“Para athletes have had an impact on the society because by watching their outstanding achievements, people get motivated to always push forward in their lives and to never give up.”
Nothing would be the same for Saul Mendoza after winning his maiden Paralympic title at Atlanta 1996. As a result of this achievement, the Mexican wheelchair racer started devoting his life entirely to training and Para sports in Mexico, and began to enjoy increased recognition.
Mendoza won the men’s 5,000m T52/53 with a time of 10:46.83, just ahead of Belgium’s Steve Orens (10:46.92) and Switzerland’s Franz Nietlispach (10:47.05), who completed the podium.
“It is definitely amongst one of the most important moments in my sporting career,” said Mendoza, who won two golds, one silver and three bronzes over seven Paralympic Games.
“Since then, I decided to devote myself exclusively to training and competing and I began racing in the USA’s professional circuit.
“I used to compete in the 800m and the marathon, but my stronger events were the 1,500m and the 5,000m.”
After taking one silver and two bronzes on his Paralympic debut in Seoul, South Korea, in 1988, and leaving Barcelona 1992 medal-less, Mendoza was determined to top the Paralympic podium in Atlanta. With that goal in mind, he followed a strict and tough training programme.
“In the lead-up to those Games, I used to do two training sessions per day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon,” he explained.
“Average, I used to run over 150km during the week, whilst on the weekends I used to travel somewhere in the USA or even abroad to compete. I managed to participate in more than 30 races per year.”
In order to reach his best possible shape, Mendoza took part in a wheelchair racing demonstration event at the Atlanta 1996 Olympic Games, finishing fifth in the men’s 1,500m.
“Even though it was an exhibition, that race was important for me because I could compete under the rain, which would end up being a useful experience ahead of the Paralympics, where I ran the heats, the semi-finals and the final under the rain,” he said.
“I really did not think I could win gold in the 5,000m T52/53, but since then I have become quite a specialist in racing under bad weather conditions.”
Mendoza went on to compete in four more Paralympic Games, sealing bronze in the 800m T54 at Sydney 2000 and a second gold in the 1,500m T54 at Athens 2004. But nothing can be compared with that first taste of gold, in Atlanta.
“The truth is the mass media in Mexico started talking about Para sports much more since then,” he said.
“I also believe that Para athletes have had an impact on the society because by watching their outstanding achievements, people get motivated to always push forward in their lives and to never give up.”
Editor’s note: “Throwback Thursday” is a feature series published on Paralympic.org twice a month, bringing you some of the top Paralympic athletes of the past.