Meet Hungary's Paralympic champion Ekler, the university teacher boosting Para sports

Luca Ekler, who won the women’s long jump T38 at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, says finding Para athletics was ‘a dream come true’ 12 May 2023
A female athlete smiles for a photograph while holding a gold medal with her right hand and a bouquet with her left hand.
Ekler competed in three events at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.
ⒸChristopher Jue/Getty Images
By AMP Media | For IPC

Hungary’s Paralympic champion Luca Ekler has started teaching a Para athletics course at a university, hoping that others can discover Para sports earlier in life than she did.

In 2017, Ekler watched Para sports for the first time at the World Para Athletics Championships in London. Four years later, the 24-year-old athlete won the women’s long jump T38 gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games.

“I started competing in 2019 and had my first European championship that year. It has been like a sprint,” said Ekler, who holds the world record in the long jump T38.

“I think it has to do with fate. I always had a strange feeling that something bigger was waiting for me.”

Ekler found out about Para sports in 2017, four years before making her Paralympic debut at Tokyo 2020. @Alex Pantling/Getty Images

A family of athletes

Growing up with three brothers, two of whom would end up playing top-level water polo in Hungary, sports have always been a big part of Ekler’s life. 

“I love that I have brothers because I think it made me stronger,” she said. “I was always something like a leader for them. I think it’s a good thing, and we have had a strong bond since our childhood days.”

Her brothers Bendegúz and Zsombor played for the Hungarian national team at the youth level. Bendegúz won a bronze medal at the 2018 Youth Water Polo World Championships.

“We motivate each other with the results and everything - the hard work we put into everyday life,” the Paralympic champion said. “I think it was good to grow up in a place where we all wanted to do our best every day and wanted to achieve so much more. My father, my mother and also my grandparents were sporty, so it’s in our veins.”

Ekler had been a promising tennis player before she had a stroke when she was 10 years old, and she was paralysed on the left side of her body.

“My tennis career went well, and I loved the sport but I had to quit,” she said. “I wanted to find another sport that fits me. I tried football, volleyball, and also gymnastics, but I felt like I didn’t fit in.”

Feeling free

Growing up in the Hungarian city of Szombathely, Ekler did not come across Para sports until she saw the Hungarian twin sisters Bernadett and Ilona Biacsi compete at the London 2017 World Para Athletics Championships  – and decided she wanted to join them.

“Before watching the World Championships, I didn’t know there were Para sports. I asked my mother if I could compete with them there. This was an important moment for me and my family.”

Ekler and her family contacted the Hungarian Paralympic Committee. Her father took her to her first training session, and she immediately felt she was in the right place.

“I just fell in love because everything went perfectly with my disability, and I didn’t feel different. I felt free, and I just enjoyed everything,” Ekler said. 

“In 2019, in Italy, I had my first race with disabled people like me. It was then I could finally find myself and accept myself for who I am, and it was really a dream come true. 

“It felt like home. (It was) where I belonged. I hadn’t really felt that before or felt that I needed that feeling, but when I actually did, it was really breath-taking.”

The perfect Paralympic debut

Fast-forward two years, and Ekler was in for another breathtaking moment – on the top of the podium after the Paralympic Games long jump final at the National Stadium in Tokyo. Two years on, she still struggles to describe her emotions that day.

“I still can’t find the right words because it was so perfect in every possible way. It was a dream come true. Winning at the Paralympic Games was everything I had hoped for and worked for,” the athlete said.

She introduced a Para athletics university course to teach people how to train athletes with impairments. @ Alex Pantling/Getty Images

Ekler's life changed after winning the gold medal. She shot to stardom in her home country and also received the Hungarian Order of Merit for her sporting feats.

Now she hopes to use her platform to help spread the word about Para sports.

“After winning the gold medal, I had so many enquiries for a few months. And it has continued. It’s a great thing. I have a new sponsor, which I’m also happy about. I have more opportunities and maybe a stronger voice,” she said.

“(Para sports) gives me the passion, that I do what I love the most, and I think it’s the most important thing. I love trying to be the best version of myself and trying to beat myself every day, going higher and higher, motivating other people to believe that they can also achieve so much more than they think. They are capable of everything if they work hard.”

Boosting Para sports in Hungary

Ekler’s work to boost Para sports in Hungary goes beyond the regular media interview hustle. She and a friend have introduced a Para athletics university course to teach athletes, physical education teachers, coaches and others about how to train athletes with impairments.

She wants to introduce the Para sport to more people and eliminate the prejudice that people may still have about Para sports.

“I want to go for it because it’s important for me to train coaches and people in sports to understand Para athletics. People here need to find a different way of thinking,” she said.

“They don’t have many opportunities to learn about Para sport and Para athletics, so I will give that to them.”

She started teaching the courses, which last for one five-month semester, in September 2022, and says the feedback has been great.

“The students have said they enjoyed it,” Ekler said. “They found a world that was a little hidden for them. So it has been interesting for them to get to know the world of Para sport.”

For Ekler, teaching also helps more people learn about Para sports at an earlier stage in life than she did.

“It’s a good feeling because maybe we will have more coaches in Para athletics, and we can give the opportunity for many more children to get to know Para sport and maybe find something that will drive them in their lives,” she said.

“That’s my inspiration because when I was younger, I didn’t really know a thing about Para sport.”

Big goals in Paris

But her own career has only just started. With the World Para Athletics Championships Paris 2023 coming up in July and the Paralympic Games in the same city one year later, Ekler hopes to return to Hungary with more medals to impress her students with.

“I’m really hungry for more,” she said.

“I’m looking forward to the World Championships and the Paralympic Games, and I hope I will see better results than in the last few years.”

Also a sprinter, Ekler finished fourth in the women’s 100m final and fifth in the 400m at Tokyo 2020, leaving room for improvement at Paris 2024. But her aim is not for any specific medal, just to improve on her own results.

“I don’t think about medals. I think about times and metres. It gives me so much more motivation,” she said.

“I want to improve in any way possible. I want to beat my world record. I want to jump more than six metres, and in the 400m I want to go under 60 seconds. But I am hoping for the shiniest medals too.

“I really want to defend my title in the long jump and maybe set another world record. I also want to get closer (to the gold medal) in the 100m and 400m because I feel I have so much more in me.”

Paris is a special place for Ekler, who set her first world record in the French capital when she competed there in 2019. Now she has two major competitions in the city to look forward to. 

“Tokyo was my first Paralympic Games, but Paris will also feel like my first in a way because it will be so different. There will be crowds and my family will be able to be there,” Ekler said. “This will be something extra. I will love to compete in a stadium with a full crowd.”

The Paralympic champion also feels stronger than two years ago.

“I work harder, and I’m much more focused now because I’ve finished university, and I’ve got more focus on the training,” Ekler said.

“I put all my energy and every aspect of my life – food, recovery, sleep – into that. I’m also developing in other areas. I know I have to do that if I want to get better.”