“There was no gym. We used the hallways of the school. We would run up the stairs, through the hallway, and down the stairs to the other end of the school. Among all the schools in Lithuania we were third.
A team of five blokes from Ubiškės won bronze in the Lithuanian Championship!” laughs Jonas Spudis when remembering the beginning of his journey towards the big sports. Now he is 36. Every day he puts his sneakers on and leaves for the training session with a slight limp in his step. He is preparing for one of the most important games in his life. Jonas was hoping to test the Olympic track 12 years ago in Athens, but his dream needed to go through a few challenges more. Five years ago Jonas got into a car accident, and in 2016 into the national team of Paralympians.
In 2013, two years after his injury, Jonas decided to try himself in sports as person with disability, and in 2014 he won the European Championship in javelin throw. Another two years had passed, and he won a silver medal in the same competition, broke the Lithuanian record, and reached the standard for Paralympics. At first, Jonas’ result did not guarantee him a place at the Rio de Janeiro Games, but when the International Paralympic Committee gave two extra quotas to Lithuania, Jonas spot in the Paralympics was sure. “I didn’t tell anyone about this until I got used to it myself. I was afraid of the possible burst of emotions,” says Jonas, lowering his bright happy eyes. Later he adds that his current achievements would not be possible without long years spent in the “healthy” sports, where he had a lot of hopes and experienced quite a few disappointments.
Broken windows and hikes along the railway
“We lived in a house in Ubiškės. On the other side of the road there was a field where I used to throw javelin during the summer. My PE teacher would even let me bring the javelin home. I also liked throwing rocks, we would compete amongst friends who would throw them the furthest. I felt that I had a good hand for that, and rocks would fly well. Once I threw a rock so far that it broke a window somewhere,” silently laughs Jonas, remembering his childhood. Long days in the yard playing with friends and Spartan methods of using school’s scarce infrastructure proved to be very effective in attaining good results. Third place in the Lithuanian Championship, regular victories in Telšiai district tournaments, and good personal performances let Jonas and his friends to get noticed by the Telšiai sports school teachers, who offered them to become a part of their team.
The opportunity to put a pair of spikes on and run the paths of the covered stadium was appealing, so the group of friends unanimously decided to use it. A new stage of life began: after school, the guys would go to Telšiai. Their training sessions would often continue long enough to miss the last bus home. All tired and equipped with sports bags, they would go to the train station. “Our little town was in the forest, so the train wouldn’t stop there. We had to get off at the next stop and walk four more kilometres along the railway. It was easy, even fun. Around 9 PM we would be home,” Jonas tells an optimistic story. And when would they do their homework? He just shrugs the question off and says that they were gifted children and would manage their time well.
The wrong achievement
Time passed by, and the amount of friends who did sports started decreasing. The older boys enrolled into the Military Academy, others became police officers. Jonas, being in the twelfth grade, thought about doing something similar, but his plans were turned upside-down by a phone call from Telšiai sport school. The principal told him that a coach from Šiauliai is looking for him. Virginija Žiedienė spotted Jonas at the Lithuanian Winter Championship, where he participated in decathlon. Even though Jonas tried most of the events for the very first time there, he caught the attention of the coach.
“Back then I didn’t know any of the coaches or their names… They just told me to go to Šiauliai for a meet and a chat. A new study program had just appeared that year in Šiauliai, pedagogy of physical education and sport,” remembers Jonas. He made a quick decision, enrolled in this new program, and began disciplined preparation for decathlon. Legs, strengthened by the school stairs, and the arm, developed by throwing rocks, determined his strongest abilities: javelin throw and 1500-metre run. Jonas says that the more technical events would at first be tougher on him: “When I’d fall asleep at night after the training, I’d start kicking the end of my bed. My roommates would laugh saying ‘Juonis is hurdling again.’”
