Belarus’ Ihar Boki finished the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games with the most gold medals won by any athlete across any sport. And there is no doubt he hopes to match – or better – that performance at Tokyo 2020.
The S13 swimmer topped the podium six times, winning the 100m butterfly; 200m individual medley (SM13); 100m backstroke; and 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle events. But as for many athletes, Boki’s preparations for Tokyo have been far from easy, including the added challenge of contracting COVID-19.
“All of us together have tried to overcome this situation with minimum losses,” said Boki. “I also got COVID-19, after which it was very complicated to recover. I have tried to do my best to prepare for the major international competitions of the current season.”
The added challenges to his pre-Games preparations have made his recent results all the more remarkable. At June’s European Championships in Madeira, Portugal, he came away with six golds and one silver, along with two world records.
“The performance in Madeira was quite good, especially when taking into account all the restrictions caused by the pandemic,” said Boki.
“I was satisfied most of all with my final result in the 100m butterfly,” he added, reflecting on breaking his own world record in a new time of 53.72. “My performance in Madeira has given me optimism and a basis for a new Paralympic hope and dream.”
Boki at the 2021 European Championships ©Pedro Vasconcelos
The 27-year-old’s Paralympic dream has been a long time in the making. He started swimming at a young age and knew he wanted to continue competitively. His family encouraged him along the way.
“I had vision problems from my childhood. I was a fidgeting and energetic kid. My parents often asked doctors what could be done to make me calmer, which sport to choose. One of the doctors strongly recommended to practice only swimming. So, the choice was made.”
Fast forward to his first Paralympics – and perhaps unsurprisingly, the emotions of the journey suddenly hit him, having become the Paralympic champion at the very first attempt.
“I will never forget my first appearance at the Paralympic Games in London in 2012,” said Boki, who won five golds and one silver, while breaking four world records. “It was a very successful performance and I felt a whirlwind of emotions.”
Nine years later, the Belarusian is looking forward to his third Paralympic Games. And while his Games-time experience will undoubtedly help, the pandemic adds a new dimension to the atmosphere, not least because of the absence of international fans. According to Boki, one thing it will not impact is the quality of the performances.
“For me, the presence of fans in the swimming pool during competitions does not play an important role. The European Championships in Madeira has proven once again that without fans, such tournaments have not lost their significance and swagger.
“All participants of the Games have already become accustomed to pandemic circumstances which have really made them stronger, physically and mentally,” continued Boki. “To my mind, it will in no sense impact the athletes’ performances and desire to show their best skills to the public.”
The protocols around Tokyo are not the only changes this year. The swimming programme will feature six fewer events, with 146 compared to 152 at Rio 2016. While two mixed gender 4x100m freestyle relays have been added, one of Boki’s events – the 100m freestyle – will not feature.
Despite the changes, the Belarusian has a clear target in mind for Tokyo.
“The main goals for Tokyo are to improve my times in all swimming disciplines. But I don`t want to think about this too much. Together with my coach, we will continue training and doing the hard work.”
Alongside the athletic achievements, the records and the medals, for many people the Paralympic Games will stand for something more this year. Boki is certain Tokyo 2020 will have added significance.
“I believe that the upcoming Paralympic Games will certainly demonstrate for the entire world that everything depends upon ourselves, our character and our determination to overcome hardship.”