“I believe you must never give up your dreams. You must reach for the stars, regardless of the fact that they are so high above you. It does not matter – you can reach them if you want to.”
The words of Shireen Sapiro, grade 11 learner, born on the 25 January 1991. Shireen is a swimmer that is favoured to compete at the Beijing Paralympics this year, she began swimming because her best friend did. “I was only about six or seven and we wanted to spend more time together so I started swimming with her.”
By the time Shireen was nine it was clear that swimming was more than a social activity. The youngster showed great promise. “I began to train more seriously and eat properly – basically living the life of a swimmer.”
Two years later she participated in the provincial gala in Bloemfontein taking firsts in the 50m, 100m and 200m backstroke events. From there her swimming career took off with many seeing her as one of South Africa’s great future swimming prospects. So suffice to say her hard work is paying off.
When Shireen was just 13 years old, skiing on the Vaal River, she got caught in a boat propeller. Shireen fell while skiing, but despite her parents immediately raising the safety flag, another boat failed to see the flag or her and drove over Shireen. The accident left her in a critical condition, with her pelvis literally cut in half. She was admitted to Union Hospital in Alberton and put on a life-support system. She was operated on and numerous screws and plates were used to repair the damage. Shireen spent time on a ventilator while sedated to assist her healing.
If you know, or are lucky enough to have met or chatted to Shireen, then you will understand how she has overcome such a life-altering event. “The accident left my left leg paralysed, but mentally I am a stronger person than before and am ready to tackle the world.”
She says her family also played a huge role in helping her heal. “Without them I would not swim and I would not go the awesome school I go to – I would not be able to do the things I do without them.”
Her mother, Red, is equally passionate about her daughter. “It was very hard for me when the accident happened. We were 10kms from the shore and I held her on my lap. I cannot describe to anyone that feeling when your child is hurt. It is amazing really how strong we are though when we need to be. And Shireen has come back stronger then ever. She has grown up so much in last four years that I sometimes wonder where her wisdom comes from. I am very proud of her and I love her to bits.”
Shireen’s mother is not the only one who loves this child. Last year Shireen Sapiro was voted South Africa’s Sportiest Teenager for 2007 and appeared in the December issue of Seventeen Magazine.
2007 was a very good year for the young swimmer. She took five golds in the IWAS Junior World Champs (Germiston), three gold in the Telkom South Africa Nationals Sr in Pietermaritzburg, Shireen also set a new world record in the 50m backstroke, won another five gold medals in the Telkom South African National Aquatic Championships in Durban, and a bronze in the Visa Paralympic World Cup in Manchester, UK.
Her success is not surprising. Not when you listen to Shireen talk about her love of swimming. “I would love to compete in Beijing this year in the 100m backstroke. I would like to win gold and also set a new world record for the event.”
This is not impossible with the young teenager currently ranked number one in the event. “With Beijing coming, I eat, sleep, go to school and train. It is a pretty tough schedule that involves at least five hours swimming a day, but I have learnt to manage my time, and my school is also very understanding and helps me to catch up work.”
She tries to be disciplined by eating properly (“That is difficult as I like junk food) and to get the right amount of sleep. “I do go out with my friends though, but we do laid-back things like supper and movies. I don’t really party as that would really not be good for my swimming.
Presently Shireen is practising hard on the technical aspects of her swimming such as her starts and turns – “I really want to do well in Beijing.”
She would also like to meet one of her heroes, perhaps even in Beijing, Michael Phelps. “I think if I had to meet Michael I would probably cry it would be so awesome. My other hero is my coach Theo Verster.”
And life after Beijing? Shireen is very clear about what she wants to do: “Finish school and go study medicine in the US, specialising in plastic and reconstructive surgery. And of course swimming.”