries, where Paralympians and their achievements are appreciated more, athletes with disability in Lithuania lack the care and attention that the abled sportspeople get. Although some money from the Lithuanian Paralympic Committee reaches athletes with disability, it is far from enough to get the right equipment or create proper training conditions. The goal of Augustas and Ema’s association is not only to bring active people with physical impairments into public attention, but also to inspire the people who closed themselves in their homes to do sports. “All we want is that there would be more people doing sports. Probably not everyone wants to, but those who do, they face various problems. I know that from my personal experience and we want to help them,” says Augustas.
Asked about the amount of attention he gets, Augustas says he surely lacks it, and that he has to try and get it on his own. “I work on that personally. You have to go public and create your own name. When you are a bit famous, you get sponsors more easily, but if you are not, it’s hard.” Searching for sponsors and dealing with lack of financing is the everyday life of every Lithuanian Paralympian. But Augustas forgets it all when he gets into his boat: “At first you have thoughts in your head that you brought from home, thoughts that aren’t about sport, but later they disappear.”
Augustas’ financial problems are visible in his training sessions. Firstly, Augustas has to row alone as there is no coach who could be with him at all times. All one can see when watching him row is an old motorboat passing by every once in a while: the coach in it is observing the progress of the young rowers of the Klaipėda Rowers’ Base. When Augustas was still a young boy and could walk, coach Liudvikas Mileška invited him to come to the base and take up rowing, but today Liudvikas cannot afford to dedicate more time to Augustas’ training. All that he can supply him with are technical suggestions and knowledge, but not more. And when one gets to know that Liudvikas also works as the manager of the whole Klaipėda Rowers’ Base, it becomes very clear that it is not easy for Augustas to get a coach.
When Augustas came back to rowing after his trauma, he had to deal with several changes. Previously he would row in team boats, which he really enjoyed; now he had to get used to rowing alone. This step required not only physical struggle, but also more dedication and motivation. In team boats, athletes would support each other during the hard moments, but now Augustas has to push his limits on his own, as well as to deal with the pain and tension. Psychological preparation, in his opinion, plays a huge role here.
He and his girlfriend started meditating: “I think it’s necessary. I believe that you have to train not only physically, but psychologically, too. Meditation helps me clear my mind and reduce the tension before every game.” Even though there is less and less time for meditation due to more intense training sessions, Augustas finds time for himself while in a boat. “This sport to me is like meditation,” he adds.
Just like any other athlete, Augustas remembers all the pre-start emotions vividly: “I get nervous. I sweat even when sitting still.” Before every start, Augustas plans his moves and spends a lot of time thinking where he should save energy and where he should go full throttle. He follows the example of other great athletes who try to visualise themselves rowing, but admits that it is sometimes exhausting: “When in the World Championships, I spent the whole night visualising myself rowing. That was too much. It was exhausting, I didn’t get much sleep and did not recover after my first start.”
Paralympic rowing, according to Augustas, is not much different from the Olympic rowing. The only difference is that the boat and the oars are shorter: everything must be done with the upper body muscles. “Well, maybe it’s a bit harder because the same upper body muscles work all the time. Before, I could distribute the load between my legs and my arms. It was painful back then, it is still painful now,” explains Augustas.
All this pain during the training sessions and tournaments has its purpose: it paves the way for rower to learn to save their strength for the next session, to work out one’s technique. Augustas’ goal is to block the pain even when he is psychologically tired, not to shorten his stroke, but to repeat the perfect one, which is long, but quick: “You hook your oars onto the water, give them a strong pull, and get ready for the next stroke quickly. All must be done neatly, no bouncing around the boat.”
Every time you meet Augustas and converse with him, you are surprised by how relaxed he is. Talking about his victories and achievements is as easy as analysing his traumas and failures. Sometimes one might get an impression that this guy is unbreakable. A tattoo on his right leg, which reminds of something from a sci-fi movie, tells a similar story. The tattoo depicts the inside of the leg: muscles, bones, and arteries; but, interestingly, they are made of metal. When you notice that, it does not surprise you at all to hear about his emotions when he found out that he got a wild card to Rio: “There was no joy. I reacted very calmly, I’d even say, coldly. Others were really happier about it than I was.” But, after a short moment of silence, Augustas admits that the chance to be in the Paralympics actually brings him joy. “Now I’m happy. This is not just a game. It’s the biggest sporting event in the world. I must prepare as well as possible, achieve as much as possible.”
Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
During the 1000 metre row Augustas finished fourth out six and managed to get into B finals. There he finished the distance in 5 minutes and 10.24 seconds, thus beating his own record. In Rio Augustas was tenth overall and he‘s certain that he‘ll do even better in his second paralympic games.
A small room, where old yet frequently used training equipment and a bench for barbell lifting stands. It has only a few small windows, but the sunrays that shine through them are enough to light up all the medals, cups, pins, letters of appreciation, commemorative flags, and any other sports award one could imagine. Some cups are covered by others, awards barely fit on the shelves. In the middle of the room sits Karolis Levickis, coach of Lithuanian goalball team and one of the most important people here, responsible for many of those shiny awards surrounding him. “I’m tired,” sighs Karolis.
From the end of the rectangular court, an athlete throws a huge ball that weighs 1.25 kilo. The ball tumbles towards the opponents’ side at the speed of 65 kilometres per hour. The opponents have less than a second to throw themselves towards the ball and block it; otherwise the former team will score. But the most important fact here is that none of the players are able to see.
This is goalball, the sports game that is gaining popularity with the blind and partially sighted people. In 24 minutes, two teams of three players each, wearing special eyewear that blocks all sight, have to throw the ball into their opponents’ goal. In order to win, athletes have to use senses rarely used in other sports to such extent. There are bells inside the ball, so they have to hear it, and the court borders and team zones are marked by a raised strip, so they have to feel it by touch.
Although the game is largely unknown in Lithuania, it is this Paralympic event that Lithuania is most famous for. Year after year, Lithuanian goalball players have been winning various awards, getting into the top spots of international ratings, and their names have been cited by their rival coaches when ironing out strategies. In the international goalball tournament in July, where a lot of strong teams participated, Lithuania became champions. To be precise, champions and runners-up, for Lithuania was represented by two teams, “Lithuania 1” and “Lithuania 2”.
For almost 12 years now, Karolis Levickis has been working as a coach of this even locally not well-known team of blind and partially sighted players. It was the Lithuanian goalball team under his supervision that won silver in the 2008 Paralympics. Karolis also worked with the six best goalball players in Lithuania, preparing them for the upcoming Rio de Janeiro Games. It is hard to believe that Karolis, who now radiates such determination to win and requires it from his players, became coach by accident. “I didn’t know anything about goalball, I hadn’t worked with physically impaired people before, so I learned it all here, by watching them play and experiencing it live,” says Karolis.
To watch the game in order to understand it is no longer a must for Karolis. The coach can tell every single mistake, playing technique, or team’s strategy from smallest details. No movement of his players goes unnoticed, none of their useful qualities remain unused. Karolis knows that currently it is hard to surprise him with strategic intricacies, so good preparation is most important. “Not only in sport, but in life, too, I am a person that has plans A, B, and C. Opponents have their secrets, at least they try to come up with them, but when you’ve been in this for a longer time, those secrets aren’t really secrets anymore,” explains Karolis.
Seeing Karolis work with the team during tournaments and training sessions, it is obvious that he is also a player, that his life is play. All Karolis’ reactions to mistakes or successful throws are emotional, and conversations with players during critical moments are inspiring and motivational. To build this sort of feeling and connection with players takes not only time but talent, too. The fact that he was once a track-and-field runner helped him. “I was a runner for ten years and I did that for the results. I ran in order to try myself, running was my life. Those seconds were my life, and I trained without getting anything back,” tells Karolis.
Coach Levickis jestingly mentions that, during his first years as goalball coach, he tried running everywhere. There were days when Karolis would run to work, then to the running training session, and later to meet his goalball team. His players would laugh when they heard Karolis opening his packed lunch. Everything changed when Karolis went to run in Japan and experienced an injury there. His rehabilitation time was devoted to goalball, which became Karolis’ main job, but devotion to this Paralympic sport had its price.
