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Ex-gymnast who turned tragedy into opportunity

Video: Matthew Mirabelli

Vladyslava Kravchenko will make Maltese sporting history when she steps into the pool at the Rio Paralympics starting in 10 days’ time. 

Four years ago Vladyslava Kravchenko was watching a feature documentary about the London Summer Paralympics and was inspired.

She vowed there and then that she would take part in the next edition at Rio – without even having a particular sport in mind.

But in 10 days’ time, the 25-year-old will be competing for Malta as the country’s first ever female swimmer at the Games and the first female Paralympian representing the country since 1980.

A former gymnast, Ms Kravchenko suffered a spinal cord injury after a lighting structure fell on her during a party in Qawra back in September 2008. She was told she would never walk again.

However, this did not stop her from learning to drive, moving into her own place, qualifying as a chartered accountant and eventually taking up swimming, with a training regimen of up to two hours a day.

“I was emotionally, physically and psychologically drained after four years in and out of hospital, but when I saw the feature on Paralympians I was so inspired that I wanted to be there for the next edition,” she said on Friday during a training session at the national pool.

Since she was already swimming as part of her rehab programme, she decided it would be her sport. She was introduced to Simon Zammit, her first swimming coach.

“He was the answer to my prayers. He would carry me in his arms in and out of the water until I was strong enough and could do that myself.”

When you’re in hospital and the only things you can do are move your eyes and think, you think a lot about how to make yourself better and gain independence

The accident at the party had changed Ms Kravchenko’s life. And then swimming transformed it all over again.

“When you’re in hospital and the only things you can do are move your eyes and think, you think a lot about how to make yourself better and gain independence.

“Sport has made me change an adversity into something inspiring. It made me stronger physically, but also mentally, and it definitely helped me gain confidence.”

Ms Kravchenko has already taken part in the European and World Championships for Paralympic swimming and has also been appointed a youth ambassador of Para Sport by the European Paralympic Committee.

Asked about her biggest challenge, she quoted one of her favourite sportsmen, Sergey Bubka, a former Ukrainian pole vaulter, who said that the biggest challenge was to overcome oneself. Once you overcome yourself, you will win over everything else, she added.

Being the only Maltese Paralympian taking part in this summer’s competition, she hopes that in four years’ time, the local team heading to the Paralympics Games will be larger.

The Paralympics are separate from the Special Olympics, which is the world’s largest sports organisation for children and adults with intellectual disabilities.

Malta has taken part in eight Paralympic Games, making its debut in Rome in 1960. After 21 years of absence, Malta returned to the games in 2008 in Beijing and Ms Kravchenko is “honoured” to continue the legacy this year.

Her “partner in crime” and coach Isabelle Zarb, from the Aquatic Sports Association, also hopes to see more people take up swimming as seriously as Ms Kravchenko.

She believes that seeing the young woman swim will encourage others with less severe disabilities to take up the sport.

“Swimming is the best sport for people with physical disabilities as they can remove their prosthetic arms and legs, or wheelchair, and just be themselves in the pool.

“And that is what prospective coaches have to do – look beyond the wheelchair and other mobility aides, and concentrate on the human being in front of them.”

Ms Zarb has come a long way herself, as despite teaching swimming for more than 15 years she had never coached people with physical difficulties until two years ago.

“Initially I was apprehensive, but now I just love it,” she says, smiling.

The same year that she was approached to coach the young woman, Ms Zarb went to Istanbul for a training camp for swimmers with physical disabilities and she soon realised that all she had to do was adapt what she knew to Ms Kravchenko’s abilities.

“It is something I do all the time – whether I’m teaching a kid or a 68-year-old. So we started experimenting with strokes and breathing, and considering that she cannot use her core muscles (around the abdomen) and legs, she does an amazing job.

“When I tried to do the fly stroke using only the muscles that she can use, I didn’t manage to do what she does.”

The Maltese Paralympian will have tough competition, because most competitors in her heat can use their core muscles and some were even swimmers before they were injured.

Ms Kravchenko will be competing in the 100-metre breast stroke, the 50-metre fly and the 50-metre back.

She is grateful to several people who have supported her and contributed to another milestone in local Para Sport, namely: the Aquatic Sports Association, Sport ­Malta and the Flexi Training Scheme, the Sport Parliamentary Secretariat and the Social Solidarity Ministry, the Malta Paralympic Committee, her coaches Mr Zammit and Ms Zarb, her mother, colleagues, family, friends and sponsors.

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