What motivated me to come back to table tennis is the love that I have for table tennis and sport in general.
A champion and a fighter are titles that represent Sandra Paovic, both in life and in sport. She reminded the world of that this past September in Beijing, taking home the class 6 title at the 2014 ITTF Para-Table Tennis World Championships. This achievement is No. 15 of the IPC’s Top 50 Moments of 2014.
Sandra’s journey to gold this year has been anything but easy; but since picking up a paddle at the age of five, she has not looked back.
Between 1999 and 2008, Paovic was at the top of her game. She was a member of the Croatian women’s table tennis team for eight World Championships, represented Croatia at the 2008 Olympic Games and entered the top 50 players in the world.
Paovic’s career was cut short on 30 January 2009, by a life threatening car accident en route to the airport in Paris following a match. She suffered a severe cervical spinal injury leaving her with limited use of her legs.
Road to recovery
With a long rehabilitation program in place, coupled with her dedication and desire to return to life as she knew it, Sandra began training for her return to the table.
“What motivated me to come back to table tennis is the love that I have for table tennis and sport in general. Many people were there for me on my way to success, but most important was that I believed in myself and that I never gave up.”
Turning her attention to para-table tennis in 2013, Paovic burst onto the international scene, quickly becoming the top women’s class 6 para-table tennis player in the world.
“The last 2 years were a big surprise for me regarding my success. I came back in much better shape than I thought I would. Although it’s hard for me to play and to stand for a long time on my legs, it is a lot of fun to be back.”
In her first year, Paovic took home a total of four international singles titles, including gold at the 2013 ITTF Para-Table Tennis European Championships. Her winning streak continued in 2014, taking the podium at four more international events and claiming the world title.
While citing her first match against Germany’s Stephanie Grebe as the most difficult one at the World Championships, Paovic dominated the competition. In the semi-final she met Russia’s Raissa Tchebanika, 2010 World Championships silver medallist and London 2012 Paralympic gold medallist, before moving on to the finals against Grebe.
The final came a little easier as they were matched up for a second time.
“I knew that if I played well then I was the biggest favourite for the title. But it was not easy to play every match at my highest level and push myself physically for so long. In the final I felt really good, my hand was confident and I was relaxed. I felt a lot of relief after the final; I was very proud and happy that I did it!”
The 31-year-old has added a world title to her long list of accomplishments. But she is not done yet.
“My hopes for Rio 2016 are high. I hope to win gold, but it is not going to be easy. I will have to play really good. After Rio I hope to become a coach and to stay in para-table tennis.”