“Most often we would get glanced at. When I and my wife Renata would be walking down Laisvės alėja, almost every single one would look at her with sympathy. I believe they would think things like ‘Good Lord, girl, where’re you going?’ I wouldn’t even try explaining things as it wouldn’t have changed anything.
I wanted to prove to every one by doing things that you can live happily even if you’re sitting in a wheelchair,” says Kęstutis Skučas, a PhD in social sciences, sitting in a spacious laboratory of Lithuanian Sports University. It has been twenty years since he came here for the very first time, since he became the first student with disability in the then Lithuanian Academy of Physical Education. Neither teachers nor his student friends had any suspicion back then that one day this quiet and calm guy would become an associate professor in the Applied Biology and Rehabilitation department or would win a silver medal in the Athens Paralympics.
“It was a miracle. When I went there, I got ill and spent five days before my start in bed with high temperature. Physical form? What form? Logically thinking, I didn’t have any… But I did very well, broke the European record, and won silver,” tells Kęstutis about his experience in the 2004 Paralympics, and his near-black eyes turn very warm. In his second Paralympics, being 37 years old, he swam 50 meters by backstroke, in the S4 category, in 47,62 seconds. He only lost to a swimmer from Mexico, who in turn broke the world record that day.
Even though Kęstutis has never reached or improved this result of his, he represented Lithuania in all of the Paralympics since then. Due to various illnesses, the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics almost became the first games he would miss. After failing to achieve the required results in swimming, Kęstutis decided to test his strength in the athletics, and, to his own surprise, managed to get into his fifth Paralympic Games. By replacing pool with stadium, Kęstutis began training for two events at once: discus throw and 100-meter wheelchair race. He says it was not too hard for him to transfer from one sport to another, as his main physical preparation actually happened many years ago, when he did not even consider doing professional sports.
Different war in the military
When Kęstutis was 19, he went to serve in the military in the Northern Soviet Union. After long hours of night duty in Arkhangelsk Oblast, where the temperatures would sometimes fall to -40° Celsius, he started feeling sharp back pains. For a few weeks, he tried to cure them in the local military medical centre, where his main medication was iodine. Time passed, pains were progressing, and Kęstutis’ ability to control his body was declining. One day he could not move his leg, so when his father, who wanted to surprise his son, came to visit, he immediately had to change the plans and instead organise a trip to Arkhangelsk hospital.
“Before the surgery, I could only walk with the help of two other soldiers, I was no longer able to move my leg and the other one was getting worse, too. But after the operation, I couldn’t feel my body right up to armpits. My condition was horrible, but all the bad things are now gone from my memory. All I know is that doctors would ask my father: ‘You are going to be here ‘till the end, aren’t you?’” It is definitely not the first time that Kęstutis is telling this story, so his tone is not far from the one he uses to talk about the weather. He says the surgery he had in Arkhangelsk was meant to remove a tumour from his spine. Later, when they flew to a hospital in St. Petersburg, the doctors said that there might had been no tumour at all, and the real reason of pain had been the inflammation of the spinal cord.
“So many different versions. Was it doctors’ fault, was it not, no one knows to this day. Whatever one may think about this situation, the most important thing is that I survived,” smiles Kęstutis. He is glad he was not alone during the time: his whole family came to Russia, even the little brother who asked their mother not to tell Kęstutis about his shaky knees. Everybody stayed with him until he was ready to come home.
Unusual rehabilitation and father’s equipment
“Even nowadays people who suffered some sort of severe injury are often put out to pasture. But in the Soviet Union, it was almost impossible to see a wheelchair on the street. I’d get mad when people would look at me and think that I can’t do things. That’s why I was trying to gain strength and prove to myself and others that I can be independent,” continues Kęstutis in a calm voice, but the look in his eyes becomes keener. He never wanted other people to feel sorry for him, so when he came back to Lithuania, he started training from morning to evening everyday. Kęstutis’ father, who then was managing a loom factory, made a lot of his son’s equipment himself: a walker, a barbell, some weights. He even built a special bike for Kęstutis to pedal using his hands, while other pedals would move his paralysed legs. “The whole room was full of these apparatuses. I wouldn’t count my time, I’d wake up and would go straight to the gym. Eventually, I started working with heavy weights. There was a time when I could lift 132 kilos, or lift a barbell of 50 kilos a thousand times, with breaks, of course. My dad was afraid he had made not enough weights for me and that he will have to find ways to get new ones,” laughs Kęstutis and remembers that, because of the muscular upper body, he once even got nicknamed Schwarz in a Wheelchair.
