Traveling is good for you; it broadens the mind; it opens us to experiences, opinions, and ways of life we are unlikely to see if we don’t stir from our hometowns; it makes us more tolerant of different opinions, and raises our general knowledge and our empathy for others. Mark Twain famously said
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Passionate as I am about landscapes and seascapes, the best travel memories always come back to the people I meet. It might be the waiter who makes you laugh, the good old guys playing dominoes outside the bar you stop to joke with, or the kindness of strangers who go out of their way to put you back on the right road when you are lost. Sometimes people who are totally extraordinary cross your path, making your travel really inspiring.
In April in Lanzarote I met someone who is, simply, one of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. Meeting her was an experience not to be forgotten. Her name is Marieke Vervoort, which is likely a name you don’t know unless you are familiar with her world of Paralympic competition. This story is as full of positivity, determination, focus and inspiration as you will find anywhere.
Until she became ill at 14, Marieke lived the active life of a sporty, teenage girl. Without warning, in 1993 a, then, mysterious illness struck. It is rare, it is degenerative, it is progressive and incurable. By the turn of the century she had lost the use of her legs, and the condition, which few in her home country, Belgium, suffer, had confined her to a wheelchair. To use the word “suffer” in the same breath as her name seems a bit insulting. She does, but she takes it in her stride, deals with each day as it comes.
To hear her tell it, her reaction to learning that that the rest of her life would be spent in a wheelchair wasn’t to feel sorry for herself. Nor did she dwell on what she was missing; but, having conquered the tasks of learning to cope with day-to-day life, she looked around for what she could do, given her new circumstances (what most of us would think of as limitations, another word I hesitate to use). She recognized that she needed a challenge, and was lucky (wow, so many words seem inappropriate, but that’s her observation) that the hospital in which she’d landed had rehabilitation programs and links that could, and did, set her on the path to where she is today.
She discovered that there is a whole world of sports that have been adapted for folk in wheelchairs. Her first venture was wheelchair basketball, which she still enjoys. This is the only Paralympic sport I’ve watched consistently enough to know anything about. Even at the small club island level I used to see, it isn’t a gentle sport. It’s very competitive, and I saw some falls that had my heart in my mouth. She also took up scuba diving. These, people, are things most folk in full health only do in their dreams.
As her illness progressed she had to give up diving, which she had done with a specially adapted kind of board that fitted on her legs. Around the same time, she realized that the basketball wasn’t challenging her enough, despite that she had become the only woman on her team. This was when she discovered athletic wheelchairs.
If you’ve ever experienced that lump in your throat as you watch the first athletes over the line in the London Marathon you’ll be familiar with these; longer and leaner than a normal wheelchair they look every bit the racing machine they are.
When we met, she was about a month away from the European Championships in Switzerland, and I asked about training. It was one of the reasons she was at Sands Beach Resort, with her coach, as she has been each spring for some years, to train. My sons are athletes, so I have an inkling of what it takes for someone in peak fitness, how much harder is it for a wheelchair athlete? It’s a six day a week commitment, and gruelling. In Marieke’s case everything physical is concentrated in the upper body, especially her arms, but she adamantly and passionately says that the most important part of the body for an athlete is the mind.
All the same amount of energy goes into preparation, and needs to be replaced. We were chatting over lunch in the Mai Tai Bar at Sands Beach Resort, and she laughed when I commented on the size of the plate placed in front of her, “Oh this is just my starter, wait until you see the main course!” She was right. Gobsmacked doesn’t really cover my reaction. She told me that basically she eats whatever she wants, because she uses up so much energy. The staff at the Mai Tai know her likes and needs, so she leaves her menus to them.
By now you will have gathered that this very courageous lady doesn’t ever take the easy route. Her chosen field became triathlon. This is a sport that challenges only the toughest, and the training is exhausting, even when you’re not in a wheelchair. She began in 2004 and by 2006 she had become Women’s World Para-Triathlon champion. In 2007 her sporting journey took her to the Ironman in Hawaii.
Here, Marieke’s story came up against even more odds. Her very specialized gear failed to arrive on time for her to train properly. She wasn’t able to prepare any of the three disciplines, because as a para-triathlete she needed special equipment for every section. Going to the store to buy new running shoes or a new bike wasn’t an option. Disappointed and stressed she decided to simply do her best, and when her baggage arrived at the 11th hour she was able to complete two of the three sections, a tremendous personal victory.
