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Haiti Paralympians hope to achieve dreams at London 2012
Two distant and obscure figures. Windswept. Unknown. Unassuming. An ocean away from home. On a rain-sodden Wednesday in Watford.
But two people whose Paralympian ‘legacy’ – that buzz-word used so widely and arguably indiscriminately during the 2012 Games – could truly be far-reaching and influential.
At Woodside Leisure Centre, Haiti’s modest Paralympian squad have been put through their arduous training regimes – during a typical un-Caribbean summer drenching.
Woodside may be unglamorous, a far cry from the Olympic cauldron in Stratford. But ‘wild cards’ Josue Cajuste and Nepthalie Jean Louis hope that somehow it will lead them on the path to medal-winning glory. And set a standard their countrymen will strive to emulate.
Josue, 28, has been disabled from birth. Perpetually bullied as a youngster his big break came in 2011 on a trip to America as a member of an amputee football team when he discovered the javelin and shot put.
Nephtalie, 33, contracted polio as a child. Six years ago she was introduced to the Paralympic movement and travelled to represent her country in powerlifting in Beijing in 2008.
Faced with an unimaginable choice of nourishing food she quickly exceeded her competition weight and didn’t compete. But at 2012 she too will compete in the javelin and shot put.
They’re being championed as the flag-bearers for Haiti’s fledging Paralympian movement; ground-breaking role models for a young generation of disabled athletes. In Haiti those with handicaps are reluctantly accepted – but up until now have had little chance of truly making a name for themselves.
In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake which rocked Haiti in 2010 – in which 316,000 people were killed – attitudes towards disability are slowly changing.
Those working to confront physical hardships and facing challenging tests of character are now inspired to throw off that social stigma and play their vital role in Haiti’s resolve to recover and move on. To talk to Nepthalie and Josue – albeit through an interpreter – is truly humbling.
Nephtalie said: “In my country being disabled means that we are not considered to be worthwhile. For my fellow people to see me on this huge stage will be a major step forward. I will know that I have helped someone to train and achieve the chances that I have been given. That makes me feel warm.
“I feel that I can show many other people in my country how, by working hard, you can achieve your dreams.”
Josue added: “I have had this dream for many years. It is one of the proudest moments in my life to be able to show everyone that I can succeed; knowing that for the first time people in Haiti will be able to watch me competing on television.”
The pair regard Woodside’s sporting facilities, and training opportunities elsewhere, as truly outstanding. They’ve been using the elite performance gym at Herts University’s sports village for strength and conditioning work.
But then you have to put it into a realistic context.
Josue said: “We have five athletic tracks in Haiti. Four are full of people who lost their homes in 2010. The fifth is full of broken buildings. But we are lucky that we have some fields and we have people working to bring them back to life.
“We train amongst the rubble; wherever we can. It is not difficult but often we have to clear broken buildings and glass.
“It is only difficult if you let it. We find locations to train and with the will of everyone in Haiti we shall soon start to develop our teams and training programs.”
Josue and Nepthalie’s English coach Malcolm Wallace, who’s worked with many top Team GB stars, said: “In Haiti disability is something you push in the background. But a huge change has come over the country because, all of a sudden, the next door neighbour who was running around playing sport is suddenly disabled because he or she got caught in the earthquake.”
He added that because of Haiti’s lack of competitive opportunities the country relies on wildcard selection to qualify for tournaments. But he believes at London 2012 Josue and Nepthalie will earn the right, through hugely improved performances, to be considered as legitimate contenders.
“We are not just here for the experience. The experience itself will be fantastic. They’ll be able to go back to Haiti and talk about it. But we are here to win and that is ingrained in them.”
A five year development programme to bring sporting opportunities to both able bodied and disabled members of Haiti is underway and Wallace is optimistic that the country's small 2012 team will be eclipsed by a larger and more experienced squad in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.
He said: “For the next Paralympics, and in the future, we will qualify. And we’ll be taking a team of maybe ten women and ten men. Hopefully in four years time we’ll be in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince with gold medals from Rio.”
For Nepthalie her inspiration for London 2012 is simple: “I will go out and try my best. I am nervous about competing in front of so many people.
“But I will be able to think of the family in Haiti and remember that I am competing on their behalf.”
Maybe in four years time their fellow Haitians will appreciate what their country’s ‘standard bearers’ might have achieved.
Confronting adversity, challenging social attitudes towards disability and paving the way for future Paralympic glory.
A true legacy.