Interview with Wilson de la Cruz - 3 Times Paraolympics Athlete
“Sports are a formidable vehicle to promote peace”
Encounter with Wilson de la Cruz, 3-times Ecuadorian paraolympic athlete, and winner of New York Marathon (wheelchair).
Picture to the left: Wilson during the interview at the hospital Un Canto A La Vida, Quito Ecuador, December 23 2008
Thank you Wilson for granting this interview to Help-for-Hope. You have participated in three paraolympic games: Atlanta 1996, Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004, representing Ecuador. How did you start your sports career?
It was June 29th, 1990. I was then 21. I had never done lots of sports before, just what you do in school, football, etc, you know. It was a day like any other, when it happened. All of a sudden. I was shot. By a drunkard, on the street. The bullet went through my right arm [showing scar], and then into my right side till reaching the spine. I can only remember that I fell backward from the impact. And I remember that lots of thoughts went through my head in that split second. I realized that I was still alive, but that I could not feel anymore my lower body.
I was taken to the hospital, and I remember hearing the doctors saying that there was "no hope" for me. In fact, I got operated only 8 days after being shot, the doctors initially thought that the risk to operate was too high. I was more dead than alive. I kept thinking "why me, why this". A question that I still cannot answer today. I wanted to die. I just came out of the teenage years, I felt ready for life, and then this. I thought it was so unfair.
I think what saved me was the moral support of my family, especially my mother. Today I think that I got a second life, in fact I celebrate two birthdays, my natural birthday on Dec 15, and the day I got shot on June 29...
(Picture to the right: Wilson in full action at the "Carrera Ultimas Noticias" 2008 in Quito, Ecuador)
While in rehab, a friend told me that I had potential for doing sports in a wheelchair. Before that, I had never had contacts with disabled athletes, I really did not have any idea. This friend helped me to find a sports wheelchair from the 1960s, and I started to do small races in Ecuador, in 1992, to show my family and society that I still was alive.
Date of birth : December 15, 1969
Place of birth :Intag, Province of Imbabura, Ecuador
Profession :Co-director of the Workshop - Center for Disabled Children (Quito, Ecuador)
Dream: form a wheelchair-basketball team in Ecuador
Motto :“Sports unite people, and are a formidable vehicle to saw peace “
Selected sports highlights:
- 1996 Para-Olympics Atlanta
- 2000 Para-Olympics Sydney (finals in 200m and 400m dashes)
- 2004 Para-Olympics Athens
- Marathon New York (4 times) - 1st place in 2000, category "everyday" wheelchairs
- Marathon Las Vegas (4 times)
- Personal marathon best in 1:48
- International races in Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, Spain
- Played one season with the Atlanta Hawks (US national wheelchair-basketball league)
- and others...
What a story Wilson... Please tell us about your first race
My first race was a wheelchair race of 13.5kms. I had trained very little. There were the best athletes from Ecuador, from Costa Rica, and other countries. I remember looking at these guys at the starting line, and being quite impressed. The gun went off, and so did I. I was in the lead position... for the first 10 meters. Then people started to pass me, and .. well you know... before I knew it I was last and I came in last at the finish line. But I finished!! And people shouted GO WILSON, and GO NEGRITO [endearing name for black athletes]. It was unbelievable. I saw my family again at the finish line. This half dead body was back alive!!
Congratulations, Wilson! What happened then?
Well, I came in last, but I came in. And I wanted to do better next time. So I started to train. There was a great wheelchair athlete in Ecuador, our #1, who raced international races, he just had raced an ultramarathon in Alaska and won the San Silvestre race in Brazil. He had a pro-wheelchair. He invited me to a minor race. I remember getting out of the bus on race location and saying to the few journalists there "I'll sign autographs after the race". Just kidding of course. But then I won the race! Against the #1 athlete. It was quite unbelievable, also to me, in my old wheelchair. Unfortunately, that did not go down too well with this other athlete, he felt bad and kept undermining me in next races. A pity, but I can understand him.
That year I won several minor races in Ecuador, like Tunguragua, Riobamba, Puyo, in spite of racing with normal cycle wheels on my wheelchair, and against athletes with much better wheelchairs. Then, in 1993, I won my first big race in Ecuador, with no gloves and old equipment. It was an important moment for me. Also the press was there, and they supported me.
How did your first trip abroad happen?
I then went to the US, to the University of Illinois in Chicaco, for a sports workshop. It was only 15 days, but I saw incredible talent, I saw what sports at a high level meant. They left me in the shadow. But it was an eye-opening experience.
I then went back to Quito, to win the #1 race in Ecuador, the "Ultimas Noticias", in 1994, as well as the "Diario Expreso", the main race in Ecuador's largest coastal City, Guayaquil, and some minor races. And in 1995 I won again all the major races in Ecuador.