“I deprived my family of a lot. I lived with goalball, and my family and kids were put on the other shelf. Finally I understood that one day goalball may disappear, but my family will stay,” sighs Karolis. It is easy to see exhaustion and bitterness in his eyes, for his work training this team takes a lot of precious time which could be spent with his wife and two sons. Finally Karolis mentions that these could be his last Paralympic Games as coach of Lithuanian goalball team. “It can be said that, during this stage of my life, I am learning how to be a father,” adds Karolis, softly smiling.
Before Rio Karolis’ goal was is to be perfectly ready for the Paralympics and pull through the really strong group Lithuania will play in. That, in turn, meant two heavy training sessions every day, working with the elements of the game, adjustment of food supplements, and physical exercise. Karolis ensures that “our athletes don’t have weekends.” His words are sometimes stern, but they seem to always hit the spot, and the players, people of diverse characters, work their fingers to the bone for the good of the team. Karolis explains that when striving for something specific, his temper is strong, and the support, even though always nice, is not always necessary. “If I have my mind set on something, I don’t care what others say, if they support me or not,” says Karolis surely, keeping his typical tongue-in-cheek.
His team practices on the pitch of Šaltinis Goalball Club, which is used for basketball, too. When you come here it becomes painfully clear that, quite opposite to what Karolis says, some financial help for the best goalball players would be really helpful. Karolis has to plan the time of every training session, because they share this pitch with amateur basketball players. The only place where Lithuanian goalball team can train does not belong to them. Once, interested in how Lithuanians get ready for their games, American goalball players came to see their opponents here. They were amazed at what they saw: this small pitch with even smaller room for old and scarce equipment. But the national team did not have time to think about this. They had to make the best of what they have. Members of the team, although blind or partially sighted, positioned themselves quickly in this space and friendly shared whatever limited inventory they had.
Karolis‘ work format as a coach is not much different from those who work with abled people. According to him, it is only particularities. Every single one of us has desire to win and some kind of talent, he says, which is often wasted because we do not find our direction. This is very important when it comes to physically impaired, who often feel forgotten and shut themselves off the outer world. “Sometimes talent or hobby is pushed into the shade. It doesn’t matter if it’s sport or, let’s say, photography. Something may look like a girly thing to do or like a waste of time, but if we only knew how to stimulate those hobbies and activities, it would come in handy,” says Karolis and points out that what is really needed now is some sort of centre for children with disabilities, where their hobbies and activities would be cultivated.
Nowadays, most Lithuania’s goalball players find out about this sport through the Lithuanian School for Blind and Partially Sighted. This is also how all of the six players of this Paralympics team came together: Genrik Pavliukianec, Mantas Panovas, Mindaugas Suchovejus, Justas Pažarauskas, Nerijus Montvydas, and Mantvydas Brazauskis. And even though each of them have their own different experiences and stories, Karolis knows each of them well and tries to take the middle ground when communicating and training them. “When you have been in this for that many years, you’re family. And a lot of things happen in families. Sometimes we get tired of each other emotionally, but finally we miss each other and come back,” laughs Karolis.
“Firstly I’d like to take a break, and then see what happens later. I feel tired of goalball. I’d like to start everything from the very beginning, turn a new page, maybe take in children without any experience. I usually train someone who already have played something else before, so their skills have to be applied in this game,” talks Karolis of his goal. It is not hard to understand that however dear this team is for him, a wife and two sons are waiting for him, and Karolis’ family is becoming his priority.
Team members describe him as the embodiment of serenity. Justas Pažarauskas plays a very special role in the court. According to coach Levickis, Justas is hard on the opponents, for he is left-handed. His throws are hard to stop, their trajectory is different, they even sound different.
Just like most goalball players in Lithuania, Justas found out about this sport while still in school, his first training session happened in the 6th grade. “My first impression was that this sport was quite weird, especially the outfits and those puffy pants,” remembers Justas.
He lost his sight when he was 11 years old, by accident, while working the looms. “I was just a child, I didn’t know anything. I thought that I might be able to see again someday, that it’s just temporary. I had hope,” tells Justas.
