There are few people in this world, whose stories when you read, makes you want to meet them. And when you meet them, you just don’t want to let them go. Terezinha Guilhermina is one such. She, the holder of the title of fastest woman Paralympian on earth, is also the possessor of the most infectious laugh and a killer attitude that I know of. My desire to meet her was for the former reason and to not let her go was for the latter.
And so it was arranged on the day after the end of the Paralympic Games in London, by the most gracious Fernanda Villas Boas, the Press Relations Officer for the Brazilian team.
The entire Brazilian team, in their yellow and green jerseys was beginning to gather in front of the Straford International station to meet the Press. It was a nice game of spot the athlete for one who had watched the Games with fervent madness. ‘Look there’s Daniel Dias with six gold medals hung around him’, I squealed in excitement. ‘Oh! And that’s Alan Oliveira, the guy who upstaged the Great Oscar Pistorious in the 200m race for double amputees’.
And then, I spot her. The great Terezinha Guillerhmina, something of a Paralympic legend. A multiple gold medalist from Beijing and London in the T-11 category in the 100m, 200m and 400m events.: A category for completely blind runners who run with a guide.
I whisked off Terezinha along with Mario, the Portuguese translator from the rest of the Brazilian team who were clearly the toast of the press and public alike for their stupendous performance in the London games.
Her spunky attitude is evident from the very first sentence she utters while recounting her childhood growing up with total lack of sight. ‘At first, I started seeing shadows and thought that was how everybody saw. Only when I started banging into people and doors, did they realize that there was a problem with my vision. Gradually I could see nothing.’
School, then, was not very easy as she had no massive support from the teachers who largely wrote on the blackboard, which she could not see. ‘Since I had to write something in my notebook to keep the teacher happy, I wrote imaginary stuff. No wonder I failed twice in the same class’, she says with a naughty smile. It wasn’t until a sensitive teacher came along who read out lessons to her that she made to the next grade.
Terezinha has her older sister to thank for what she is today. When given a choice between swimming and running at her high school, she petitioned he sister for running shoes. It was like asking for a luxury item from a family of twelve siblings that lived in abject poverty in a small tenement without electricity. If not for her sister who got her those shoes, she would never have made it to the Olympic track. Why did she not take up swimming, I ask, out of curiosity? ‘I need a pool to swim. I can run anywhere’, she says with her characteristic verve.
Naysayers were aplenty, who so much as scoffed at her, when she first declared she wanted to run competitively. ‘I will be the best in the world, wait till you see’, she told herself and the numerous doubting Thomases. So did she go back to them and stick it in their faces after she won her first Olympic medal, I ask. She laughs and I know that something very spunky was about to come. ‘No. I just told them to learn to dream as I did.’ How's that for an answer!
Terezinha, first competed in the Paralympic Games in Athens in 2004, where she won the bronze in the 400m event. She bettered her take home tally to a gold, silver and a bronze in 200m,100m and 400m respectively in the Beijing games in 2008. The T-11 category is one of the toughest, in that, athletes run with a guide runner joined at the hands, much like a three-legged race. The guide’s job is to assist the athlete with verbal instructions to cross the finish line. The rules also require the guide to break the leash just before the finish to let the athlete cross before him. Needless to say, it requires complete trust between the two as well as great communication,which is sometimes difficult if the crowd is blowing the roof off, as they did in London.
She came to the London Games with one goal: Gold in all the three events. Gold in 200m was already in her bag, it was 2 more to go, when disaster struck. Her guide, Guilherme Soares de Santana, fell before the finish line in the 400m race, which was nothing short of heart-breaking. When I saw the race on the T.V, apart from being devastated myself, I wondered what this meant for her last but most crucial 100m race and more importantly for the relationship between the two. Would they be able to put this behind them and move on?
Sport is an incredible teacher for building many enduring, life-enriching characteristics, chief among them being ‘Pick yourself up, dust down and move on’ or run, in this case. The very next day, Terezinha stepped on to the 100m track, waving and smiling complete with her funky eye-mask and beaded hair in Brazil colors, not just to win the race but smash the world record at 12.01 seconds. In what was a very poignant moment, she then embraced her guide and held his hands up asking the crowd to cheer him on as they both cried. The audience responded with a well -deserved standing ovation, which brought a tear to many an eye that evening. It was quickly followed by an impromptu Samba by the Brazilian clean-sweep(they won silver and bronze too), true to the Brazilian philosophy, that rejects anything tear-sodden and believes that life is one big beach party!
I ask her who her role models are, expecting someone on the lines of Florence Griffith Joyner or Marion Jones. Pat comes a strong reply ‘Pele and Ayrton Senna! I am always amazed by women athletes who have male role models, even more when they’re out of their own discipline.
It is perhaps easy to see why one would have wanted to carry on chatting with Terezinha until a thousand dusks or more. But the team could not have a photograph with their legend missing, could they? So, she must join them now. I had time for one last question.
Is there any desire that she has not yet fulfilled and would like to? ‘Yes’, she says. ‘To be a mum’.