‘We need to make a difference’ says Peruvian Para sports pioneer Lucha Villar

Named one of the 50 most powerful women in Peru, Lucha Villar has helped to grow Para sports in the country, including through the successful hosting of the Lima 2019 Parapan American Games 21 Apr 2023
A woman poses for a photo in front of a fountain with her hands clasped together.
Lucha Villar has been president of the National Paralympic Association of Peru since its inception in 2015.
By AMP Media I For The IPC

Para sports is always first and foremost about the athletes, but all those now proudly performing under a Peruvian flag know they owe Luisa Villar Galvez – more commonly known as Lucha Villar – an awful lot. 

In the past decade alone Villar has almost singlehandedly created the National Paralympic Association of Peru (ANPPERU), led the movement through a hugely important period culminating in the 2019 Pan American and Parapan American Games and driven a change of ethos in Para sports across the country. 

It is not a bad roll-call of achievements, something that the Latin American arm of world-renowned magazine Forbes recognised clearly by naming Villar as one of their 50 most powerful women in Peru. 

“Sometimes I ask myself why I still do it. I could go on holiday, stay at home. But seeing the athletes’ faces, their achievements, and when I see people understanding that sport is a human right, for people with or without a disability, it gives me strength and joy,” said the female leader, who has been president of ANPPERU since its inception in 2015. 

“We need to make a difference in the world, so why not in this way?” Villar added. 

A family of trailblazers

A look at Villar's DNA helps explain the passion that continues to propel this dynamo forward. 

“My grandfather was the first South American champion in the history of Peru in any sport. He won gold in the 400m hurdles in 1929. And his father created the South American Athletics Confederation,” Villar explained.

Naturally, sport was a big part of her early life. A keen athlete from the age of eight, Villar found the swimming pool while recuperating from a track injury. She flourished in the water, soon representing Peru and winning national 100m and 200m backstroke titles. A move to Brazil with her family meant she missed the chance to qualify for the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games but, happily, that was not the end of her life in sport. 

After graduating with a degree in physical education and living abroad for a further 12 years, Villar returned to her homeland, began teaching and soon found herself involved in Para sports. 

“One of the student’s fathers had a severe disability and his wife wanted to bring awareness about it,” Villar said. “A friend of mine found some videos, as there was no social media at the time.

“I started teaching students about disability and showing them that sport was for everyone.”

Villar had learned at a young age how important inclusivity is. When she was just three years old, her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour. 

“My mother needed rehabilitation and we would go to the hospital with her,” Villar said. “She could not stand up fast, run, had difficulty reading and writing. It was my first contact with someone with an impairment.”

Taking charge

By 2004 Villar's relationship with Para sport had grown to such an extent that she was named Peru’s Chef de Mission for the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games. It marked a huge moment in her life. 

“Going to those Games was a life lesson. I saw how Peru was behind, due to a lack of knowledge and ignorance about Paralympic sport,” she said. 

While those Games were personally significant, it was the announcement in 2013 that Peru had been chosen to host the 2019 Pan American and Parapan American Games that changed everything. 

“Lima 2019 was a before and after. A window was opened,” said the figure who spent two years creating ANPPERU. “It (the Games) changed people’s perception of the sport. We got more funding. Some athletes now have sponsorships.”

Hosts Peru finished 10th in the Lima 2019 Parapan medal table, recording their best Parapan result ever. The Peruvian athletes won a total of 15 medals, including five golds. The team followed that up at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, with Angelica Espinoza claiming gold in Para taekwondo – Peru’s first Paralympic champion in more than 20 years. 

Looking ahead with Peruvian pride

Now Villar and the rest of her team are focusing on the Santiago 2023 Parapan American Games - the goal is to win the same number of medals as they did at Lima 2019 – and the Paris 2024 Paralympic Games.

They also have the World Shooting Para Sports Championships taking place in Lima this year. 

“We are no longer going to these competitions only to take part. We are going to compete,” Villar said proudly.

While there is so much good news to celebrate, there is still, of course, plenty of work to do. 

“The Paralympic Movement in Peru is growing, but we need more people involved,” Villar said. “We need to have physical activities for people with disabilities. How can we get to a professional level without grassroots sport? There is still a long way to go.” 

While Villar called it “an honour” to receive the accolade from Forbes magazine, it is the work that she will continue to focus on – not least the idea of building a first ever dedicated Para sport training centre in Peru.

“It’s an ongoing battle,” she said. “Because we need to keep teaching people in a constructive way, so they are not sorry for individuals with disabilities but see them as people with determination who just struggle more because they don’t have the same opportunities or accessibility.”