But even the biggest victories against oneself in the gym could not free Kęstutis from the isolation he found himself in after his illness. He understood he has enough physical strength and decided to go outside again: “I know how hard it must have been to look at me from the side. I didn’t know how to deal with stairs, so I’d just sit on each stair and would pull the wheelchair, weighing 20 kilos, behind me.” Nevertheless, each day his movements would get faster and more precise, and, after a few years, Kęstutis thought it was a time to compete not only with himself, but with others, too.
Ten times cheaper victory
“I started riding my wheelchair a lot. Each day I’d drive 30-40 kilos on the roadside in the direction of Karmėlava. There were times were I’d skip this daily routine only once a year. Rain or snow – I’d go. There were all sorts of drivers: some would come to close, some would try to overtake from the wrong side,” says Kęstutis and adds that he decided to do professional sports after one of his first wheelchair races. That time, his opponents were weaker physically, but knew the technique better. But, after years of racing cars, he never lost a wheelchair race again.
He tried a lot of different sports, from weightlifting to table tennis, but Kęstutis’ favourite was swimming, which led him to a Paralympic silver medal. Never mind this award, after he is finished with professional sport, Kęstutis will not receive any help from the state. “The times of the winner and the runner-up are always close. If the pool had been longer by just one meter, I believe I could have caught up with the winner of the Paralympics, because he was already getting tired and I still had enough strength to finish well. Small things like this determine a lot. According to our laws, only the gold winners get the annuity,” says Kęstutis. If he had won silver in the Olympic and not the Paralympic Games, the situation would be different. “It’s hard to say what the attitude towards Olympic and Paralympic medals should be. There are countries where athletes are appreciated the same, they get the same support and financial prizes. We have been talking of priorities since the Athens Games, the discussion started back then: why is it that Paralympians get ten times less prize money than Olympians? What, are they ten times smaller in size or what?” smiles Kęstutis bitterly. He says that only the nominal inequality has changed since Athens, but not the official attitude. Now Paralympians’ bonuses are seven times smaller than those of the Olympians.
New goals, old wheelchair
Inequal attitude towards the achievements is far from the only problem in sports for people with disabilities. Despite the fact that Kęstutis is training without a coach, he is still in need of an assistant who would help him get from his everyday wheelchair to the sports one or to get on the tall discus throwing chair, would bring the discus back after throws, or would measure his results. A student of his, Arnas Pečetauskas, helps him voluntarily, but, as Kęstutis says, this cannot be the foundation of a whole sports system: “The Paralympic committee gets funded only before the Paralympic Games, and that’s it. Overall, the whole sport of people with disabilities is based on a small group of enthusiasts who achieve the results on their own. But this is only a one-time-thing and when one digs a bit deeper, it is obvious that, let’s say, most of the disabled sport clubs have very few members. Our students, who graduate in applied physical practice, usually cannot work as coaches of people with disabilities just because those few open vacancies are given to the family members or close relatives,” concludes Kęstutis and turns towards the window.
He knows that these problems were here yesterday and are here today, but he jokes that it is easier to live when you believe that something may change tomorrow. Kęstutis is still getting ready for the Games, teaches at the university, and trains a wheelchair basketball team. This year, for the first time in history, their team was second in the European Championship B division and got promoted to a higher league. Kęstutis values not only the victories but the whole process; therefore, even without the right equipment, he tries to improve his results. Not only is he throwing discus every day in the Ažuolynas court, he also gets his old sports wheelchair – no breaks and weighing twice as much as his opponents’ – from the garage and drives around the city. Even though its wheels are worn down and it is dangerous to ride it, Kęstutis cannot afford to buy a new one for 6 000 Euros and risks his health and life every day. He almost does not notice pitiful looks of people in the streets and says that the attitude towards people with disabilities is changing in Lithuania. However, sometimes it takes very little to fall back, he says, even a careless phrase “look, a cripple” uttered by a child wipes off a big part of the long way we have come.
But Kęstutis never gets upset, puts on his helmet, and speeds forward in his unsafe wheelchair. When asked how he can be so persistent, he says: “One must try to achieve everything that is possible. And what’s impossible. Just challenge yourself into doing things others haven’t done yet.” He continues after a little pause: “Whatever happens, you have to enjoy each day and never exclude yourself from life.”
Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
In Rio Kęstutis was the last one in a 100-meter wheelchair race with the result of 21,03 seconds. However, he improved his personal record in the discus throw from 16.19 meters to 17.03 and finished fourth.
Not only his result did change after Rio Games. Algirdas Butkevičius, the Prime Minister of Lithuania, promised that National prizes for Paralympic Games’ medallists will become two times bigger than they are now. Dalia Grybauskaitė, the President of Lithuania, suggested making them equal to the prize money for Olympians.