2021 in Photos: amazing stories from triumphant Paralympics athletes
After being delayed due to the pandemic, the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics finally arrived on August 24, 2021. Its athletes are among some of the world’s most inspirational people.
Although no one was able to be there in person to witness these great human feats, we watched from afar and amassed some of these athletes’ awe-inspiring stories.
The swimmer did the incredible at 2021’s Paralympics at Tokyo. He won his fourth gold medal at the games in the freestyle, butterfly and backstroke events. He also picked up two medals in Rio in 2016 and three at the London 2012 Olympic. All without both his arms.
The Chinese Paralympic competitor started swimming in 2010 when he was 13, after a freak electrical accident as a child left him without his upper limbs. He has to start the backstroke races clenching onto a piece of material attached to the starting block, as he can’t hold on.
The 30-year-old really pushed himself in 2021, achieving his gold medals with either setting world or Paralympic records. He set a world record in the 50m backstroke and then set a new Games record by recording a time of 30.31s in the freestyle.
Although this was Zheng's final race at the Tokyo Paralympics, he did his country incredibly proud. Zheng said: 'I went all out with no regrets as this is my last race at Tokyo 2020. I think this was one of my best races ever.' In fact, his fourth medal in 2021 marked China's 500th summer Paralympics Gold since the 1984 New York Games. Zheng Tao is an inspiration.
Canadian Ross Wilson is one of the world’s best para-cyclists in the C1 classification: riders of which use a seated start, have asymmetric power distribution and have balance issues. The incredible athlete has had no issues, however, in collecting medals. In the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio he swept up a double silver and then three golds in the 2017 World Track Championships in Los Angeles.
(Photo: Ross Wilson Twitter @88rossco)
Alberta-born, bag-pipe playing Wilson was diagnosed with Charcot–Marie–Tooth disease, a hereditary neurological condition that affected his nerves and muscles. His family had had no idea that Ross had medical issues for a long time. After losing an awful lot of weight, he had decided to reward himself by buying a bike and staying active. His love for track had only just begun, but he would need an awful lot of determination to continue the sport with what was about to come.
(Photo: Ross Wilson)
The para-cyclist was preparing for the world championships in Switzerland in 2015 when he was hit by a car. Wilson was cycling around 30km per hour and, without warning, a car backed out of a parking space, hitting him and sending him flying through the back window. He broke his clavicle, some ribs and vertebrae. Incredibly, three months later he was back competing in the Toronto 2015 Parapan Am Games.
During those games at Toronto, it seemed all was finally lost for Wilson. He crashed during a race and suffered an injury to his shoulder, receiving 100 stitches and forcing him to leave the sport that had motivated him for so long. Ross Wilson’s perseverance is nothing short of extraordinary and, just a year later, he was picking up the silver medals at the Paralympics, setting new World and Paralympic records.
Not only did she win the gold for team GB in the women’s S4 100m freestyle at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but she broke the word record while doing it. The talented swimmer performed incredibly after she was unable to compete at the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games due to a shoulder injury related to her condition.
Kearney, from Nottingham, was born with cerebral palsy (spastic diplegia) and developed generalised dystonia, a progressive neurological movement disorder, in her mid teens. She was further diagnosed with Scoliosis in 2019 but, determined to study, she graduated with a BSc (Hons) degree in physiology from Manchester Metropolitan University, where she is now studying for a master's degree in human physiology. She is Patron of Dystonia UK and, despite her setbacks, has gone on to do the impossible and win gold in a very physically challenging race.
From the age of eight, Kearney began swimming and competing in national competitions. She got the inspiration from her family, “I would go to watch my mum and brother when they used to go swimming and the coach asked me if I wanted to give it a try. I really enjoyed it and I've carried on ever since.”
After winning the gold, she said, “I’ve got so many people to thank. Firstly my mum. After Rio I was told for the second time I’d never be able to swim again because of my shoulder physical limitation and for me at that point I didn’t even want to try to swim again. And if it wasn’t for her forcing me to swim again, not to this level, but she just wanted me to know that I could physically swim. If it wasn’t for her, I would not have pushed and being able to get back to this level is something that no one ever thought would be possible.”
The Egyptian certainly caught the world’s attention in 2021's Paralympics. At ten years old, he was involved in a train accident that took away both his arms. That did not stop the Paralympian, from Kafr Saad in north-eastern Egypt, doing the things a kid his age should do.
In an interview with CNN, the inspiring amputee said of his childhood, ”In our village, we could only play, at that time, table tennis and soccer - that's why I played both. It was logic to play soccer first due to my case; then I played table tennis as a challenge.” So from 13 years old he picked up the racket. First, under his armpit and then in his mouth.
"It was quite difficult playing table tennis after the accident," Hamadtou recalled. "I had to practice hard for three consecutive years on a daily basis. At the beginning, people were amazed and surprised seeing me playing. They encouraged and supported me a lot and they were very proud of my willing, perseverance and determination.”
Today Hamadtou is a world-class Paralympian player with an astounding technique. He tosses the ball in the air with his feet, then hits it using the racket placed in his mouth. The 48 year old said, "I believe that nothing is impossible, as long as you work hard. This is the message I would like to send to people.” Message received.
