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Paralympian Ramunė Adomaitienė. An Ambiguous Gift

Four adults and a two year old girl come to the windows of Republic Klaipėda Hospital’s reanimation department almost everyday. They have been doing this for a month now and each time they stop in the same place.

There, adults talk about various things and discuss recent news, and the little one shouts and sings. Everybody tries to make as much noise as they can, looking at an open window from time to time. Usually nothing happens and after a few hours the small crowd slowly turns towards home without seeing the person they came here for. This routine will only change in the autumn of 1997, when a doctor will call and say that Ramunė Adomaitienė, the mother of the little girl and the daughter and sister of the adults, will have finally woken up from coma. Her first word, he will add, would be “running”.

Several world records, two gold, three silver, and a bronze medal in the World Championships, second and third places in Europe is the information that one can find on Ramunė on the website of the International Paralympic Committee. Ramunė cannot confirm these numbers are true, because, as she jokes, she has never tried to count her awards. The only thing she knows for sure is that there is still no Paralympic medal in her collection. In the 2012 London Paralympics, where she participated in the long jump event, her result of 4.67 meters was only one centimetre short from bronze. However, she came back to the Lithuanian team and will be its only woman going to the Rio de Janeiro Paralympics.

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

Autocracy of sport

“I can’t remember how old I was when I started going to the gym. I’d stand there wearing a dress up to my belly button, sandals, and a hair bun and try to boss the older sportsmen around. Even though I wasn’t doing any training myself, I was part of the process and knew everyone,” laughs Ramunė and says that she still cannot remember the day when she saw a stadium for the first time. Her mother Algina Vilčinskienė agrees that sport was always a part of Ramunė’s life, because she became acquainted with it before she could walk. Ramunė, laying in the stroller, would see her mother, who was a coach back then, train other people for competitions. Surrounded by an athletic family and carrying the genes of a decathlete and a record-holder, Ramunė developed affection for physical activity quite early. When she started attending school, Ramunė decided to become a professional athlete and one day compete in the Olympics, which she would always watch on TV. From that day, when asked what she wants to be when she grows up, Ramunė would always answer “Only an athlete!” and the main subjects of her childish drawings would be running, jumping, and throwing.

“As for sports, Ramunė would always be persistent. Even when she would get detention, she would throw her backpack through the window and run away to the training session with her friends. She didn’t even go to her graduation party because she didn’t want to miss a session,” smiles Algina now, although forty years ago she could have been mad at her daughter for such behaviour. Anyway, she always supported Ramunė who continued to train even after she moved to Vilnius from Klaipėda: at first she studied geography at the Pedagogical Institute, but almost immediately transferred to the Faculty of Physical Education.

Here Ramunė started seriously preparing for heptathlon and renounced the life she had outside the stadium. Dates, student parties, even the Christmas Eve dinner and everything else that could distract Ramunė from her training sessions had to be put behind. Her youth, ambitions, and power were devoted to Ramunė’s jumps, runs, and throws, which are all parts of heptathlon. After some time, her hard work turned into results and she won silver in the Lithuanian Championships. It seemed that the time was ripe to achieve even more, but after graduating and not getting into the Soviet Union team, Ramunė had to come back home to Klaipėda. Without prospects in sight, her thoughts about becoming a professional athlete were fading away, when one day they disappeared completely. Then, instead of the Olympic outfit, which she had dreamed of wearing since childhood, Ramunė put on a sports suit and started working in a high school as physical education teacher.

Ramunė Adomaitienė during the training session. ©Berta Tilmantaitė
Algina Vilčinskienė, Ramunė's mother and coach. ©Berta Tilmantaitė

A hot day and sudden beginning of autumn

After leaving professional sports, Ramunė did not part with physical activity. She would sometimes race with boy students from higher grades. The only events which, for a short period of time, replaced the nostalgia of competitions and training sessions, were her wedding and birth of her daughter Roberta. However, not even true and deep love was able to part Ramunė and sport, so after two years she took Roberta to a kindergarten and went back to her job.

“It was the end of the summer, a very hot day. I returned from the maternity leave and had to prepare the school’s gym for the new school year. My husband came and offered me to go with him to bring some oil to Šilutė. I would always accompany him, so my colleagues said: ‘Go. There’s nothing much to do here, we give you to him.’ So we departed. Departed and never reached the destination,” Ramunė talks calmly, even casually about one of the turning points of her life. She does not remember what exactly happened that day, but witnesses said that they drove across a railway crossing even though the red traffic light was on, one of the wheels got stuck in the rails and a train crashed into the car. Ambulance, surgery, and a month in coma followed.

“Ramunė’s mother in law called. ‘Kęstas died,’ she cried. I couldn’t understand a thing. I asked: ‘What happened? What?’ After a while, we got a call from the hospital and were asked to come for identification. I wasn’t allowed to come inside so my husband went instead. When he came back all he said was ‘I couldn’t recognise her.’ She didn’t have any face left…” says Algina. She still remembers every detail of the incident that happened nineteen years ago. That night she spent waiting behind the operation room doors, both waiting for the answer and afraid to hear it, trying to say the prayer she learned when in exile in Siberia. Finally, after eight hours of surgery, doctor Vytautas Grikšas appeared.

