By Mark Etheridge
The ninth of April, 2004 saw Shireen Sapiro’s life quite literally turned upside down and sliced in half as a speedboat hit on the Vaal Dam in Gauteng.
Twelve years and three days later, the bubbly 25-year-old qualified for her third Paralympic Games in Rio later this year.
In those 12 years she’s won a gold medal for South Africa at the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing, China in the S10 backstroke and bronze in the same class four years later in London. And there are many other medals (think Nedbank National Championships for the Disabled, IPC Swimming World Championships and Maccabiah Games) to add to that tally.
Last week’s aquatic nationals saw her qualify for the S10 backstroke for a third successive Paralympics.
And it hasn’t been plain sailing for the golden brunette since her bronze in London.
Two shoulder injuries have set Sapiro back on her Paralympic preparations but not enough to prevent her swimming to a 1min11.87sec qualifying time and being crowned the queen of the 100m backstroke in the King’s Park pool. That was comfortably inside the 1:13.40 benchmark.
That bothersome left shoulder (in fact it was giving her problems even before London 2012) was threatening to leave her behind in the race to Rio but all in all Sapiro is smiles.
‘Considering the past two years I’m happy with the performance I put up at nationals, she told Road to Rio 2016. ‘Getting through two shoulder surgeries wasn’t easy. I’ve wanted to give up so many times and I feel proud of myself for hanging in there. I feel extremely privileged that my body allowed to swim a qualifying time for Rio.
‘I had the first shoulder operation in 2013 and the second one at the end of 2014, both to the left side. In 2013 at World’s I completely messed it up. It was all linked to problems with the rotator cuff.
The rehabilitation was frustration personified. ‘I hardly swam or trained from about August 2013 till December 2014. It was an extremely long process getting this shoulder rehabilitated. I spent the whole of 2015 trying to catch up on work I had missed. The only solid training I’ve managed to do was from the beginning of the year till now.’
Encouraging signs though that she’s managed to get this far on so little training.
‘I know there’s still a lot that we can work on getting ready for Rio. I need to work on my strokes tempo and of course, I need to get as fit as possible so that I can come back strong in the second 50 of the 100.’
Thing is though, she can’t afford to give it a full tilt yet.. the shoulder is quick to remind her of this. ‘I don’t think it is 100% because I’m often in lots of pain. In very hard freestyle sets my arm goes completely lame, my neck flares up and I get pins and needles into my hand. That’s why myself and my coaches [national coach Graham Hill and Delon Dannhauser] do what we can with what we have to prevent it becoming severely injured again. So yes, it’s baby steps all the way right now!’
But she’ll still be trying out her hand at the freestyle. ￼I’ll probably be doing the 100 back and free and then the 50 free. If you qualify for one event you get to choose two others, that’s how it works with Para. It’s OK when I race, it just gets sore in the long distance sets! I can’t do butterfly at all. That’s the worst pain!’
The last few years have seen Sapiro settling in Durban with boyfriend Steven Strange. ‘He’s been such an amazing support structure. He really has made this journey so much easier’
for me. So so thankful for him.’
When not in the pool Shapiro is busy with her studies towards a journalism degree. I will finish my studies off next year. Only one more year to go and I’ll head home and finish it off at UJ (University of Johannesburg) next year.’
Here’s hoping that shoulder plays ball because Sapiro could soon be writing her own fairytale.