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Paralympian Edgaras Matakas: 'I never leave the swimming pool'

“Yes, I’m afraid. The fear makes me nauseous,” says Edgaras Matakas and wipes small drops of chlorinated water off his forehead. His muscular coach Ramūnas Leonas laughs silently and pulls out a small stopwatch from his pocket while keeping a close watch of his student.

Edgaras is still sitting on the bench at the corner of the pool. With his eyes closed and his head down, he is nervously stroking his blond hair. Swimming for time is the most exciting moment of this training session, so Edgaras needs a little bit more time to set his mind straight. After the command “Ready”, he slowly stands up on the wet floor and, after his coach takes him by his elbow, carefully walks towards the start position. From this moment on, Edgaras is on his own. He stands on the edge of the platform, awaiting for the whistle. After it sounds, he will jump into the crystal clear water, and, at the same time, into complete darkness. Edgaras has not been able to see since he was 15 years old.

S11, Edgaras’ disability class, is reserved for those whose visual impairment is the most severe, i.e., the blind. Competing against other athletes in this category, the 17 year old Lithuanian reached three A level standards and can take part in freestyle swimming of 50, 100, and 400 meters in Rio in 2016. He is the only swimmer in the national team of Lithuania for these Paralympics.

This is a part of a documentary multimedia project "Will to Win". You can explore all stories about Lithuanian paralympic team here.

The price of Paralympics

“Actually, I like long distances, when one thinks: ‘I’ll quit, I’ll give up, but no, I have to swim on and touch the wall as fast as possible.’ Then you get motivated, you start swimming even faster, and suddenly you’re at the finish line. “It’s over,” you think to yourself, but then the coach shouts “Op!” and everything starts all over again,” Edgaras smiles when talking about his training routine, but the smile wanes quickly. Even though he is only seventeen years old, he rarely jokes and is more into listening than talking. In order to be fully ready for his first Paralympics, Edgaras starts almost every single day at the pool, swimming from one end to the other and counting strokes. He likes it, because when training, he is able to be alone with his thoughts, to feel the pressured water run through his fingers, and to think that he can almost push off it. Edgaras describes water like a wine-grower talking about wine: he says he can feel if the water is soft or hard right after diving into the pool.

But he cannot dream for too long, as his coach Ramūnas, resting his leg on the platform, always awaits Edgaras at the edge of the pool. Ramūnas looks after his student so that he would not bump into the wall and lightly pokes his back with a special stick once the swimmer is approaching the end of the distance. Today this scheme looks very coordinated and usually works without saying a word. Edgaras remembers the times when orientating in the pool would not go so smooth: “It would hurt, I would bump into the walls often. My finger joints would be hurt so bad that I couldn’t bend them. I’d swim onto the ropes very often, dive into other lanes, scratch myself. It was just insanely hard.”

Even today Edgaras has bruises on his back. Stroke counting, coach’s efforts, tried and tested methods cannot fully save one from the excitement during the competition, and this excitement can lead a young guy not to the award podium, but to contender’s lane. Watching Edgaras training, his coach Ramūnas writes down results and notes in a journal and slightly clenches his lips. In his opinion, it is almost impossible to forecast how Edgaras will perform, because in his category, the chance of being disqualified is way greater than in the sport of the healthy.

“Last meters are the hardest. Legs become immobilized, can’t feel one’s arms… It’s really hard for Edgaras to deal with it, because when a blind person weakens, he can be easily carried astray. Then he will get tangled in the lane, lose his speed… That’s why I never predict anything. Maybe I expect something but I never talk about it out loud.” Ramūnas concludes his thought and throws an intent glance at the face of his student, as if trying to see what effect his words had. Edgaras stays silent.

“Showing doesn’t really help”

Edgaras is familiar with the Girstutis pool, where he is training for his first Paralympics in 2016. He spent his childhood here. Two years ago, Edgaras became fully blind; until then he would wear glasses with thick lenses, he would be able to distinguish different shades of light and various contours. When he was eleven, Juozas Miliauskas, the president of the Parolimpietis club, invited Edgaras to his first swimming practice. Back then Edgaras was not thinking about professional sport but, being acquainted with the swimming techniques when his vision still was not fully gone helped him reach his current results. Edgaras can still imagine what correct movements look like, and this gives him some advantage against competitors who are blind since birth.

Still, memories alone are not enough to perfect a swimming technique, and Ramūnas is trying to find new ways of teaching: for instance, he lays Edgaras down on the bench, takes his hand and shows him how a proper stroke is performed, and what his legs do then. This process is not very easy and, as Ramūnas says, he started training Edgaras only because he came to him when he was still able to see a bit. Otherwise the job would have been too difficult for Ramūnas. Even now the coach still sometimes tries to show which mistakes should be corrected until Edgaras sticks his head out of the water and says “you know, coach, showing doesn’t really help.” Then, as if nothing had happened, the workout continues.

After the training session is over, Ramūnas usually takes his student home. Edgaras, on the other hand, says he cannot stop thinking about swimming even when far away from the pool: “My thoughts are always about sport. Even when I’m asleep, I dream I’m swimming, I feel the lane. It can be said that I never leave the swimming pool. Only in my dreams there are no people around me, nothing at all, just me, swimming with my thoughts.”

Ramūnas, who once was a swimmer himself, is fascinated by Edgaras’ spirit. He knows that his student has never been to any sport camp, and the Girstutis pool, with its 50 meter tracks, will be closed for summer only one month before Rio Paralympic Games: it is a waste of finances to keep it open. On the other hand, the coach also understands that, despite training conditions, Edgaras still hopes to someday step onto the highest step of the Paralympic award podium.

