Passionate Player Heads to Paralympics
The London Olympics have wrapped up, but the 2012 Paralympics – which features athletes with physical disabilities – are set to begin on August 29. It will be the first time at these games for a 34-year-old Chilean native who has been training in Austin.
Francisca Mardones spins her wheelchair, raises her tennis racket and slams it against a ball at the Circle C Tennis Club. On the other side of the court, her trainer Fernando Velasco misses Mardones’ power-packed return.
Since she was five years old, Mardones dreamed of going to the Olympics. But on Nov. 17, 1999, Hurricane Lenny stormed through the Virgin Islands, where Mardones was working at the time. She got caught in the storm, fell down a landslide and broke her back.
“I was there two days, alone,” Mardones says. “I couldn’t move because of the pain. I start to breathe and everything hurts a lot. How can I go out from here?”
Mardones was finally rescued and then flown back to Chile, where multiple spinal surgeries and pain medications left her bed-ridden and mute. But Mardones fought back. Every day for four years, she waged a quiet war against life-long paralysis. The pain, she says, became her friend.
“I don’t fight anymore with that because if I fight with my pain, I can’t move. I can’t do anything,” Mardones says. “But it’s my friend, so now I can live with the pain every day without thinking about that.”
At the end of her rehabilitation, Mardones was able to walk short distances using a cane. Shortly thereafter, she discovered a passion for the sport that would bring her fully back to life.
“I can’t describe how happy I was, when I hit the ball for the first time,” she says. “That’s the thing I want. I’m living again. I’m taking my life back.”
Twelve years later, Mardones is the 25th-ranked wheelchair tennis player in the world. She’s training five hours a day for the upcoming 2012 London Paralymics. Mardones views the games with her trademark optimism, predicting that while this is her first Paralympics, it won’t be her last.
Under the mid-day sun, her upper arms ripple with muscles as she wheels and spins herself across the court. Her returns are quick and fluid.
“I’m working hard for London and I will keep going for Rio,” Mardones says. “You never know what happens in the future.
For Mardones, that future may include her first Olympic medal.