By Carla Samon Ros
Lima, Apr 20 (EFE).- Maria Lourdes Castillo glides around the court in her wheelchair and then makes a 360-degree turn in a split second, pushing the device with one hand while holding her racket in the other.
Although she looks as if she’s played her entire life, Peru’s national wheelchair tennis champion since 2001 did not pick up the sport until she was in her early-30s.
Now aged 52, she is determined to add to her impressive trophy haul even though – like the rest of the disabled population in the Andean nation – she faces numerous obstacles in her daily life.
Castillo was only three when her left leg was amputated, sidelining her dream of becoming a high-level competitive athlete for decades.
But that all changed when she learned about the existence of wheelchair tennis and embarked on a quest that has led to a spot in the top 100 of the ITF’s Uniqlo Wheelchair Tennis Tour Rankings.
“At 30, a (typical professional athlete) is ending their career, and I was just getting started. And look at what I’ve given (to the sport so far) and all that I plan to give,” Castillo, an athlete who now has her sights set on qualifying for the 2023 ParaPan-Am Games in Chile, told Efe.
Her pursuit is a lonely one though in a country where disabled people are often excluded and few resources are made available for her discipline, which she says was long considered a “weekend sport, something recreational, therapeutic.”
Frustrated by that reality, Castillo became an activist and joined with para powerlifting coach Juan Miguel Rojas to found “Kallpa con actitud,” a Lima-based association that provides support to para athletes, currently comprises four wheelchair tennis players and 16 para powerlifting athletes and has expanded to the northern region of Piura and other areas of Peru.
One of those athletes is 51-year-old Rosa Espinosa, who is currently Peru’s top female para powerlifter. Though she has been training for just three years, she now lifts 80 kilos (176 pounds) and will soon make her debut in an international competition in the United States.
“I’m a warrior … and I don’t give up that easily,” she told Efe from the third floor of a elevator-less gym in the Lima district of Los Olivos, where she trains daily under Rojas’ watchful eye.
Another regular at that same facility is 10-time national powerlifting champion Julio Cesar Berrocal, who told Efe that his leg recently had to be amputated due to “medical negligence” and that he has trained as a para powerlifter since February 2021.
Berrocal does not wear a prosthetic device because he says he cannot afford its cost of 8,000 soles ($2,160). His partner, Kelly Zembrano, who works at a Lima shopping center that does not cater to the disabled, told Efe she uses a hip disarticulation prosthesis that cost her a whopping 47,000 soles.
Castillo says the failure to accommodate the needs of people with disabilities is a widespread problem in Peru’s capital.
“Our society, Lima, is inaccessible … we’re completely ignored,” said the wheelchair tennis player, who normally walks along city streets but occasionally uses a wheelchair when the pain of her prosthetic device becomes intolerable.
“How many adapted buses have you seen? Zero. And no one’s going to let you on the Metropolitano (bus with a designated lane) during rush hour,” she said.
According to Adriana Bustillos, a civil engineer with Safe City Ingenieria, a company that specializes in improving accessibility for the disabled, public transport is the Peruvian capital’s Achilles’ heel in the area of inclusion.
“The accessibility chain is being broken at the first link,” the expert told Efe, also pointing to the wide gulf between Lima’s affluent and lower-income neighborhoods.
She said little has changed since 2012, when a national survey conducted by Peru’s INEI national statistics office revealed that 60 percent of Peruvians with disabilities have difficulty moving about public spaces.
That percentage is even higher in rural areas, she added. EFE