This is typical of Diego’s natural inclination towards the positive and normal. After ten minutes of chit-chat in grand café The Colour Kitchen on the High Tech Campus Eindhoven only his slightly jerky grasp of his iced-tea glass betrays that Diego has quadriplegia: (partial) paralysis of all four limbs, as the result of a spinal cord injury.
No ‘boohoo’ stories, no self-pity. Nonetheless, I'm curious about the tragic event in his life. After all, aren't the beauty and consolation of sport precisely what you should be discussing with a disabled athlete? After all, we live in a universe that often doesn't work the way we'd like it to. A universe that offers plenty of pleasure and happiness, but also inevitably pain, disappointment and sadness. Sport is one of the most noble and uplifting human inventions with the capacity to offer beauty and consolation. So, actually, isn't a student with quadriplegia exactly the sort of person who would do well to seek an escape in sport?
Diego Parrondo Ojanguren | Athletics | TU/e | Breda | Spain | Paralympics Tokyo 2020 | Pre-Master's student of Operation Management and Logistics | aged 23
Diego carries on chatting about another great passion of his: cars. Here too, his father subtlely yet successfully brainwashed him, turning him into a lover of vintage automobiles. “When I was fifteen together we bought a 1982 Volkswagen Beetle and completely restored it. A super cool process. My infatuation with vintage cars developed into pure love. I love cars with character, with cojones; a car with balls. A car should roar, radiate power and, above all, have style. That's why I adore American classics from the sixties and seventies, especially the Ford Mustangs. One day I hope to drive in one of my own.”
With his amor of cars, it was only natural that he should study Automotive. As Diego’s father was already working and living in the Netherlands, the then eighteen-year old-adventurer narrowed his world view to the Netherlands and his eye fell on Eindhoven. But instead of taking a trip to Eindhoven in a Ford Mustang, Diego set off with a one year delay for Breda in a wheelchair to live with his father. The universe demonstrated its merciless nature. “The day I got my driver's license was the same day that I broke a spinal vertebrae when I dived awkwardly into the swimming pool. And it was only two days before I was due to move to the Netherlands.” An example of tragic irony that even Alanis Morissette couldn't have thought up.
The accident paralyzed his body from his chest down to his toes. “I hadn't actually ever heard of paraplegia, nor of what it entails. My first reaction was, ‘That'll heal and then I'll go home’. No depression, no panic. Also, the specialists didn't make any definitive pronouncements - so I was hoping that once all the swelling disappeared, the feeling would return. Only after six months did I realize, ‘I might have this for the rest of my life’. Nothing working, except for one chest muscle, my shoulders, upper arms and parts of both forearms. On one hand I have only my thumb, but that is enough for WhatsApp and PlayStation,” he says with a laugh.
Behind his nonchalant smile, I search for some kind of weariness with life, but it isn't there. Diego isn't acting the boy next door, that's simply what he is. “Crying and self-pity don't help. What's done is done. In the hospital in Toledo there were several patients with paraplegia. Some of them had more bodily functions still working, but others were worse off. I saw children who had been born paralyzed. Then it makes you think, ‘I was lucky enough to have eighteen years of being able to play soccer, tennis and basketball.’ Of course I was frustrated, but it is what it is.” He has a talent for relativity that would confound even Einstein. Count your blessings, discover new blessings and move on.
“Since the accident I have actually gained a more positive outlook on life; I enjoy the little things more. I make connections between what I can do and activities and hobbies. I've been lucky, for example, that my ability to think is still intact. Although I can no longer tinker with cars myself, I can still give valuable advice and instructions. Or take soccer, every weekend I watch four or five matches and focus on the tactical part. Perhaps in the future I can coach a team. A year after my accident I got my disabled driver's license and hopefully in three months' time I'll have my Dutch driver's license. That's another step towards making me less dependent on others. The trick is to stay busy and the small things also help me do that.”
But for the most part there's just one thing that keeps Diego busy: sport. “I wanted to get sport back into my life. I saw it as the ideal way to rehabilitate. I didn't think of sport as a distraction, but it is also that. Because when I am training, the only thing on my mind is sport. Not things like, ‘I can't move my leg’. After a couple of months I started playing tennis and table tennis, going swimming and cycling in a handbike. Obviously it was good for me physically, but it also made me realize that more was possible than I had thought. When you play sport, you stop thinking in terms of limitations and start thinking in terms of possibilities. That offers comfort and hope.”
Diego soon discovered the adrenalin rush of top-level sport. “I started with wheelchair tennis, but in my category there are only five participants in the Olympic Games. That gives me a strong chance of a medal, of course, but what I'm looking for is a challenge. That's why I started wheelchair racing over the distances 100 m and 200 m, because these categories have twenty to thirty competitors. I train six to seven days a week, in total fifteen to twenty hours. Training for sprint distances is wonderful; you die on the track every time. My brother is my coach here in Oosterhout and he uses the training schedule devised by my coach in Spain. What's great about athletics is that I can train both indoors and outdoors.”
“The cool thing about a wheelchair race? The adrenaline before the start is sky high. Once the starting pistol is fired, you stop seeing anyone else but you can feel every other competitor. The ‘fear’ of someone coming up on you from behind is huge. During a race I don't hear any sounds or tones, only my own voice. No, I do hear something. I hear the stickiness of the glue that participants smear on their hands to increase grip. From the number of contact noises per second I can hear whether someone is gaining on me. For the rest, you pay attention to the aerodynamics, the weather conditions and the track surface, and then you decide the tire pressure. It is almost Formula 1.”
Yet Formula 1 is fundamentally different; not only technically, but chiefly in terms of mentality. Whereas racing drivers live in hate and envy, wheelchair racing is characterized by camaraderie. “I'm given tips by my rivals and we often share innovations. A Portuguese friend of mine, who is almost as strong as me, is happy to share his novelties. We don't play psychological games; that's not in the spirit of our sport. Besides, the mental strength of all our athletes is phenomenal; otherwise they wouldn't be on the starting line. Actually, the competition takes place entirely between the start signal and the finishing line.”
Nonetheless, Diego has to get ahead of the field somehow if he's to win that Olympic gold medal in Tokyo 2020. “Another size of 'push rims' may well gain me some time. Naturally, as an automotive student I like to tinker with my wheelchair's aerodynamics. And I'm still working out which start is the most efficient, how I can best place my hands. We practice the start visually, with audio and with touch; all ways to reduce my reaction time. Over the long term my age will work in my favor. Because I am already participating in these races, in time I'll gain an edge. However crazy it sounds, for someone with quadriplegia the rule is this: the older, the better.”
After an hour's talking, the interview is over. Not because we've got no more to say, but Diego’s taxi has arrived. I could easily have talked on until late into the evening. Not so much driven by admiration but by his relaxed demeanor. The young Asturian possesses not only the gift of being able to propel himself along at great speed in a wheelchair, he also has the ability to sooth to sleep any kind of pity or disproportional admiration for his approach to his disability. Not like his father with a song, but with his lively, positive outlook on the future. “Plan B is be an engineer, Plan A is part-time engineer, part-time para-athlete - with a gold medal!”
Anyone who would like to sponsor Diego on his pathway to Olympic gold can get in touch with him.
Raymond Starke works at the TU/e Student Sports Centre, in the midst of more than 13 thousand sport card holders who frequently (or less frequently) do sports to their heart's content. Once every four weeks, he interviews a student or employee for Cursor on the topic of ‘the beauty and consolation of sports’.