“I’m a strict person, I train him as if he had no disability. I mean, I’m trying to train him that way. Sometimes I even catch myself thinking: ‘Damn, don’t demand so much from him…’ Once I attended one of those dinners that happen in total darkness. I understood that to not be able to see is to live a completely different life. It’s really hard for Edgaras, but he does everything well. He requests efforts from me and I try to give him as much as possible,” says Ramūnas. He adds that often, after a morning training session, which lasts for more than two hours, Edgaras refuses to go home and asks for a few more rounds. Usually, the coach does not yield, raises his voice instead and chases the breathless swimmer off to the dressing rooms. At moments like that, Ramūnas tries not to speak, so he would not give away that he is actually smiling.

No medals on the wall, a lot of support

It does not matter if Edgaras was instructed to do additional exercises or not, after his swimming practice he always comes home. His mother Sandra, woman of average height, fair hair and equally fair face, waits for her son there. She and Edgaras’ father, together with their three children, live in a small two bedroom apartment in one of the suburbs of Kaunas. Edgaras has two sisters, one of which was born only three months before the Paralympics. Even though there is not much stuff in their apartment, it looks like all things are in their places: a closet, a small sofa, a TV, a bunk bed of Edgaras and his sister Liveta, and a tiny bed of the newly born Viltė. There are no medals or framed diplomas hanging on the walls, so if one did not know that Edgaras has three A level Paralympic standards, no one would be able to tell that an active athlete of the Lithuanian national team lives here. Despite the modest appearances, Edgaras’ family is very proud of his achievements.

“We found out about it late in the evening. I instantly started crying with joy. I’m very proud of my son. When I think of Edgaras’ dream coming true, I feel euphoric, because he would always tell us: ‘I’m going to do this and it doesn’t matter how.’” To this day, there are tears in Edgaras’ mother’s eyes when she remembers the day when her son reached Paralympic standards. She never talks with her child about sport as it disturbs his state of mind before competitions, plus, when he comes back from practice, Edgaras goes straight to bed. Short messages like “All is fine”, “I have a medal”, or “I’m on my way home” are usually the only alternative to talking about swimming, and that is why Edgaras’ parents always have their phones with them. His sister Liveta also wants to help her brother. Even though she is only in the 8th grade, she helps her 11th–grader brother do homework: she reads out loud the literary pieces for her brother until Edgaras is able to retell them.

The same route, the same challenges

Edgaras’ parents are surprised at how persistent their son can be. Although the father always tries to drive his son to practice, sometimes he does not have enough time for it. Then, Edgaras goes to practice on his own. With the white cane in his hands, he checks for any obstacles in his way, bypasses well-known poles in the yard, lifts his foot before and onto the sidewalk, and when he reaches the stop, he is the first one to hear the trolley coming. Good orientation in familiar surroundings misleads the passersby, and sometimes, when Edgaras needs a little help, they are not always willing to cooperate. There were cases when, when asked to tell which trolleybus is coming, people would reply: “Why are you asking, what, like, can’t you see?” And when Edgaras is sitting down and does not know that there are elderly people standing right next to him, sometimes people try giving him a lesson.

“Once I was in a trolleybus with him and went to buy the ticket at the driver when suddenly I heard a woman shouting at Edgaras. ‘I can’t see. My mom will come soon,’ my son told her. ‘Stand up!’ replied the woman and almost hit my son’s back with her purse. ‘Move, an old person wants to sit down,’ she shouted. My poor child didn’t know what to do, so he just stood up…” sighs Sandra. She says she would only be able to calmly sleep at night if people in Lithuania changed their attitude towards people with disabilities and all the traffic lights in Kaunas had sound signals.

Hopes: not only Olympic

Edgaras understands his mother but talks about the problems unwillingly. He laughs that after bumping into the walls of the pool he is no longer afraid to hit something in the street. Sandra says that her son is optimistic and really does not like complaining. Even when his sight started to fail, Edgaras stayed silent. For a long while, all that parents were able to understand is that something was going on and their son did not want to talk about it. His vision was becoming weaker, everything went blurrier and blurrier, and the light that he used to see started fading away. The last sign of this appeared one evening, when Edgaras pointed his finger at a roll of trash bags and said that he wants some of that chocolate.

“It was hard for me, because he’s my son. He is young, he should enjoy life, but he can’t see. He walks with his mom holding his hand. I didn’t come to terms with his illness for a long time and went to all kinds of doctors with only one thought in my head: ‘Maybe. Maybe there is still hope?’” After these words Edgaras’ mother becomes silent and it feels like there is not enough air in the room.

After some time Sandra continues: “I would sit and cry and he, as if sensing that something isn’t right, would ask: ‘mom, are you crying?’ ‘No, I’m not…’ ‘Yes, you’re crying,’ he would say.”

Time went by, and Edgaras’ family got used to his blindness. His dad Virginijus says that his son’s eyes are healthy, the problem is in the nerves, and it is not yet possible to cure them, so his son must learn to live a happy life without seeing it.

Edgaras does that. He spends a lot of time with his friends, asks his mother to describe his newborn sister, and dreams about books that would write about his victories and records. He knows that he must work hard and be persistent. He also believes that one day, when science advances, he will once again be able to see the sun and the trees, the contours of which he still remembers.

Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games

As it was planned, in Rio Edgaras took part in 50, 100 and 400 meters swimming distances. He was eight in the 400-meter final (5.30’66 min.), tenth in the 100 meters (1.06’09 min.) and eleventh in the 50 meters (27.86 seconds and Lithuanian record).

His coach Ramūnas Leonas claims that Edgaras is still young enough to compete at least at three Paralympic Games.

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This is a part of a documentary multimedia project "Will to Win". You can explore all stories about Lithuanian paralympic team here.