The stress, however, had taken its toll, and her illness was also manifesting itself in other ways, her eyesight was deteriorating, she had developed epilepsy. I don’t need to tell you that she didn’t give up at this, do I? Most of us would have given up long before this, agreed?
Yet another spell in hospital followed, and as she recovered, Marieke realized that she was going to have to stick to shorter distances. Her dream of returning to Hawaii Ironman had to be forgotten. The silver lining was that, honored for her fortitude back home for her performance and bravery in Hawaii, it was easier for her to find sponsors, something that hadn’t been difficult before.
One of the things very close to her heart now is convincing governments and sponsors to support paralympic athletes. She was very serious when she said to me that she would like to see athletes have the same sort of recognition that soccer stars get, and my personal opinion is that they deserve even more, but I don’t need to jump on that soapbox, because there is more to Marieke’s story, and it utterly proves her point.
Having dallied with other sports, like wheelchair skiing and blokarting (no I’d never heard of it either! Check it out), she finally began to race seriously in 2011, and by May of 2012 she was breaking European Championship records, and earning herself a place in the London Paralympic Games later that year.
Marieke is the current ParaOlympic 100m T52 Class champion. She also took the silver medal in the London 2012 Paralymic Games for the 200m. Told you there was more to her story!
For someone who has overcome so much, with such courage, it was humbling to watch the pride and excitement on her face as she spoke about the ovation she received, as she sped over the finish line in the 100m, describing it as the highlight of her life, together with the reception she received when she arrived back in Belgium. “How do you top that?” was the inevitable question, and her reply was that each competition is a new challenge, and facing challenges is pivotal to her life.
She was faced with yet another in 2013 when she tore her shoulder in a fall during the World Championships in Lyon. The scar is extensive, but healing nicely, and did it make her give up? Of course it didn’t!
Honestly, I can’t conceive of the will power and focus it takes to do all of this. The thought muddles my mind, but you have to think, “If Marieke can do this much, being in constant pain, with all the setbacks, and the overwhelming problems of simply getting from A to B, why can’t we all achieve our dreams? I didn’t put that to her, it seemed trivial compared to her achievements and the obstacles she has faced, but I know what she would say. Her motto is “Believe You Can!” It’s blazoned across the top of her website.
Not only, however, is she stunning proof that believing in yourself works, but she is also proof that you can achieve great things and still be a down-to-earth and thoroughly nice person. It was clear that the staff at Sands Beach Resort all adored her, and I’d watched her earlier in the week posing for photographs and chatting with a little girl and her mom. To be honest, the feeling is mutual, she is a Sands Beach Ambassador, and told me with real warmth about how she loved to be there.
And you want to know who that handsome dog in the photo is, don’t you. That’s Marieke’s best friend, helper and confidant, Zenn, who’s been with her since 2009, and whom she trained herself. On the day we spoke, Marieke had apologized for not feeling 100%, like many folk with an ongoing illness she has good days and bad. Despite it being a bad day, she was patient and willing to answer all my stupid questions, and Zenn sat patiently at her side, until she jumped on her lap as we left. The next day, when I came across them in the hotel lobby, Marieke was back in good form, and Zenn was running rings around her chair. It was quite unbelievable to realize how in tune with her mistress she was.
So, what was next on the agenda in this amazing life? Marieke speaks excellent English, and does motivational speaking in both English and Flemish. Now there is something I would queue to attend! She has written a book about her life, but so far it’s only available in Flemish, as is her website, though at least we have Google translate for the latter.
Oh, and those European Championships she was training for when we met? She broke the 16-year-old record in the 800m. In interviews afterwards she remarked that she would like to call the doctors who had told her in 2013 that she would never again reach the top of her sport. She’d already told me that every time a doctor tells her something like that, it just fuels her determination to prove them wrong. Defying the odds is her rasison d’être. Her message to anyone out there is that you CAN do it, when things go wrong, sitting around and moping does not help at all, getting yourself out there and doing something is the road to recovery.
I’d love to hear one of those motivational speeches because she truly both believes and proves that if you believe in yourself you can achieve your dreams…..there are times when you have to adjust them, but you can still achieve what others term miracles.
I was a guest of Sands Beach Resort back in April, and meeting Marieke was icing on the cake of a wonderful week for me. You can read about my stay if you click on the link. It’s usual to say “all opinions are my own” or something to that effect, and mine most assuredly are. Almost everything in the entire week was outstanding, so if it comes across that way that’s fine. It’s because I found the resort, its staff, their recommendations for me exceptional, and that is sincerely meant.