INTERVIEW WITH SUSANA RODRÍGUEZ

"Anyone can be a hero in this pandemic - you just need to look after yourself and everyone else"

#sport #women #integration

Susana Rodríguez never had it easy. She was born with 5 % vision in one eye and 7 % in the other, but today she is not only one of the best Paralympic triathletes in the world, but she has just finished her training as a resident doctor. With only a few months to go before the, hopefully this time, Paralympic Games in Tokyo, she tells us what her last year has been like, both when she was wearing her white coat and her triathlon suit.

When we talk about Susana Rodríguez (Vigo, 1988) all that "story of triumph over adversity" stuff seems rather inadequate - world and European paratriathlon champion and a doctor's degree, despite being born with a serious visual handicap. When asked if she feels like a "heroine", with a show of humility she assures us that anyone can be that, particularly now in these awful times of the pandemic. Here she encourages us to think positively and make an effort, but above all she urges us to look after the most important thing - our health and everyone else's.

Despite your visual handicap, you are a doctor and one of the world's top paralympic triathletes. Is the word "impossible" part of your vocabulary?

I've never really removed the word "impossible" entirely from my vocabulary because we have to accept that there are limits; that's inevitable. But lots of things seem impossible to us at first, when really they're just difficult or complicated. For me the key is to have illusion, build ambitious dreams and goals, and strive to achieve them with determination and discipline.

At what moment in your life did you start doing the triathlon and how did it come about? When did you realise that you could reach the very top?

I started doing the triathlon in 2010, by which time I was relatively old. I knew about this discipline because I had some friends who were in it and because in Galicia we have some big names in this sport. I had previously done swimming and athletics and I started gradually. At first I never thought it would be the sport I'd specialise in, but as time went by I began to set new targets to improve my performance in the three areas and the results started coming in. The first race I did left an impression on me: it was a Spanish Championship Tournament in Gijón for all titles in all categories, for athletes both with and without disabilities. And that really inclusive format got me hooked.

The key is to have illusion, build ambitious dreams and goals, and strive to achieve them with determination and discipline

For those who aren't familiar with your discipline in the triathlon, tell us a bit about how it works. What role does your guide play, and what is your relationship with her?

The triathlon is an event in three parts: open water swimming, cycling and running. In the paratriathlon we compete at sprint distance (750m swimming, 20km cycling and 5km running). Between each part you have to do what's called a transition: you need to get changed - and as quickly as possible because the clock doesn't stop. Because I have a very serious visual impairment I always compete with my guide: she's the one who manages the team and describes the race to me. The relationship above all is one of total confidence.

Last year you were going to compete in the Tokyo Paralympics, but the pandemic spoilt everything and even before the games were suspended you had already decided to concentrate on your work as a doctor. What were you thinking then, and why did you take that decision?

At the start of the pandemic I was working in the hospital as a 4th year resident doctor specialising in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and before the news about the postponement of the Tokyo Games I saw how serious the situation was and that every day we were seeing some very worrying figures. Because of my work and my experience I always say that there is nothing more important than looking after people's health and well-being. The time wasn't right to allow an event like the Games to be held.

What's day to day life like for a doctor who is also a paralympic triathlete? Are they easily compatible or do you have to make sacrifices?

In the four years between the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics and September 2020 I juggled my work as a resident doctor and an athlete. I always had the support of my department head and my colleagues at the hospital and that was important for my day-to-day peace of mind. It wasn't easy, but you know that every day you have to meet your responsibilities and you never think about the effort that entails. Now that I've finished my training as a specialist and I've decided to dedicate a few months to preparing for the Games, I've realised that the working days that I experienced throughout that time were exhausting.

Because of my work and my experience I always say that there is nothing more important than looking after people's health and well-being

How has the pandemic affected your training routine, especially during lockdown?

I spent those weeks at my parents' home in Vigo and I travelled to Santiago every morning to work, in a practically empty train. The silence was stunning after being used to coming and going with students and workers. Every evening when I got back I trained at home for a few hours with a treadmill, a bike and a roller and a rowing machine, as well as doing strength exercises. In May we started swimming in the sea until they opened the swimming pools. During the time the lockdown lasted, and after so many years, I became aware of how much I loved sport - not a single day went by when I wasn't motivated and eager to train. Sport is something I enjoy to the full.

Does sport help you to wind down after the stress of a hospital? Could you say that, in your case, sport has healing properties?

For me it's really important. I always like to think that sport helps me to be better at medicine, and at the same time my work as a doctor helps me to be a better athlete.

If they can take place this summer — 24 August to 15 September are the dates scheduled by the IOC — what is your goal in the Tokyo Paralympics after your fifth place in Rio?

What would be nice, and is what I've been working towards since I got back from Brazil in 2016, would be to win a medal in Japan - that's all I 'm missing in my achievements. Obviously there are a lot of factors involved, but I'm ready and willing to give my all.

What would it mean to you to don the gold medal in Tokyo after so much effort and dedication, and after a difficult year like 2020?

I can't even imagine it. If the Games finally go ahead, they will be special - just like the road to get there. I always wanted another chance after Rio, but I never thought that so many things would happen on the way... 2020 was a very difficult year for everybody and, as the saying goes, misfortunes never come singly: in January I was diagnosed with heart disease and I had to make some important decisions and adopt a new personal routine. It's been tough, and if the Games go ahead it will be fantastic. If not, or if things don't go as I hope, I would travel the same road and make the same decisions again a thousand times over because I enjoy everything I do every day.

What I've been working towards since I got back from Brazil in 2016 is to win a medal in Japan - that's all I'm missing in my achievements

As well as the triathlon, you might also compete in the 1,500m trial (athletics). What are your expectations there?

I won a place for that trial in the World Championships in Dubai in 2019. That seems a long time ago! Since it was 4th place it's not for me but for the team, and because of the pandemic I have to repeat the minimum score demanded by the Spanish Paralympic Committee to take part. I'm confident I can do it if I get the chance. I'd love to take part in both events because I started out in athletics and running is definitely my favourite.

In recent months health workers have been called heroes, and you can add your sporting prowess to that. Are you comfortable with that definition?

Anyone can be a hero or a heroine in this pandemic. It's enough just to behave properly and set an example, by looking after yourself and everyone else. All health workers have been giving their all to provide the patients with the best possible care, but that's what they were doing already anyway, every day... Maybe now people are valuing a job that in reality never stops.

The COVID-19 vaccinations make things look more hopeful for this year. If you had three wishes what would they be for 2021?

Health, health and health. With that we can find ways and work towards achieving everything else. The main thing is to be healthy.