Berlin 2018 Home Grown Heroes: Irmgard Bensusan

Sprinter’s journey from Olympic athletics hopeful to Paralympic medallist 23 Jul 2018
By IPC

“That’s the thing I learned long ago - every race is a gift and every race is important. I’ve learned that with my accident. It’s a stepping stone but I think it’s more important enjoying myself and just being able to run will be good enough for me.”

The Friedrich-Ludwig-Jahn-Sportpark, venue for August’s World Para Athletics European Championships, holds a special place in Irmgard Bensusan’s heart. It was at that stadium four years ago that Bensusan was classified as a T44 Para athlete, providing her with the opportunity to continue a track and field career that had hung in the balance since injury upset her dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete in 2009.

“I’m basically going back to where it all started,” explained Bensusan. “That’s why for me it’s a very big thing and a very nostalgic event – it’s going back four years, the same year we had the Europeans (in Swansea, Great Britain) and the same place where I got classified. I’m very excited for the event because of that.”

Bensusan had been a highly promising young athlete in South Africa when a severe injury damaged the nerves below her right knee.

Warming up for the hurdles at the South African Junior Championships, she fell and was forced to withdraw from the competition.

“At first we didn’t know how bad everything was,” explained Bensusan. “At the beginning I had an operation and at first it was only the knee.

“The doctor said it would take six weeks, and I thought after six weeks I would be back on the track. Then they said six months, but after six months my nerve didn’t grow back.

“After one year I had another operation and I was told that if my nerve didn’t reach my muscle in 18 months then the muscle would not function like it used to. It never happened. I had planned my entire future around athletics, then one day I lost everything.”

Chasing the dream

During the 18 months of rehabilitation, Bensusan fell into depression. “It was devastating,” she admitted. She was desperate to run and compete again.

Her mother, who was born in Germany, was advised to contact Jorg Frischmann, Director of Sport for Persons with a Disability at the renowned athletics club, TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen. In 2014, Bensusan and her mother travelled together to the Berlin Grand Prix.

“I remember going in to classification and my Mum waited outside – she was always with me, supporting me – and for her I think it was just as devastating. Coming out of the room, I looked at my Mum and we both just burst out crying when I told her I got classified.

“I can’t explain that feeling inside – it was like I could do the thing I loved again and chase my dream.”

Record breaker

The 27-year-old has now been competing for Germany for four years. At the last European Championships in Grosseto, Italy in 2016, she won 100m and 200m T44 gold as well as 400m T44 silver.

She won three Paralympic silver medals at Rio 2016 and improved on her 400m T44 silver at the Doha 2015 World Championships with gold at London 2017. In June this year she smashed the 200m T44 world record, clocking 26.53.

Next month she will go for gold in the 100m and 200m in Berlin, racing against the likes of Dutch T64 Para athlete, Marlene van Gansewinkel, who recently set a new 100m T64 world record of 12.88.

“Even though Marlene is really fast and in shape, I won’t be able to write anyone else off either,” said Bensusan, who is the fastest on paper this year in the 200m, and second fastest in the shorter sprint behind van Gansewinkel.

“We’ve seen many times that anything can happen in finals - it’s not just me and Marlene, there are a lot of other good competitors who will push us as well.”

But for Bensusan, who will have her mother in the crowds watching her, just the fact that she can compete means everything to her.

“That’s the thing I learned long ago - every race is a gift and every race is important. I’ve learned that with my accident. It’s a stepping stone (to the 2019 Worlds and Tokyo 2020) but I think it’s more important enjoying myself and just being able to run will be good enough for me.”