Despite her suffering, Vervoort's not done with life yet

Above: Belgium's Marieke Vervoort rolling her way to a silver medal in the 400m T52 final. She wants to educate the world about euthanasia, which is legal in her country. Chinese gold medallist Li Junsheng, silver medallist Daniel Dias of Brazil, and
Belgium's Marieke Vervoort rolling her way to a silver medal in the 400m T52 final. She wants to educate the world about euthanasia, which is legal in her country.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Chinese gold medallist Li Junsheng, silver medallist Daniel Dias of Brazil, and bronze medallist Moises Fuentes Garcia of Colombia on the podium after the 100m breaststroke SB4. The 16-year-old Li took up swimming only four years ago.
Chinese gold medallist Li Junsheng, silver medallist Daniel Dias of Brazil, and bronze medallist Moises Fuentes Garcia of Colombia on the podium after the 100m breaststroke SB4. The 16-year-old Li took up swimming only four years ago.PHOTO: REUTERS

RIO DE JANEIRO • Sometimes it was hard to listen, sometimes it was impossible not to laugh.

And, by the time Marieke Vervoort was done, everyone inside the press room at the Olympic Aquatics Centre on Sunday had a different perspective on life after spending an hour contemplating what it means to die.

It was one of the rawest press conferences that anyone will ever attend. It was also one of the most enriching.

That was how Vervoort, who wanted to set the record straight following reports that she was planning to kill herself after the Rio Paralympics, wanted it.

The Belgian wheelchair athlete showed her captive audience her silver medal from Saturday's T52 400m and revealed the motto that keeps her going. "Believe you can!" she shouted. "Yes, you can!"

Vervoort's race on Saturday was dominated by the chilling possibility that she might be gone for ever in a fortnight.

However, while the 37-year-old signed euthanasia papers in 2008 because of the relentless pain of living with an incurable and degenerative spinal condition, she has no plans to say goodbye yet.

She wants to educate the world about euthanasia, which is legal in Belgium.

"I'm still enjoying every little moment. When the moment comes when I have more bad days than good days, then I have my euthanasia papers, but the time is not there yet," she said.

Vervoort was 15 when she was diagnosed with a rare progressive muscle condition that resulted in paraplegia.

There are times when she cannot eat because of her suffering. The cold winters in Belgium are bad for her. She loves training in the warmth of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and wants to live there.

A Paralympic 100m gold medallist and 200m silver medallist in the 2012 London Games, her silver in Rio caps a distinguished career in a sport that she loves. This is her final Paralympics.

Next comes trying to appreciate her life off the track. Vervoort has a bucket list: She wants to go skydiving, fly in an F-16 fighter jet, open a museum and compete in a rally race.

"After the Paralympics, when I quit, I'm going to enjoy every little moment in my life and I'm going to put more energy in my family and friends, which I couldn't do with top sports because I had to train every day," she said.

"Money means nothing to me. But I am a rich person. I want people to remember me as the lady who is also laughing. And, when I am suffering, that I am still looking at the good things."

On Sunday, China claimed another 13 gold medals, including four in the pool, to surge to 39 golds at the top of the medal standings - 16 more than second-placed Britain and 21 more than Ukraine.

Teenager Li Junsheng beat local favourite Daniel Dias, who had 18 medals going into the event, to win the 100m breaststroke SB4.

The 16-year-old touched the wall in 1min 35.96sec, just 17 hundredths of a second ahead. Colombia's Moises Fuentes Garcia clinched bronze in 1:37.40.

Dias, who was born with congenital malformation of his arms and right leg, said he was surprised by Li's performance but added that his rival was a deserving winner.

Said the 28-year-old Dias: "I confess... The Chinese surprised me, and all of us. China are also showing the world that they are very strong and we have to lift our game."

Li was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was one and took up swimming in 2012.

China also won three in athletics, two each in table tennis and powerlifting, and one apiece in shooting and archery.

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, XINHUA

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 13, 2016, with the headline 'Despite her suffering, Vervoort's not done with life yet'. Print Edition | Subscribe