“He didn’t look like a person. All pale and exhausted… Streaming with perspiration… I asked him: ‘So, will she live?’ He just shrugged off and later said ‘I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know,’” continues Algina. Ramunė was then in a worse condition than her husband Kęstutis’, who, differently to what his mother thought before, was alive. He felt better and better every day while in rehabilitation, but after some time he got a stomach ulcer. Neither doctors nor Kęstutis knew about the chronic illness. He felt pains in his stomach the whole summer but never went to get it checked. The illness was not diagnosed in time, doctors were not able to save him, and Kęstutis died.

(Not) To accept

“My mom told me it’s not good to wear a cross, that it harms karma. However, my husband gave me this necklace that year. It was my birthday and I wasn’t thinking about karmas or anything, so I put it on,” says Ramunė and starts whirling the little cross between her fingers. She was the last person to find out about the passing of her husband. At first she was in coma, later she woke up from it but thought that she was fifteen years old and her surname was still Vilčinskaitė. When her memory came back, her family was told by doctors to wait until she gets used to the loads of information she has to digest. But the longer they waited, the harder it was. So, when Ramunė was in rehabilitation in Palanga, where she was learning to walk again, they told her everything.

“She just went silent. I didn’t know what to do next,” remembers Algina. Kęstutis’ sister broke the bad news to Ramunė. After finding out the truth, Ramunė was silent for three days, but she still would not say why she behaved like that. She says she did not get to fully experience marital life in those two years, she did not know what it was like before, and she still does not know now.

On the other hand, it would have been a luxury for Ramunė to be depressed, as she had her little Roberta. At that time Roberta was not able to understand what happened to her family, but saw everything in her grandparents’ faces. The first meeting with her mom happened in the hospital, the neurosurgery room. The girl started crying immediately. Ramunė says that she recognised her daughter instantly. “‘This is my Roberta crying,’” I said… I thought she was sad because of the bedding in the hospital, which was white, whereas at home it is colourful. So I asked to bring me the colourful one… I didn’t think she was crying because of my face, which was stitched like a pear. I hadn’t seen myself in the mirror for two months. And she was afraid of me, she was shaking. She was only two years old when she saw her mother like that…”

When she left the hospital and went to Palanga for rehabilitation, Ramunė knew that she will not stay there for the assigned two weeks. Even though her whole left side of the face, her teeth, jaw, and nose have been medically replaced just a little while ago, and she sat in a wheelchair, Ramunė wanted to go back to Roberta as soon as possible, so she spent every day training in the gym of the sanatorium. After four days of rehabilitation she walked into the canteen using crutches, and after two more she went home.

One in a few

After coming back home, Ramunė had to come back to her life, too. She tried to do everything the way she was used to, and started training her woody and outlandish body. Then Ramunė did not think about any competitions, but later, after seeing the victories of Aldona Grigaliūnienė, another Lithuanian athlete with disabilities, asked herself: “Maybe I should try doing sports professionally?” And, after making a decision, she came back to the field and almost immediately met new obstacles.

“We went to Jurbarkas, to the Lithuanian Championships for people with disability. There she ran and fell, ran again and fell again… but still won the javelin throw. When it was time for awards, they removed her from the stage and said: ‘We aren’t going to give you a medal because you’re a healthy person,’” one can still feel repressed anger in Algina’s voice. According to Algina, not wanting to emphasize her disability and not showing that every step means pain, is the reason why, even after she was assigned disability group F38 – motoric disability, Ramunė still receives comments as “Why are you faking? How much did you pay for your group?” But she does not pay much attention to this nonsense and each day wakes up with the sunrise so that she could start her day exercising with her dog. The dog, Ramunė says, was with her from the first day when she began slowly rising from the bed. The Games in Rio is her third Paralympics but Ramunė does not know that women with disabilities have never made up more than one third of all Paralympians. According to world statistics, as much as 93% of women with disabilities do not participate in any sports.

But even if she knew these numbers, she probably would not pay any attention to them just like she does not pay much attention to the fact that she can barely feel and cannot control the left side of her face. It only gets a bit uncomfortable during winter, when the healthy side turns white and the injured one turns red. “I just put a scarf on and go,” laughs Ramunė.

Her walk is also not too smooth as one leg still disobeys Ramunė’s commands; she calls it a prop stuck in a bowl. On the other hand, she says she does not need it when doing long jumps, as the movement is in her blood. Despite the fact that long jump is the only heptathlon event left for her, the consequences of professional sport do not scare her. Although during her childhood she would draw the Olympic rings and not the symbol of the Paralympics, she now thinks that she has to be happy with the things she has: “I don’t know if I should thank God or not but he is the one that got me closer to my dream. And now it looks like I’ve always been this way and will stay like that to the end.”

Update after Rio 2016 Paralympic Games

As in 2012 in London, in 2016 in Rio Ramunė was only one centimetre short from bronze medal. She jumped 4.52 meters. However, when Ramunė came back to Vilnius, she claimed that she is not going to leave the track in the nearest future.

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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.