Paris 2024: Herbert Aceituno lifts El Salvador’s hopes of Paralympic glory

Para powerlifter Herbert Aceituno training for another podium finish after Tokyo breakthrough 08 May 2024
A male Para powerlifter lifts weight during a competition
Herbert Aceituno is enjoying making history for El Salvador every time he competes
ⒸGuillermo Legaria/ Getty Images
By AMP Media | For the IPC

When Herbert Aceituno first walked into a gym 15 years ago, few would have guessed that he was going to become a Para powerlifting superstar in El Salvador, winning the country’s first medal at any Olympic or Paralympic Games.

Convinced that “what God did not give me in height, he gave me in strength”, he hopes his early morning training sessions can upgrade his Tokyo 2020 bronze to a gold medal at Paris 2024. We caught up with him as he trains for his third Paralympic Games. 



You picked up powerlifting when you were 23. Can you tell us how you started? 

"It all started with an invitation from a friend. I practised sports, like every boy in our neighbourhood, and I was all about football, but my friend kept telling me about the gym. One day he said: 'now you are going to join me', so I did." 

"I started doing the exercises he told me to do, and I liked it. We were there for one or two hours, he saw that I liked it and had a bit of strength, so he told me I should continue if I wanted to. So, I went with him there for a week." 

How did Para powerlifting become your passion? 

"I started because I wanted to live healthily. I didn't have that discipline and was not so focused on the sport. But when I started to eat right, food prepared at home, and started to see changes in my body, I started to like it. I started training harder and soon realised that it had become a passion." 

"I spent six years in conventional competitions and learned a lot. There were some defeats, but my father told me that each defeat is another lesson in your life, you just have to see where you failed and improve. He was a fundamental pillar when I had him in my life and I believe that he is supporting me from heaven now." 


Aceituno is the first athlete to medal for El Salvador at the Olympic or Paralympic Games. @Alexandre Battibugli/Agitos Foundation


In January 2016 you competed at the World Cup that served as a Rio 2016 test event. How was that? 

"It was the first time I got the opportunity to go abroad for a competition. I was delighted, I had never travelled before. I had never been able to meet different people with disabilities and I won my first gold medal for my country." 

"I was very happy, excited, and anxious. At the time you don't understand that you've made history for your country and for people with some disability that they think they can't overcome." 

A few months later in your Paralympic debut, you were the only athlete from El Salvador, but blanked in your three attempts and got eliminated. What happened there, was it the nerves? 

"In the end I don't think it was so much the nerves but rather that I didn't get my grips right. But we turned the page and moved on quickly. 

“I was told 'you can't stop now' and about four months later I went to an open competition in Cali, Colombia, and won gold. There I showed that the first gold wasn't a coincidence." 


At the Lima 2019 Para Pan American Games you won gold, did you expect that? 

"It felt difficult as the rivals were all strong and very committed. But when I got a last chance to lift 182kg, I had the mentality of being able to set a Parapan American Games record. I set the record and made a historical mark.  

“I did not expect it, but we had been working towards getting to hear the anthem of El Salvador played in Lima." 

Aceituno celebrates gold at the Lima 2019 Parapans © Lima 2019

Two years later, at Tokyo 2020, you won El Salvador's first medal at any Paralympic or Olympic Games with bronze in the men's up to 59kg. How was that? 

"The medal took me by surprise. I had the desire of being able to represent my country with dignity and I carried something special with me. I had just lost my father and I believe that God gave me this strength." 

"I was very happy to get that medal and to have the joy of being part of history, arriving in El Salvador and being received as a national hero." 

Aceituno (right) with his fellow medallists at Tokyo 2020 © Hiroki Nishioka for World Para Powerlifting

How do you think your achievements have changed people's attitudes toward persons with disabilities? 

"Some people look at disability with pity, but I think it should be with amazement because in the end I always put it into practice that what God did not give me in height, he gave to me in strength." 

"I've turned into that sports figure that inspires people to say, 'if he did it, why can't I?' Many different people have told me that thanks to my efforts and dedication, they now follow my example, having seen life in a different way before. 

“It feels nice that anywhere you go, people want to take a photo or hear a story of what the Paralympic world is like.” 

Aceituno has carried El Salvador's flag at the Opening Ceremonies of both Tokyo 2020 and Rio 2016 © OIS

After defending your gold medal at the Santiago 2023 Parapan American Games, what are your expectations for Paris 2024? 

"A medal would be ideal, to show that what was done in Tokyo was not a coincidence. If the colour changes to silver or gold I'd welcome it, but I would also welcome a bronze, because I would feel proud, not only doing it for El Salvador, but all of central America. And I believe that there is potential." 

Is your shape gold medal-ready? 

"In training I surpass personal records but in competition it is already very different; there is judging and there is a stage, and it is not perfect. That gold medal, if God allows it, will arrive in due time either way." 


Book your tickets for the Paralympic Games by visiting the Paris 2024 ticketing website.