By Theresa Gonzalez
Terezinha Guilhermina was given few breaks as a child. The Paralympic Games Gold Medalist was born with pigmentary retinosis, which left her with less than 5 percent of vision in both of her eyes. She grew up poor in Betum, Brazil with little food available for her and her 11 siblings (five of whom are also visually impaired) and she was bullied often for her disability. By the age of nine, she had lost her mother. Running became more than a sport that she loved, it was her ticket out of poverty.
Today, Guilhermina is the fastest fully blind female athlete in the world and holds the world record in the 100m, 200m and 400m events. This fall, she’ll compete on her home turf at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games with the hope of winning gold.
Guilhermina discovered Para athletics through a local organization that paired the visually impaired with sports. She started out in swimming, only because she couldn’t afford the shoes to run. Her sister, who was a maid at the time, lent Guilhermina her shoes to be able to run in local races. Without a guide to run beside her, and sustained mostly by flour and sugar, she’d train in the heat of the day when no one was on the track. But nothing could stop her from her goal to become a great athlete. With her first $40 win in a street race, Guilhermina bought a carton of yogurt, something she dreamed of eating as a child. Her goal started to seem possible.
Over time, Brazilian Paralympic officials started to take notice of Guilhermina’s abilities and she was chosen to compete in the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games in long-distance races (400m, 800m and 1500m). She earned a bronze medal in the 400m race and learned that sprints were more her thing.
In 2008 in Beijing, Guilhermina won her first Paralympic Games gold in the 200m, silver in the 100m and bronze again in the 400m. After the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games, she was eager to go home to show her father what she had achieved. Without electricity, he had to hold her medals up to candlelight to see them and at that point, she vowed to buy him a new home one day. “My father was 74 years old and he wanted a house in his neighborhood where he could keep his animals,” she remembers. “It was a dream come true. I totally transformed the house into one customized for him and it was very emotional. I feel lucky to be able to do these things.”
Success followed her to the London 2012 Paralympic Games, where she won two gold medals in the 100m and 200m events, becoming the world’s fastest blind sprinter. She picked up three more gold medals at the 2013 IPC Athletics World Championships in Lyon, France where she achieved Championship record times in the 200m and 400m events.
As a Team Visa athlete, Guilhermina joins 58 other Olympic and Paralympic athletes who embody Visa’s values of acceptance, partnership and innovation. “For me, being part of Team Visa means gaining global recognition for all that I’ve done and entering a top-rate team, top in the world, top in several areas,” she told Visa. “It’s a privilege, without a doubt a gift from God.” Through the Team Visa program, Visa sponsors Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls with financial and marketing support as they strive to accomplish a lifelong dream.
“Difficulties are like rocks,” Guilhermina said when asked how she inspires those who are struggling. “You can’t stop rocks from being in your path or stop people throwing rocks at you, but you can decide what to do with those rocks…so collect all the rocks that they throw in your path and build big so that your dreams can be shared the world over.” You can watch Guilhermina this fall at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games from September 7 through 18. With a collection of more than 500 vibrant and whimsical hair accessories, and her own line of eye shades that she wears while racing, she will be hard to miss as she races toward another gold, possibly record-breaking, win.
Theresa Gonzalez is a senior writer for Visa and the author of two Chronicle Books titles. She lives in San Francisco. Follow her on Twitter @theresagonzalez.
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