2016 Paralympic Games

One-man gold rush as Dias eyes history

Brazilian Daniel Dias winning the men's 200m freestyle S5 on Thursday. When asked if he wanted to be the Paralympic counterpart of Michael Phelps, he said: "I want to build my own legacy. But I'm happy to be compared to a great athlete."
Brazilian Daniel Dias winning the men's 200m freestyle S5 on Thursday. When asked if he wanted to be the Paralympic counterpart of Michael Phelps, he said: "I want to build my own legacy. But I'm happy to be compared to a great athlete."PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Brazilian swimmer has 16 Paralympic medals and could break the men's record haul of 23

RIO DE JANEIRO • Brazil's star Paralympic swimmer Daniel Dias tore off to a gold-medal start in Rio, but do not call him another Michael Phelps - Dias is busy writing his own name in history.

With a gold on Thursday in the 200m freestyle S5, Dias, who was born with congenital malformation of his arms and right leg, now has 16 medals and is could become one of the most decorated Paralympians of all time.

The 28-year-old delighted the raucous Brazilian home crowd by winning in 2min 27.88sec. American Roy Perkins was second in 2:38.56 and Britain's Andrew Mullen took bronze in 2:40.65.

What is scariest for his opponents, though, is that he has eight more events to go.

And that is where the comparisons with Phelps come in. The US swimmer - the most decorated Olympian in any sport - retired at the close of the Rio Olympics last month with a haul of 28 medals, 23 of them gold.

Dias is catching up, but said he has his own story to tell.

"I'm Daniel Dias and I want to build my own legacy. But I'm happy to be compared to a great athlete," he told AFP.

It is possible that Dias will go all the way in Rio, reaching 24 medals. That tally would take him past the 23-medal record for Paralympic male swimmers, held by Australian Matthew Cowdrey.

If Dias competes again at Tokyo in four years, he would even have a chance to overtake Phelps.

"I never think about this," he said.

"That's true. I just try to do my best and to swim well. The medal is the consequence of that work."

Dias became Brazil's most successful Paralympic athlete during the London 2012 Games, where he won six golds.

Coming up next for him in Rio are the 50m and 100m freestyle, 50m butterfly, 100m breaststroke, 50m backstroke and three relay events. They are likely to be the hottest tickets in Brazil.

After an evening's work, it was back to the Athletes' Village and bed for Dias - and the medal went with him. "You don't want to let go of it," he said.

Dias was born in Sao Paulo state on May 28, 1988, and right away his mother Raquel Dias knew something was wrong.

She recalled "crying without knowing why" right after the delivery, she wrote on the athlete's website.

"Later they told us that our son had been born with no hands or feet," she remembered, although he does have one leg.

He discovered swimming at 16, inspired by Paralympic swimmer Clodoaldo Silva, who has his own medal collection from Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London and lit the cauldron during Rio's opening ceremony on Wednesday.

Having taken to the pool, Dias' life did not suddenly become easier. He had much suffering to overcome and prejudice, including the teasing by fellow students who he remembers "touching me to see if I was real."

But he did find his place, first in the swimming pool and now in Brazilians' hearts.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 10, 2016, with the headline 'One-man gold rush as Dias eyes history'. Print Edition | Subscribe