Ukrainian table tennis Paralympic legend, Didukh won Gold in the 2016 Rio Paralympics in the doubles category and took home a silver in 2021 in the singles. After surviving cancer, he continued to keep his morale and play, even after the disease took one of his legs.
Prior to his amputation he had played table tennis internationally. With their father having encouraged both his sons to play, they became incredibly talented athletes. His elder sibling, Oleksandr Didukh, represented Ukraine in table tennis at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.
His brother has always been there to support him every inch of the way while Viktor earned gold medals at European and World Championships. ”I cannot tell you how much I owe him (Oleksandr), I owe him everything," stated the Paralympic Champion in 2016 after the Paralympics in Rio. "He deserves the medal!"
He runs the Viktor Didukh Table Tennis Academy, which holds training camps for Para table tennis players in the Lviv region of Ukraine. He said of the project, “The idea was borrowed from China. There are many such academies there. I tried to get sponsors involved but never did. I did everything at my own expense. Everything that I won at the  Paralympics, I invested in it. This is neither a business nor a social project. We work without budgetary support.”
More fondly known as Bebe Vio, Beatrice won gold for Italy at the Rio 2016 Paralympics for wheelchair fencing. A huge feat - and the world was stunned as the 24 year old Italian won. With no arms and no legs.
The fencer made history and the world was in shock as to how this young lady could achieve so much with such a disability. She continued to stun audiences and at the 2020 Paralympics, regained her title to win the gold medal again.
After she beat Chinese Zhou Jingjing, Bebe revealed just how difficult it was for her this time around. ”It was so hard because the measure was different between the other matches we did together before. It was the same final as in Rio (2016 Paralympic Games), but today was a completely different kind of match, with different techniques,” Bebe Vio explained to the Olympic Information Services (OIS). "We've fenced each other quite a lot, but today was so hard, surely the hardest match that I've ever had with her.”
Since the age of five, Beatice has held the foil. When Bebe was eleven years old she contracted a severe meningitis that caused her the loss of both arms and legs. She also suffered several face and body scars. She endured three months of intense rehabilitation and demanded to be returned to her favourite sport, saying “Do something, give me something, but I want to go back to practice fencing!” A special prosthetic was designed for her and she defied all odds, turning a severe impairment into a special gift.
Winning gold at 2021’s Paralympics, Lekhara is now ranked fifth in the world for the women’s 10m air rifle standing. Her first appearance at the Paralympics, the athlete certainly made an entrance, becoming the first woman from India to take home a gold in the history of the Paralympic Games.
Not only did she win, she also broke the Paralympic record and equalled the world record. She said of the win, "I can't describe this feeling, I'm feeling like I'm on top of the world. It's unexplainable.”
Lekhara is a law student who took up shooting three years after a car accident at the age of ten left her paralysed below the waist. The spinal cord injuries didn’t stop her from taking her hobby to the next level.
"Summer vacations [in] 2015, my father took me to the shooting range. I shot some shots and they were pretty OK. So I just started as a hobby, and here I am," Lekhara said. She continues to take it in her stride: "I just think that I have to follow the process. Beyond that, I try not to think about the score or the medal tally,” she said of her winning tactics.
Three time Paralympian, Jhajharia took home the silver at 2021’s Paralympics. Despite him breaking his own record, he couldn’t hold on to the top spot which he earned at the Rio games in 2016. He also won the gold at Athens in 2004.
After winning the medal in Tokyo, Jhajharia explained to Sports Today just how important the silver was to him. ”My father is not in this world anymore. It was his dream that I win a hat-trick of medals. Today, wherever he is, I am sure he is watching me and I have been able to fulfil his dream.”
His parents took care of all his needs, even sending him farm-grown lentils while he was away. He also had unconditional support from his wife, who was also an athlete but gave it up in order to support her husband. In 2017, he became the first para-athlete to win the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award, the highest sporting award.
Jhajharia is missing his left hand, which had to be amputated after a freak accident when he was just eight years old. He was climbing a tree when he touched a live cable by mistake, which was hidden and covered with leaves. He was electrocuted and, despite doctor’s best efforts, the hand could not be saved. He said later, “I remember playing with able-bodied kids when I was young, and they would say ‘why is he wasting his time’. The challenge for me began even before I stepped on to the playing field. My fight has been of changing mindsets, of proving people wrong.”
Brazil’s Mariana D'Andrea took gold with her third lift of 137kg and earning the first Para powerlifting gold for Brazil. She said, “I feel a lot of emotion and a lot of gratitude in becoming the first-ever Brazilian powerlifting Paralympic gold medallist.”
The athlete completely broke down when she realised she would take the gold medal home. Although she recognised that, until that moment, she had completely kept her cool and did what she had trained to do, saying “I knew that this was going to be a difficult competition from the beginning, but for six years I have prepared, and today I didn’t do anything different [from my training].”
According to the International Paralympic Committee, the Brazilian’s impairment derives from her short stature due to cognitive issues from birth. Both her parents and her coach always believed in her and encouraged her from the age of 16, to take up the sport, which she finally completely fell in love with.
The young powerlifter has a few words to share with the world. Her motto and philosophy is: “Strength and faith. No pain, no gain.” A motto that will hopefully inspire generations of Paralympians to come.