Dumbbells of various shapes and sizes and long thin barbell bars clatter on the shiny floor in one of the popular gyms of Kaunas. Training equipment for shoulders and biceps is favoured by guys, while girls are checking themselves in the mirrors to see if there is already that much coveted line between their ribs, the one that disappears above the belly button.
There is a different person next to this diverse group, training alone. Wearing cotton t-shirt with “Lietuva” written on it and grey shorts, he is using only one leg to keep his balance on a thing called the balance pillow, a bit similar to a ball cut in half. He notices me looking at him and asks: “Do you see my calves? Are they still different from each other?” “Yes,” I answer shyly; he sighs and looks at his left leg, which is almost twice thinner than his right one, and says that he will do everything it takes to make them look the same one day. This is Mindaugas Bilius who, after experiencing 58 fractures of 27 different bones, is getting ready for a trip to Rio de Janeiro, where he hopes to reach the highest step of the Paralympic award podium.
Both events in which Mindaugas will take part, shot put and discus throw, have been familiar to him since he joined the athletics in twelfth grade. Although he was good at sports, he had never thought about becoming a professional. After three years at Šiauliai University, where he studied pedagogy of physical education and sports, Mindaugas went to the US for a summer job. There he established his own company and, instead of the three planned months, stayed for eight years. Little by little, thoughts about coming back home slowly got lost in the daily routine and Mindaugas got used to his new life. He appreciated his new friends and was happy to be able to spend his holidays riding cutters or skiing in the mountains between Nevada and California. But all the stability in his life was a fragile illusion that shattered to pieces one night.
51 kilos and 10% survival rate
“I know that I was going to play bowling with my friends. I opened my eyes, saw a yellow hospital room, and thought to myself: ‘Damn, that’s not what a bowling alley looks like.’ There was a nurse sitting next to me. She was the one who explained to me what had happened,” says Mindaugas. He remembers that when he woke up from two weeks of coma, he weighed 55 kilos instead of 110, but was still able to joke about finally losing some weight.
To this day Mindaugas cannot remember the accident that landed him in a hospital, so he retells the story as told by police officers: “It was something like this: I was driving in reverse from my front yard when suddenly someone drove into the back of my car. I started rolling and tumbled directly to some kind of a trailer or a bus that stood close-by.” According to Mindaugas, the hit was very hard and, after examining his overall condition, doctors told his parents in Lithuania that their son’s expected survival rate is 10%.
“They put me together like a jigsaw puzzle. All my ribs, collarbone, and a humerus were broken; there was blood effusion on the right side of my brain. That’s the reason why my left side of the body is still a little different: I can’t feel my leg and part of my hand,” tells us Mindaugas, who at first sight looks like a completely healthy 34 year-old. The only signs of the major injury in the past are his uneven calves and his habit of distributing the full weight to his right side when standing or walking. But, as he says, this is nothing compared to times when even five meters seemed like a long journey, and a walk to the toilet would be a heroic quest. Step after step, Mindaugas left his hospital room. His first goal was to enter the hallway, then to visit the cute nurse, and finally he was able to independently walk in the garden of the hospital.
Competition without competitors, work without pay
Until the accident, Mindaugas was surrounded by various people, but he spent most of his time in the hospital alone. From the big group of friends, the only one who visited him was Tomas from Chicago, who lived 2 000 miles and 30 hours away. He worked as a truck driver and tried to deliver as many packages as he could through California, where Mindaugas was. It was not always easy to do so, so Mindaugas’ main support was everyday calls to his parents in Lithuania. Long phone calls and three lonely months in the hospital finally made him realise there is nothing holding him in the US, so he went back home.
Mindaugas returned to his studies in Šiauliai University. While doing internship at Šiauliai covered stadium, he got a suggestion to try himself against other athletes with physical disabilities. He agreed and in six months became the champion of Lithuania and broke the national record. Mindaugas says that his early days’ experience in sport helped him become the best in the country in such a short time, but he also thinks his easy victories are determined by systematic problems in Lithuanian Paralympic sports: “There are a lot of people with disability in Lithuania, but our championships seem poor. We have several great athletes, but the others are too far behind them.
That’s why I haven’t been participating in these events for a few years now.” He adds that Lithuanians achieve their world-class results mostly on their own initiative, helped only by volunteers and unofficial structures.
Mindaugas gives an example from his own experience. Rimantas Plungė is a former Olympian and honoured coach of Lithuania who has been training Mindaugas since 2012, but has not seen a cent for his job as he does not own a coaching license. Rimantas says that it is not about the money at all: “Even though I’ve spent my whole life as a professional athlete, I was shocked when I went to the London Paralympics. The stadium was packed with 80 000 people, crowded as a beehive. Spectators were there from early mornings ‘till late evenings to watch how so called athletes with disability are doing things the mighty wouldn’t be able to. Understanding that human strength is neither his or her muscles nor body, but something else, is the reason why I want to help Mindaugas.”
Mindaugas vs Mindaugas and the final touches of preparation
Rimantas’ honest help is now, practically, his second job, as he spends almost every summer morning with Mindaugas. The two men meet at Ąžuolynas court, right behind the Darius and Girėnas stadium in Kaunas, to polish Mindaugas’ throwing technique before Rio Games. The duo is noticeable from far away as Mindaugas trains very emotionally and follows almost all of his throws by a powerful yell. Rimantas, on the other hand, comments quietly and smiles when Mindaugas’ progress is noticeable. After the morning session is over, which happens during Rimantas’ lunch break, he comes back to his job in the office, and Mindaugas, after a short rest, drives to the gym to confront his body once again. His disability class is F37, one sided paralysis, but Mindaugas does not think there are things he could not do.
He smiles culpably and says that due to the constant preparation for the games, he and his wife have not had a proper holiday for a few years now. Nevertheless, after a little while, he adds that he cannot imagine his current life without this tiring but beloved routine: “I believe that that accident had to happen in order for me to be where I am right now, to come back to Lithuania, to be a part of sport community, to graduate from university. My life is interesting now, I like traveling, doing sports, and helping others. I think that this is the purpose of my life.”
His diligence and devotion help Mindaugas manage things that seem uncontrollable at first. While establishing the Šiaulietis sports club for people with disabilities and graduating (in 2013 he graduated in MA of diplomacy and international relations from the Vytautas Magnus University and in 2016 in MA of tourism and sport management from the Lithuanian Sport University), he also broke the European shot put record by throwing it 16.07 metres and became European champion not only in this event but also in discus throw. Achievements and good physical form during workouts leads others to whispering behind his back about the possible medal in Paralympics. But Mindaugas tries not to pay attention to the growing pressure and says that if he is not successful in Rio, there is always Tokyo. Only his coach Rimantas knows what truly is happening in Mindaugas’ mind.
“It’s hard for everyone, and for him, too. Just like in every other individual sport, Mindaugas greatest competitor is himself, and he cannot beat this opponent, just put up a good fight. Overcoming oneself is the most important challenge. That’s why in Rio I wish for Mindaugas Bilius to win against Mindaugas Bilius and leave nothing undone,” says Rimantas, glancing towards something in the distance with a mysterious and wise smile.
Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games
While competing in Rio de Janeiro, Mindaugas did not forget the lesson his coach Rimantas had given to him. He improved two personal and one European record, won the shot put gold with the result of 16.80 meters and the discus throw silver with 53.50 meters!
However, even after these victories, Mindaugas is not going to leave athletics. He says that he is ready to encourage systemic changes within disability sport in Lithuania.