Colombian teenager Maria Paula Barrera may not be competing at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, but she is looking forward to an exciting future filled with promise.
The 14-year-old began her career two years ago, winning two golds and one bronze at the Santiago 2014 Para South American Games.
Then in the lead up to the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games, Barrera took part in a training camp in Brazil run by the Agitos Foundation, the development arm of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), and supported by the Brazilian Paralympic Committee and Rio 2016.
There she learned new techniques, going on to reach six finals at the Toronto 2015 Parapan American Games and is widely considered one of Colombia’s most promising prospects.
Over the last 18 months, 155 athletes, coaches and classifiers from 23 countries, including Barrera, have benefitted from expert training provided during the Road to Rio 2016: Agitos Foundation Sessions. Organised in partnership with the Rio 2016 Organising Committee and Brazilian Paralympic Committee, the sessions aimed to improve coaching and Para sport standards as part of the legacy of Latin America’s first Paralympic Games.
Barrera is one of eight athletes from Latin America whose remarkable stories are being told in a series of powerful short road to Rio 2016 films produced by the Agitos Foundation.
Despite not qualifying for Rio 2016, the S10 athlete is determined to take her progress forward into her long term future.
“I hope to represent my country at Tokyo 2020 and win a Paralympic medal,” Barrera said.
“Santiago 2014 was my first international competition and it showed me what I am capable of achieving. No one expected a 12-year-old to climb onto the podium three times.
“I also exceeded my expectations at Toronto 2015, where I could rub shoulders with some of the best swimmers in the continent and learn from them ahead of future competitions.”
Barerra is also grateful for the support she received through the camp.
“The Agitos Foundation has supported me in my swimming training, has followed me in different international competitions and has recognised my hard work, which I deeply appreciate,” she said.
Barrera has a congenital absence of the tibia in her left leg and started swimming as a way of rehabilitation. She had a leg brace fitted and underwent surgery, meaning she could not regularly attend school.
“My brother used to swim at a club close to where I was doing my rehab exercises and I decided to join him. Since then, swimming has been an important part of my life,” she said.
“I have lived a normal life, have never been bullied because of my disability and have always had the support of my family and friends. There are always people that look at you in a strange way in the streets, but I really do not care.”
Currently, Barrera is studying for her high school diploma and describes herself as “disciplined and efficient.” After that, she aims to start college and continue with swimming.
“For the time being, I want to keep growing as a person and as an athlete. Over the years, I need to find out what my purpose in life is and to discover more exciting things,” she said.
“Sometimes it might not be easy, but I believe people without impairment also go through difficult moments. We just have to accept ourselves as we are and need to learn to live with what life has given us.”
Barerra’s father, German, says there have been times where he has had to step-in: “The truth is, the only time I notice anyone looking at my daughter is when she competes in able-bodied competitions where people don’t know her.
“People look at her leg and she turns to me and says she doesn’t want to swim.
“I tell her not to worry. Get in the water and you will see that once you get out people will look at you differently.”