After the accident, Justas still went to an ordinary school for a year, but later moved to Vilnius to study at the School for Blind and Partially Sighted. After that he got a job which he still does when he is not playing goalball. Justas is an instructor at the library for blind people.
“I try to be calm when entering the court, and if I have a feeling that another player is nervous, I give him a tap on the shoulder and convince him that we can focus and continue the game,” tells Justas. His personality is also valued by other team members. A few of them mentioned that the calm of Justas helps them concentrate. “It’s really hard to play when you’re constrained or full of negative thoughts. Then it’s time to sit on the bench,” explains Justas.
Apart from playing goalball, Nerijus is self-employed as a masseur. According to coach Levickis, his role is important, that of a sniper. The goal of this player is to enter the court, earn a point with a well-aimed throw, and come back to the bench. Coach’s work here is also important as he has to decide when to place Nerijus into the game.
Nerijus describes himself as a stubborn, persistent, and meticulous person. He has never regretted the moment back in school, when a coach invited him to a goalball practice. „I like team sports. I‘ve also tried individual disciplines, but there you fight only for yourself, and here, you fight for your friends, too,“ says Nerijus.
Nerijus went blind due to inborn ilness. „I remember colours, things, cities. Even now, if I know what this or that thing is, I can imagine its colour. But to orientate in the city is a bit harder, so my wife has to drive me everywhere,“ tells Nerijus.
Nerijus said Rio did not make him nervous at all. It seems he does not really understand the word “nervous”: “You have to think that you will fight and tear your opponents to pieces. These Games will be my third, so I don‘t burden my head with unnecessary thoughts anymore.”
Currently graduating in law at Mykolas Romeris University, Mantas Brazauskis is exceptionally sturdy in sports, too. Even though his throw is not very strong, he is irreplaceable in the centre position. But, however confident Mantas feels in the court, his life could have taken quite a different turn. “In school, I was quite a singer, I graduated from music school, and everybody liked my singing,” remembers Mantas.
Mantas is not completely blind. He distinguishes colours. A lot depends on the lighting: the more light there is in a room or outside, the better his orientation and distinction of different things. But he also needs the white cane, especially in autumn and winter. “I always carry the cane with me, so that when I accidentally bump into someone, I wouldn’t be considered a fool. People recognise the cane and get the situation,” explains Mantas.
He laughs when asked if he has any personal talismans or prejudices: “I don’t have any talismans, and when my beard is too long, I shave it. I like to spend my time peacefully and listen to music, which is a big part of my life.” Even though Mantas’ life is related to goalball, his love for music is still there. One can often notice earphones in his ears during the training sessions, as well as a playlist titled “Music for Sport” in his MP3 player.
“I dream of gold before every single game. But this time our opponents in the group are possible medalists of the Paralympic Games. This is a suicide group, and we have to somehow get past it,” Mantas said of the Rio Paralympics.
Bright red Manchester United t-shirt and a fullcap with an identical logo. That is how you will notice Mindaugas among other players. A fan of rap, hip-hop, and football: that describes him best.
“I’ve tried a lot of things. Judo, track-and-field, chess, but I liked goalball the most because it’s a team sport and you can all fight for each other,” says Mindaugas. He can play any position in the court, and outside of it, he raps and creates music together with fellow team member Mantas Panovas.
When he was born, Mindaugas could see, although poorly. Now he can only distinguish darkness from light, and that, Mindaugas says, is a lot. “When I wake up in the morning I can see that the sun is shining. If I were to one day lose that, too, life would be even harder,” says Mindaugas calmly.
These Paralympics were the first ones for Mindaugas. He says that it is a dream coming true. Even though he admits that before the games he thought of medals, the very fact of playing in the Paralympics made Mindaugas happy. “We can start dreaming of gold when we start playing. You cannot think about it right away, there is a long road to walk,” he admitted.
“Unbreakable machine” is how coach Levickis describes this player. Usually, Mantas Panovas sits alone in the dressing room. Silent and focused, he spends a lot of time preparing for the match psychologically.
Goalball became a part of Mantas’ life in 2007 when he was studying at the Lithuanian Education Centre for Blind and Partially Sighted. Before that, Mantas did track-and-field, but once upon a time a geography teacher, who was also a coach of the school’s goalball team, came up to him and offered him to join the team. “At first it was a bit scary, because the ball is not light. Sometimes I had to take on really painful throws, but time passed and I got used to it,” says Mantas.
