It is no understatement when Natalia Partyka says that sport is her “whole life”.
A six-time Paralympian, the 32-year-old Polish table tennis star has also competed at four Olympic Games, carving her spot in history at Beijing 2008 as the first Para table tennis player to become an Olympian.
On the scoreboard too Partyka is one of the most dominant players in the sport. She has won four Paralympic singles titles in the women’s class 10 as well as six world titles.
But all this might not have happened if not for some fortunate coincidences.
“I always underline how lucky I was, as the (table tennis) club was very close to my home, so I had favourable conditions to grow from the start,” Partyka said. ”I consider myself really lucky to have discovered sport so early and be accepted by the community. I had plenty of opportunities to grow, and I tried to use my chances the best I could.”
Partyka was born without a right hand and forearm and began playing table tennis when she was seven years old. At first, she played with her older sister, but later started going to tournaments and sports camps with the disabled community – an experience that motivated her to continue.
“Those athletes showed me a disability is not the end of the world, I can do whatever I want and do it well, and I can reach my potential in sport,” Partyka said. “I truly had great role models.”
Getting an early start to her career, Partyka made history by the time she was 11 when she became the youngest ever table tennis Paralympian at Sydney 2000.
Four years later, at Athens 2004, she became the youngest table tennis player to win a Paralympic gold medal, and in another four years she made history yet again as the first table tennis athlete to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games. She also competed in both Games in 2012 and 2016.
Australia’s Melissa Tapper is the only other Para table tennis player who has also competed in an Olympic Games. Tapper made her Olympic debut at Rio 2016 and repeated this feat at Tokyo 2020.
While Partyka’s accomplishments have already made history, the Polish athlete is still far from done.
“I will definitely try to qualify for the Paralympics and the Olympics in Paris,” she said. ”Especially for the Paralympics, as in Tokyo I lost in the semi-finals (of the women’s singles class 10). Because of my ambition, I am bothered about that. I want to make up for it.”
While Partyka’s sights are set on taking revenge at Paris 2024, she admits that medals are not everything when it comes to sport.
“Not everyone will become an Olympic or Paralympic champion and not everyone will win medals. But this is not the most essential. What counts is the road we, the athletes, take every day,” Partyka said. “It is a powerful life lesson well worth participating in. The benefits are countless. If on top of that we succeed, it is remarkable.”
Among these benefits, Partyka says she is grateful to sport for broadening her horizons with travel opportunities and diverse acquaintances.
She now hopes to give back to the Para sports world to help it grow further.
“I have achieved almost everything in my life through sports. I am grateful that I have lived this beautiful adventure for so many years. I hope to continue for at least a few more years,” Partyka said.
”There is still a lot to do and I can contribute to many positive things.”