Nevertheless, his desire to win and hard work helped Jonas reduce the gap between his strongest and weakest events and become champion of Lithuania several times. After making it into the national team, he took part in the European Cup for five years in a row. Jonas even hoped to get to the Olympic Games and was included in the list of candidates, but he did not meet the standard and had to stay home. The rivalry was growing, the years were passing, and the money was scarce, so Jonas started training children. Quietly, without any official announcement, almost unnoticeably he left the big sports, leaving only his name in the top twenty list of the best decathletes in Lithuanian history.
Briefly lost control
When he left professional sports, Jonas did not think of it as a break and did not expect to walk back into the international arena wearing Lithuanian colours. He also did not expect to end up on the operation table when he got behind the wheel of his car one night. It took only a split second to spoil the better part of his plans.
“There was nothing special about that accident. It was simple inadvertence. My thoughts were somewhere else, I drove into the crossroad, and got hit on the side. It ripped my intervertebral disc and strangulated the leg nerves. I wasn’t scared or anything. I was just mad, because I saw the green traffic light and thought why I was hit. I didn’t even understand that the crash was so strong, that my car turned around and I was looking at the wrong side of the traffic lights,” Jonas’ voice becomes more silent, the pauses between sentences lengthen. Further events were a chaotic mess; Jonas crouched and got out of car, called his eighth-month-pregnant wife, and managed to get home by himself. He only called the Šiauliai hospital next morning, when he understood he can barely move his legs.
After several examinations, Jonas was immediately hospitalised and spent long hours taking painkillers and waiting for surgery. The latter would be postponed twice, at first because it was the weekend, then because it was not a “surgery day”. Finally, Jonas called the Klaipėda hospital, explained his situation, was transferred right away and operated the next morning.
New old event
“I don’t feel sorry for myself. I feel sorry for my wife as it was harder for her. Everything fell into one: she was about to give birth to our second child,” Jonas’ story stops here as his chin quivers. But he drinks a few sips of water, wipes his red eyes and continues.
After the surgery in Klaipėda, he was sent to Palanga for rehabilitation, and a few days later his wife gave birth to their daughter Gerda. He wanted to surprise his girls and his son Kristupas and, before the rehabilitation period was over, he sneaked out of sanitarium.
Time passed by and his life came back to its usual rhythm. Jonas got a job as an educator of children with behavioural disorders at a socialization centre and renewed his training of athletes at the Šiauliai covered stadium. His right leg recovered fully, but the left one is still paralysed from the knee down. Jonas was limping, but perfecting his moves every day, and one day that got noticed by Deimantas Jusys, who works with athletes with physical disabilities. The negotiations lasted for three years, but Deimantas finally talked Jonas into coming back to the field and competing against other throwers with disabilities. New reunion with the long-forgotten javelin brough out the repressed dreams. After two years of hard work, Jonas was able to throw the javelin 52.72 metres and improved his after-injury result by ten meters.
“I know I can do better but I’m afraid to push myself too much as I don’t know how it could end. I’m constantly walking the line, testing myself and my limits. And that’s how I go forward. Slowly but surely I reduce the difference between the results I have now and the ones I had before the car crash,” says Jonas and starts smiling again. He understands that the class F44, where the majority of athletes lack one or more limbs, is not assigned him by accident. He also knows that he must put a special belt on and insert a foot splint in his shoe so that his ankle ligaments would not break.
However, despite the circumstances, Jonas silently, as if it was some sort of secret, tells us that he wants to do sports for the rest of his life. He does not care much about the modern prostheses of his competitors, about the pressure of the fans abroad, and the lack of them in Lithuania. From the days he spent playing outside with his friends, Jonas kept not only the long Samogitian o sound or the diminutive name of Jonukas, used mostly by his family, but his boyish enthusiasm, too. Seeing a crossbar, he still cannot resist the urge to check if he can do ten pull-ups, and, from time to time, gracefully throws a rock or two as far as he can.
*Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
- *Being sixth after his first attempt of 50.79 meters, Jonas did not improve his result in the following session. After third round he had to close his 2016 track season with a tenth-place finish in Rio.
Jonas says he is not satisfied with his performance and hopes to compete better in the nearest future.