Strength is this player’s exclusive quality. Mantas is fast, well prepared physically, and, when focused, can play very well. His throws are among the strongest in the team. Before every game he spends a lot of time imagining situations and the overall game process. He says he sometimes even dreams of goalball. “Very often I play goalball in my dreams. Sometimes I win, sometimes I lose, but it is very realistic. This sport has become part of my life and now even part of my subconscious,” explains Mantas.
He can only see with the corners of his eyes, there’s only flicker in the middle. When looking around or searching for specific things, Mantas is using various angles, but sometimes it is not enough for recognising people. “Once I and my wife were cleaning up at the cemetery, and I thought that we were alone there. When I went to throw out the trash and started walking up the stairs, I saw a person coming towards me. I thought it was my wife, so I asked her where she’s going, and all I got from her was ‘none of your business.’ Apparently, it wasn’t my wife,” laughs Mantas.
He is the old-timer of the national team, playing goalball since the Independence of Lithuania; he is also the loudest, filling the court with his jokes. That is Genrik. As the oldest and the one who played in four Paralympics, he helps the team in the court as well as emotionally. Genrik’s experience is invaluable in both offence and defence.
“Once I walked into the gym and saw older students rolling a ball. It seemed boring. But I became interested during my next visit. I liked it because it’s a team sport. I couldn’t play basketball because of my sight, so I chose goalball,” Genrik remembers his getting acquainted with goalball. He started playing goalball when it was still known as blind hockey and played not on special ground, but on wooden floor. Eyewearwas different than the one players use today, as it used to be made of fabric.
At the moment Genrik can see very little. Strength of sight in a healthy person is 100%, and Genrik’s is only 1,5%. “I don’t know how to explain this to you. If a thing is one or two meters away from me, maybe I will be able to see it. But if it’s further away, I cannot describe it,” says Genrik. His eye nerve has been atrophying since the early days of his childhood, so his disability is still progressing. “When I’ll be old, I’ll be a real grandpa. Blind,” laughs Genrik.
Genrik thinks of himself as a stubborn person, and it looks like this feature will be useful, as these were probably his last Paralympics. Nevertheless, when asked if he dreamt of medals, Genrik answered in his typical manner that he does not exaggerate it: “Win, lose, life will go on anyway. All I know is that I really want to win.”
Taking a direct hit from a goalball hurts, but losing hurts more. In the Beijing Paralympics, a silly mistake left medals out of Lithuanian hands; before Rio, it seemed, there was no time for mistakes. For Genrik and coach Levickis, the old-timers of the team, these Paralympics may have been the last ones, and coming back without medals after a series of victories in various championships and tournaments would have been disappointing. However, the players were well-prepared and they had been winning for a while now, so the victory felt very close. “If everything will go as planned, our team will be focused and play like we always do, I guarantee you medals,” ensured Genrik.
A striking contrast could be easily seen between the mood of the team during the training sessions and the atmosphere that the media shrowded them with before the games. After so many successful years and tournaments, everybody was ready to put the medals on the necks of Karolis’ team ahead of time, and, even though it added a lot of confidence, such praise could have also made the situation more difficult. “Before London, everybody thought we’ll just go there and bring gold, but it doesn’t really go that way,” explained Mantas Panovas emotionally.
Hard training sessions and purposeful preparation for Rio: those were the thoughts of Karolis’ team, and, according to Panovas, there was no other way but this. Before the games he told us that: “There’s no need to rush. We have to work towards victory one step at a time. Most think that we just need to stretch out our hand and pick the gold medal. That’s not what’s going to happen. What awaits us in Rio are a tough group and difficult matches. We have to be prepared for everything, but, if we win the quarterfinal, I think we’ll be okay.”
Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
Lithuanian goalball team managed to get out of their group without losses and became the first Lithuanian goalball team to win gold medals in the paralympic games.
The leader of the team, Genrikas, is retiring from the sport, while long-term coach Karolis is still unsure whether he’ll continue training the national goalball team.