Venezuelan Para swimmer Genesis Leal was all set to make her Paralympic Games debut in Tokyo this year. But that has to wait now.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has postponed the Games, Leal is spending her time tirelessly attending to affected patients at San Jose Secure Hospital in her native Aragua.
In the front-line against the pandemic
In early February, Leal, a doctor by profession, began working in the Traumatology and Orthopaedics department. On 16 March, Venezuela decreed a lockdown in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We faced this because we took an oath to do so. We have to do our best and give our heart no matter what situation we’re in, to help patients,” she said.
"The first few days we were so scared, we didn't know what to do. We couldn't sleep even during our hours of rest."
"One day, five patients came in with fever and COVID-19 symptoms; and you just have to be there and recognise your role as a doctor to face this context," said the 27-year-old, who in 2015 participated in the 'Road to Rio 2016' initiative, implemented by the Agitos Foundation.
Despite the difficult situation, Leal recognises that “it is very gratifying to make a contribution to help patients”.
She understands that her status as an athlete gives her an edge at her job.
“Sport gave me discipline, concentration and self belief. Medicine is quite difficult, it is one of the most difficult careers."
“Swimming and open water are sports that need a lot of dedication and perseverance, and going through that helped me get that extra effort to put in to moments like this one.”
Retirement (not) on sight
"There are times when I recognise that if I hadn’t gone into medicine, I would have been better at sports. I could be a World Champion, but God put faith me to pursue both and that's what I decided. I may not have the best times, but I graduated when I should have and even have done both for years. A lot of people admire me for that,” she confessed.
Her decision, however, did not mean that she would retire from swimming anytime soon.
In fact, in 2019, while facing severe depression after the loss of her father, she managed to break through her lack of motivation, prepare on her own and qualify for the Parapan American Games in Lima.
At Lima 2019, she was close to medalling in the 400m S10 freestyle - finishing fourth - and this year, before the COVID-19 outbreak, Leal was trying to get a ticket for her first Paralympic Games.
“I was training in a 32m pool, in a hotel. I was training hard when the COVID-19 happened. Now the future is uncertain.”
Apart from that, she was doing cross-fit as long as her work at the hospital allowed.
“I always did something to make sure there was no lack of physical preparation.“I’m going to try it. ”
"Retiring from swimming is not inside me. It's a lifestyle matter."
"I, as a doctor, know how to recognise that. It’s a field that de-stresses me, it's not easy to stand a 24-hour watch."
"The peace of mind you get from training in a pool allows you to drain a lot of things. I see swimming like that, as a lifestyle, whether I make the marks or not,” said Leal who was born with an underdeveloped right leg that had to be amputated shortly after birth.
Leal had not achieved the necessary marks to qualify for the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games. She had only a few months left to lower her times, while studying to become a doctor at the University of Carabobo.
She could train hard and try to qualify at the last minute, but she chose not to.
“I didn't make the Toronto 2015 marks. I was preparing my thesis when my tutors told me to decide whether I was going to train or pursue my thesis. It was my last year of university and I had to choose between making my way to Rio or finishing my degree, and I finally decided on medicine.”
She received an honourable mention for her thesis, which was focused on the stigma suffered by HIV patients and their treatment with antiretrovirals.
“I want to continue getting results representing my country and to be able to participate in a Paralympic Games,” she said.
“During the quarantine I have been training at home with some equipment. I don't stop working and my physical trainer sends me training exercises.”
As for medicine, she is halfway from her goal.
“I fulfilled half my dream when I graduated as a doctor. I have yet to complete my specialities, which are traumatology and orthopaedics, and another complementary one in spine surgery."
“Many people ask me if studying medicine has anything to do with my disability, but it really doesn't. It's really what I like best and what caught my attention.”
For the future of sport, her message is hopeful.
"Sports is on hold right now due to the pandemic. We know that this situation is continuing and it will not be easy, but we must keep faith and hope.”
The most important thing, she said, is “for everyone to follow the advice of the medical staff only. There are many people who have no knowledge whatsoever spreading messages about the coronavirus. As doctors, we know what we're dealing with, so we ask them to listen to us.”