Paralympian loses medals and equipment in Brazilian floods

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil — Vanderson Chaves has faced many challenges in more than a decade as a Paralympic fencer, but none as fearsome as the massive floods in Brazil’s Rio Grande do Sul state.

The waters washed away his equipment, dozens of medals, his passport — and might have even thwarted his chances of reaching the Paris Games in September.

Chaves’ ground-floor apartment, ideal for his wheelchair, lies in an elevated area of state capital Porto Alegre. Still, that didn’t spare him from becoming one of the 230,000 people displaced by the floodwaters.

Days later, his home remains submerged, his few remaining belongings fit in a car, and it’s affecting his mental health ahead of two key competitions next week for him to secure his Paralympics berth.

“There’s no way this wouldn’t affect me. To compete and to train well, you need to be well psychologically. And I’m not,” Chaves told The Associated Press at the Gremio Nautico Uniao, a club that has been turned into shelter for about 300 people since the floods began. “I come from an impoverished area of Porto Alegre. Everything for me is more difficult to achieve. I am Black, I am disabled. And now this.”

The fencer competed at the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 and at Tokyo in 2021. For many years, he has been among the best in the Americas in foil and sabre. He needs to score a few more points in two competitions in Sao Paulo to ensure he gets to travel to Paris. And to get that ticket, he will have to count on donated gear and an unexpectedly tiresome trip because Porto Alegre’s airport is flooded, too.

Chaves will travel from Porto Alegre to Florianopolis on Tuesday in a minivan for about six hours and 460 kilometers (280 miles). Then he will take a short flight to Sao Paulo, so he can compete from next Thursday into the weekend. His main rivals, who come from Argentina and the U.S., will be training and fine-tuning until then as they seek to overtake the Brazilian in the world rankings and reach Paris.

“I went to my mother-in-law’s house, this is my first day back at the club. It is like war here, I don’t even know whether I would have my mind to train,” said Chaves, who has needed a wheelchair since an accident with a firearm at age 12. “But if there was some training I would be here, that was always my outlet.”

There’s little chance that he will return to his apartment anytime soon, with heavy rains still forecast. That’s why authorities are rushing to rescue survivors of massive flooding that has killed at least 100 people and left another 130 missing.

Storms were expected in the state on Thursday, with hail and high wind.

Chaves’ coach, Eduardo Nunes, says the fencer will face trouble beyond the mental stress and the unexpectedly long trip in his attempt to qualify for the Paralympics.

“He will have new gloves. For a soccer player, that’s like having new boots. He could get blisters with that, the gloves won’t be softened. His outfit also needs to be softened, and he won’t have time to do that and get used to moving around with it. Those little details will affect him. But he can overcome all that,” Nunes said. “The toughest thing will still be his mental health. To focus on what he needs to focus.”

Fencers from Brazil and the U.S. have offered Chaves clothing and equipment. If he secures a spot in Paris, Brazil’s government will automatically grant him better resources to compete.

Chaves believes his challenges can be turned into positives if he qualifies. He still hopes he can find some of his medals.

“I know that a lot of children, a lot of wheelchair fencers, get inspiration from me,” Chaves said in an emotional tone at the training facility, where donations for homeless people were piling up in the next room. “I motivate them. I can use this to encourage them, and I can use it to encourage myself to go after this, too.

“I like to wake up watching the medals, thinking that the following week there’s going to be more medals there. That’s something that gives me extra motivation. And that’s because I know that I still have it all there under water.”


AP Olympics

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