Picture above: Wilson de la Cruz (middle) and Agustìn Marìn (right) in the Workshop they co-lead. This Workshop is part of the Hospital "Un Canto A La Vida", in Quito Ecuador, and is dedicated to manufacturing tools that ease everyday life of physically challenged people (from wheelchairs to specially formed cutlery and other tools). Construction of Workshop sponsored through the generous fundraising drive of the Boy Scouts of Geneva, in collaboration with Help-for-Hope.
And then, the Paraolympics?
Yes, in fact in 1996 I was selected to represent Ecuador at the Paraolympics in Atlanta. I raced in the 100m, the 200m, the 400m and the marathon. It was too much. But it was about representing my country, and I gave it my best. And it was an unbelievable experience to be amongst athletes from all over the world, feeling the Olympic Spirit.
Picture to the right: Logo of Paraolympics Games Sydney 2000 on Wilson's Shirt
How did you get into basketball?
I then stayed one year in the US to study English, at the Georgia Tech University. Followed another 9 months in Atlanta, learning how to manufacture wheelchairs in order to launch a production in Ecuador. During that time, I played basketball for the Atlanta Hawks, as a pivot, in the US national championship.
I had played basketball before in Ecuador, I love to play basketball, it became my passion, and sometimes I felt that I became unstoppable. We were Vice Champions in Ecuador, and later played in the South American Championship.
And in the meantime, you continued participating in wheelchair races?
Yes, between wheelchair races and basketball games I visited almost all US states, and was invited to race also in Korea, Vietnam, Japan, Costa Rica, Mexico, Colombia, and Spain - this during the period of 1996 and 2006. I participated in the Panamerican Championships, raced 4 times in Las Vegas (marathon) and 4 times in New York (marathon).
My personal best in marathon was 1 hour and 48 minutes. In 2000 I also won the New York Marathon,2 in the "normal" wheelchair category, in a time of 2:13, albeit I did not have an official entry and had to race under a different name - Charles Sanchez...
You know, thinking of it now, I raced all these races with little support, no coach, no technicalassistance cars, no nutritional plan, etc - unlike a lot of the other top athletes who were followed during the race, had mechanical assistance, sports drinks etc. All I ate was a bit of rice and eggs before the race, and water after the race. And it worked...
Picture to the right: Agustìn (left) and Wilson (right), the two friends and co-leaders of the Workshop at the Hospital "Un Canto A La Vida"
2000 and beyond - please tell us about the other Para-Olympics you participated in...
Yes, and this was another great experience. I was the only male athlete in Ecuador's Para-Olympics team. I raced the 200m and the 400m, and the marathon. In the 200m and 400m races, I reached the finals. It was a great experience to be there, and foremost to show Ecuador that "Ecuador can do it!"
I also participated in the para-Olympics in Athens, in 2004. In 2008 however, I couldn't go to Beijing because the Ecuadorian para-olympics team did not receive any money anymore from the government.
And your most recent races?
I did the half-marathon in Cali, in 2007. It was a close race. At km 18 I was passed by another athlete but kept him in sight and got closer again towards the end. With 200m left, on the last turn, I put my head down and gave it all. It was a close finish but I came in 1st and won the race! I won a price money of USD 2'000, in Ecuador that's a lot of money.
Colombians are very welcoming, they have always treated me very warmly. I love to race there. In 2008, we could leave Ecuador only at the last minute, making the trip by bus, travelling from Friday morning to Saturday morning and then straight into the race. I still finished in 6th place.
Please tell us Wilson, how do you prepare for a race - and what thoughts cross your mind during a race?
Well, physically, I give it all, whatever I can. Also mentally, I always give my best. Then, where I getthat's out of my control.
I analyse the terrain, my competitors, try to read and compare the energy level in my competitors during the race. I take energy from wherever I can. And a strong will, that helps... Also the strength I receive from people I work with at the Workshop in Quito. It does make a difference.
Picture to the left: Stephan and Wilson in Quito, December 2008.
What are your goals for the future?
Unfortunately, I'm going to a difficult separation case where I'm claiming custody for my two daughters, Shantal (7) and Shadelyn (5). The last "Ultimas Noticias" in Quito I was in front and in sight of the finish line. I had to slow down not to finish first, and let competitors pass me. The prize money would have had an impact on the separation case.
This year 2009 I'll probably participate in Quito's "Ultimas Noticias" to accompany other athletes. But for the rest I don't have any major sports plan, it all depends on this case.
Or well, there is a project, I'd love to build a basketball team, and participate in the national league in Ecuador. There are 11 teams. I know several strong players with whom we could build a team that would ahve a shot at winning the league. We have about half the wheelchairs, for the other half we need some USD 5'000. And then we would be on a roll...
A wonderful project, Wilson! To conclude, what do sports represent for you?
Sports unite people. They help body and mind. Sports are a formidable vehicle to promote peace.
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