Finland’s Toni Piispanen won 100m T51 Paralympic gold in front of British crowds at the London Games in 2012 – but since then he’s faced a new challenger for the top of the podium.
Belgium’s Peter Genyn took up Para athletics in 2013 and quickly rose to the top, winning double gold at Doha 2015, followed by European and Paralympic titles in 2016.
Genyn’s success came as no surprise to the Finn – the pair had faced each other playing wheelchair rugby. Now however, there are individual medals at stake.
IPC: How long have you known Peter for?
Piispanen: I have known Peter since about 1995, playing wheelchair rugby. I played for the Finnish team for 15 years before taking up Para athletics. We played against each other many times. I was playing in a semi-professional league in the USA and Peter did it as well, so I know him really well. I know how he moved around the rugby court and he knew how I did. We were very fast players in wheelchair rugby. So this is like a second rivalry now.
You have struggled with a shoulder injury for the last two years – are you feeling fit now?
It’s going pretty well and the shoulder is getting better every day. I had an operation in October, right after the Paralympics, and got back training in January. It started before the World Championships in 2015. It was very bad but it worked well when I was pushing, but after that it was so tired, even after just 10 seconds it was really hard to push.
Two weeks before Rio I knew that it would be game over but as an athlete you just hope for a miracle. I thought that 100m would be short enough to be okay but it wasn’t. When the Doctor operated he said it was a really bad situation. I was ready to end my career after Rio then I noticed in December that it felt like a new shoulder. I had a chance to try it and see how it worked. I got a new coach and renewed the whole system – and now it works.
Before my accident – I was injured in a karate accident – I was in the karate national team so I've been naturally quick all my life. So the sprinting came naturally to me.
Has Genyn helped you develop as an athlete?
In some ways yes – it keeps me thinking all the time about what to do a litte bit better. Now my new coach, who is the Finnish champion of the 100m hurdles, she has given me a lot of new information about how to develop in sprinting and I think that is working properly. She has seen many films of us racing together and she knows what both Peter and I are best at. I think Peter has benefited too. It’s good to have someone at the same level. It helps us to train and it motivates us even harder. Ninety-nine percent is not enough anymore, you have to have 100 per cent.
How easy is it to focus on yourself and not think about Peter, when you know him so well?
I guess it is easier to be in a competition, when you see your rival there you can just focus on your own race. When I'm training it’s a little bit harder as I cant see the other guy at all, so you are just thinking – if one day I feel a bit sick or if it is not the best day, I can think this cannot happen in the race.
In the Swiss series you couldn’t be separated – then you won in Nottwil. How important was that?
I was a little bit surprised that I was in that good shape as I've only been training since January, so my coach was a bit surprised too. It was really important mentally but it was just a step. It wasn’t our plan to be in the best shape in Switzerland – we will try to be in as good a shape as possible in London.
Do you feel more confident knowing you are not behind Peter even though you've only been training since January?
Of course – my main target is to get a medal in London and I would say I'm back on track again so I want to show myself that I can be at the top again. I'm not sure if I can be number one there – it depends on Peter. Of course I'm trying to do my best but I'm not so disappointed if I'm not number one there. Tokyo 2020 is my big aim.
You're still the world record holder and you have good memories of London - will that help?
Of course the good memories are helping me a little bit but I think when I'm racing with Peter it doesn’t matter if it’s a training venue or a big stadium. At the start line I just think about myself. My family and my friends are coming to London again and I guess when I see the Finnish flags it will help me to get more power to do my best. London 2012 is probably my best memories of wheelchair racing so im very happy to be back.
Do you think you are similar?
I think so, mentally we are quite similar. We both know what we have to do to be the number one. We train really hard and I guess we live like top level athletes should live. How we differ is that I have two children and I want to spend a lot of time with them. I also have a full-time job- I work at the Ministry of Education and Culture in Finland, in the National Sport Council. So I usually train in the evenings, so I guess we differ that way. I have a new system – like a warehouse next to my house, full of training machines with rollers so I can trian near my house..
What are your strengths compared to Peter?
He is so tall, with long arms, so I knew he would be good too. That’s why I was looking forward to meeting him on the track We are quite similar. Usually after 20 metres I am in front, but now it is the other way – Peter has a better start but I have better maximum speed. One year ago it was the other way around. I’m not sure if it’s because of my new training system or my new shoulder, but this is one thing we noticed in Switzerland. I talked with Peter and he was a little bit amazed too.