Paralympic champion Czyz sets sights on Paris 2024 in Para badminton

Wojtek Czyz, a former sprinter and long jumper, took up Para badminton only a few years ago. Now, he is on a mission to qualify for Paris 2024, his fourth Paralympic Games, in the new sport 23 Jun 2023
A male athlete serving in a badminton match
Czyz played at his first international badminton tournament, representing New Zealand, in 2022.
ⒸBadmintonphoto/James Varghese/Craig Burgess
By Ayano Shimizu | The IPC

Wojtek Czyz has captured four gold medals in numerous Paralympic Games. But the former track and field star says that booking a spot at the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games in a new sport - Para badminton - would be like winning a gold medal. 

Czyz, who represented Germany at three Games starting with Athens 2004, took up Para badminton only a few years ago. He was initially curious to see where the sport could take him, which soon developed into a new goal.

The 42-year-old athlete is aiming to qualify for Paris 2024 and return to the Paralympic Games, which gave him a “motivation in life” after he lost his left leg at the age of 21. 

“I have a very short time to try to close the gap,” Czyz said, referring to some of the world’s top badminton players. “But here I am preparing for the opportunity to qualify for Paris. It would be a fantastic journey for me to make it in a completely different (sport).” 

Czyz won the men's 100m and 200m T42, and the long jump F42 at Athens 2004. @Lars Baron/ BONGARTS/ Getty Images

A new sport

Badminton was one of Czyz’s hobbies when he was growing up in Germany. After moving to New Zealand in around 2019, he learned that Para badminton would make its Paralympic debut at Tokyo 2020. He reached out to Badminton New Zealand to assess his skills and attended training camps. 

“Initially it wasn’t the idea of competing at Paris, it was simply the idea of diving into something and to challenge myself again,” he explained. 

“(Badminton New Zealand) assessed me and said, ‘Wow, Wojtek, that’s not so bad’ and everyone knows that when I start something, I don’t give 20 or 40 or 50 per cent. I always give 100 per cent. This is where my passion started for Para badminton.” 

Czyz has won seven medals across three Paralympic Games. @Badmintonphoto/James Varghese/Craig Burgess

Czyz says that Para badminton is a “very demanding” sport. While he has an advantage in speed on the court, developing his technique with a racquet has been a challenge. 

But he saw how much he improved, and the possibility of going to Paris was the encouragement he needed. 

“After some months, when I saw my progress, I asked myself, ‘Why shouldn’t I consider Paris 2024? I still have two years, maybe I can make it and maybe I will be good enough’.” 

From a champion to a rookie

Since he started competing in Para athletics, Czyz had always felt immense pressure to be the best in the world. But Para badminton allows him to feel free. 

“As a track and field athlete, six months after my amputation, I was already the German champion in long jump and 100m. So I was the hunted one. I always had this pressure that I need to win, I need to be the best,” Czyz explained. 

“In Para badminton, I am the rookie, I am the guy who is there to gain experience, which is so nice. I have no pressure; I simply enjoy the competition much more and try to win every game.” 

Czyz made his international debut playing for New Zealand at a tournament in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, in 2022. Since then, he has participated in a number of international meets, and is ranked world No. 21 in the men’s singles SL3 class, as of June 2023. 

“As a sprinter, you are running straight for 100 metres and (the competition is) over. (In long jump) you are running, jumping, which is already technically advanced, then landing (and the event is) done.  

“But on the badminton court, you have an ongoing situation where you have rallies of 50, 60, or 70 shots. And every shot is different, every shot has to be approached and you have to be prepared for the next one.” 

Czyz says he feels free of pressure when he plays Para badminton and enjoys each and every match. @Badmintonphoto/James Varghese/Craig Burgess

Opening a new door

Before he lost his leg, Czyz was a football player who had just signed his first contract to play professionally with a team in Cologne, Germany. 

However, during his final match as an amateur, he collided with the goalkeeper of the opposing team. He sustained severe injuries and was diagnosed with compartment syndrome. He eventually underwent above-the-knee amputation of his left leg.

"When I lost my leg, I had just put my signature on a professional football contract. I was not able to play even one game as a professional player," Czyz recalled. "So you have to imagine that at that moment, I thought life was over for me. It was such a big frustration, disappointment, depression. Everything negative you could imagine was in my head." 

"Luckily, I met the right people who opened a new door for me, and that new door was Para sport." 

While in rehabilitation, Czyz was introduced to Roberto Simonazzi, a five-time Paralympian from Germany.

One day, Simonazzi asked him why he wanted to become a football player. Czyz explained that he dreamed of playing in a packed stadium. He wanted to see thousands of fans and hear supporters chant his name whenever he scored a goal. 

Then Simonazzi handed him a video tape.  

"It was a film about the Paralympics in Barcelona 1992. There was a full stadium and there was cheering for this athlete. And I was like, 'Wow, here we go.'

"Paralympics were the new motivation in my life and basically brought me back to life," Czyz said. 

Czyz says he still remembers the large crowd at the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games. @Ker Robertson/Getty Images

Three Paralympic Games, seven medals

After his life-changing encounter with Simonazzi, Czyz’s new goal was to compete at Athens 2004. Roughly six months after his amputation, he was already competing and winning medals in Germany. 

At the Athens Games, he topped the podium in all three events he competed in - the men's 100m and 200m T42, and the long jump F42 event. 

"I entered the stadium in Athens and people were standing there. It was simply, 'Wow' and then to win three gold medals. It's hard to describe how crazy this was, it was stunning," he said. 

"It was absolutely a life-changer and made me one of the most famous German Paralympians and helped a lot in terms of support for people with impairments to accept that there is a professional approach to sport." 

The athlete went on to win another gold medal at Beijing 2008 and bag three medals - a silver and two bronze - before drawing the curtain on his athletics career in 2013. 

Following his retirement, Czyz launched the "Sailing4handicaps" foundation. He sailed to about 20 countries to help provide prosthetic legs and offer people with disabilities a “new opportunity” in life.

Through the foundation, he supported around 90 people with a prosthetic leg before putting the project on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Golden goals

With the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games approaching, the athlete trains twice a day in hopes of booking a spot and experiencing the excitement he first felt in Athens two decades ago.  

For Czyz, qualifying for Paris 2024 in Para badminton would be like winning a gold medal. @Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty Images

But at the same time, he understands that it is a difficult mission. 

“I am realistic, and I know that there are much better players out there. I’ve already faced some of them. But it’s a great pleasure for me to challenge these guys. I enjoy going to my limits and even beyond,” the Paralympian said. 

“I accept that I can lose because I simply have 20 years less practice on the court. But it’s beautiful to be back on a circuit where you see a professional setup and interest for athletes and players delivering great results.”