I arrived at Sands Beach resort hoping for some good food, a look around an island I hadn’t visited in about 20 years, and some sunshine, all of which I found, but the highlight of my stay, was something quite unexpected, and I took away from my week there so much more than just having been able to wind down and relax.
You can’t miss Marieke Vervoort when you see her around the resort – she’s in a wheelchair for one thing, and always accompanied by the most lovable Labrador you’ve ever met, but more than that she radiates an aura of positivity which you rarely find even in people who have many more advantages than she.
Marieke is the Ladies 100 m Para-Olympic champion, and her seemingly fragile appearance is deceptive! She has a will and determination of steel, and absolutely incredible focus. It really was an honour to meet and be able to chat with her; one of those humbling experiences which come our way now and then, and which we should take for the inspiration they are.
Until she was 14 Marieke had no idea what was in store for her. She lived the life of a normal teenage girl. By the time she was 21 she was in a wheelchair, something that would have most of us feeling sorry for ourselves, but not she. She looked around for a challenge and found it for a while in wheelchair basketball. She was the only girl on the team, but pretty soon found that it didn’t satisfy her needs, and she, incredibly, took up scuba diving.
Her, as yet, undiagnosed illness, has been progressive so far, and after an operation she wasn’t able to dive any longer, and yet again looked for something new to stretch her mind and body. Basically, she had her arms to work with, though she says firmly that the strongest part of the body is nothing physical, but the mind. At this point with epilepsy rearing its head and her sight affected, she discovered wheelchair racing, and looked for sponsorship.
It wasn’t easy, but she didn’t let that deter her. You certainly get the sense, talking with her, that she relishes challenges of all sorts, and once you have fallen under her considerable spell, you wonder how anyone could resist her. She succeeded, of course, and even entered the most prestigious Ironman of all, in Hawaii. It proved to be a greater challenge than expected, as her equipment didn’t arrive, but she did, as you might expect, having read this far, her best with what she had. The stress, however, proved exhausting, and afterwards she was very ill.
Even then, after a spell in hospital, she didn’t even consider giving up. The upside was that she found sponsorship easier to find thereafter, and she switched from long distance to the short distances at which she excels today.
It must take courage and focus far greater than most of us can even imagine doing what she does, and yet Marieke remains humble too. When she talked about receiving her Olympic gold medal her eyes shone with excitement and passion. Any sort of Olympic medal has to be the pinnacle of an athlete’s career, but how much more so if they have had to face the obstacles and odds t this that incredible lady has faced? Every time a doctor told her that she would never reach to top, it only made her more determined to do so, she said. She takes her own inspiration from sources we would find deterrents rather than encouragement!
And, after the Olympics – isn’t anything else an anti-climax, I asked. A definite, “No!” was the answer. “Every competition is a new challenge.” Indeed, after I spoke with her in April she went on to smash records in May, and is looking forward to the European Championships in Swansea in August. Her biggest competitor is herself. Her goal is to continually improve her personal performance, something we could all learn from in everything we do.
Her training, six days per week, is every bit as gruelling, and more, than that of an able-bodied athlete. At the time I met up with her, her trainer, from Belgium, was at Sands Beach too, helping her prepare for the May competition. She eats whatever she wants because she uses up so much energy, and clearly enjoyed the delicious lunch prepared for her by the kitchen in the Mai Tai Bar as we chatted. When talking about her training, she commented, “We are not disabled, but our world is.” She would like to see the same sort of support and sponsorship for Para Olympic athletes as that enjoyed by Olympic athletes or even soccer players, and I couldn’t agree more.
It must be almost impossible to wind down and relax if you are in constant pain, and Marieke uses music to help with the relaxation needed to encourage much-used muscles to repair.
When she isn’t racing or training she spends her time trying to help others through motivational speaking. If you ever get chance to hear her, do go. She speaks excellent English, by the way.
Amongst her accomplishments and achievements, Marieke is proud to be a Sands Beach ambassador, she told me, and watching her having her picture snapped by the proud mom of a little girl by the pool, or being greeted by all of the staff as she makes her way around the resort, I am quite sure that the pride is mutual. She genuinely loves the resort, she told me, coming two or three times a year. If you see her around, she will be more than happy to chat!
Finally, her motto – one we should all, always, remember – “Believe you can!” It’s more than a motto, for Marieke it’s a way of life.
We are honoured to feature this guest blog post by Linda Wainwright