Gold medalist Luca Ekler at the medal ceremony for the Women's Long Jump - T38 at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. (© Photo by Christopher Jue/Getty Images)
We interviewed Paralympic champion Luca Ekler, who spoke about her experiences in Tokyo, her career and volunteering.
For you, athletics has always been more than just a sport, you have found yourself again in the world of para-athletics. Please tell us a little about how athletics has helped you to accept yourself and your new situation?
It took me a year to recover after I had a stroke when I was 10, but when I was able to start doing sport again, I couldn't continue playing tennis, so I started looking for a sport where I could find the passion that I had in tennis. I tried several sports, but in none of them I felt that I could fully fit in with my disability. I went with my father to an athletics training session and it was that session that changed me, where I found a sport where I felt free again. To this day when I run or jump I feel like I'm flying. No one can take away from me the freedom I felt then. With my disability, I felt free to do sport again and I really enjoyed it. For a long time I competed with able-bodied athletes, I didn't know there was para-athletics. Although I started athletics in 2012, it wasn't until around 2017 that para-athletics came knocking on my door. However, it was a real breakthrough, because I often felt that I was different, that I was competing with a disadvantage, and that people often didn't even know about my disability, because it wasn't obvious. Thanks to a coincidence I found para-athletics and in 2018 I qualified for my first world competition. It was then, at my first World Cup, that I felt I had come home and found my place. I met athletes with similar injuries to me, I saw how they do sport to the full, with joy and enthusiasm. It helped me a lot.
Luca Ekler celebrates winning the gold medal after competing in the Women's Long Jump - T38 final at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Photo by Alex Pantling/Getty Images
At last year's Tokyo Paralympics, you won a gold medal in the long jump with a world record. How did it feel to come home from the Paralympics with gold?
For me, the Paralympics was the culmination of an incredible journey. I had a great time all the way through, it was exhilarating to stand on the top step of the podium. Coming home with a world record and gold made me very proud of myself and all my family and friends. It feels good to have everyone's pride and to have them cheering for me, without them I would definitely not have made it this far. Coming home was the fulfillment I felt in finding something I could do with love and passion and in finding myself and my purpose for my days again. For me, that was the greatest happiness.
Since then, your life has been turned upside down, you have received numerous requests and media invitations. How do you manage the sudden popularity?
After the Paralympics, I received many more inquiries, but I couldn't meet all of them even though I didn't train for two months after the Paralympics. I'm very happy that there is such attention for para-sport, it's a positive thing, we have to manage it and use it for good things. It is important that as many people as possible are aware of para-sport and para-athletics. After an Olympic Games, many people with disabilities start playing sport, it's a great motivation for them and for able-bodied people.
What does volunteering mean to you? How do you think volunteering can help a young person's life?
I think volunteering comes from the heart. When you volunteer you don't ask questions, you just go and try to find the place where you are most needed. You do what you do because that's why you're there. For me, it's about unconditional help and putting your own resources into the cause. As well as being able to get close to a lot of people through volunteering and helping them, it's also a kind of spiritual cleansing for me. I always leave with a lighter heart and with connections that can be uplifting.
Volunteering can bring many qualities to a young person's life that they may not have the opportunity to experience elsewhere. The selflessness, helpfulness and love that surrounds volunteering is very hard to find elsewhere. Later on in life, the experiences, memories and lessons learnt during volunteering can be very useful, and even the motivation and inspiration drawn from the lives of others can help to push through the problems that arise.
Have you ever volunteered?
Yes, several times. I first came across volunteering in my scout troop and later on I have been volunteering in many places. As sport is my life, I was a volunteer coordinator for the 2018 World Wrestling Championships, and also volunteered at the Winners' Association, where I helped out with my fellow students on a sports day for children recovering from cancer. After returning from the Paralympics, I also had another important task as a volunteer ambassador for the International Eucharistic Congress, for which the work started before the Olympics. I was trying to spread the news of the congress to as many people as possible. For me, this was a very important task, as I live my daily life as a believer, and faith has often given me the strength to overcome difficult situations. My witness during the Budapest Congress was a very important moment for me and one of the highlights of the event.
As one of the most successful Hungarian athletes, what is your message to the volunteers of the World Championships?
Yes, I'm really looking forward to next year's World Athletics Championships and I'm very happy to be able to speak to the volunteers. It's an incredible thing for me and I'm happy to be able to advocate for it, as it's what I love the most and I have the future of athletics at heart. Through the 2023 competition, I hope to bring not only athletics but para-athletics to more people. I hope we will have many enthusiastic volunteers.
And what is your message to young athletes who are just finding athletics and to the youngsters who are already in the sport?
For those young athletes who are still looking for their place, I would advise them to try as many sports as possible, and within athletics as many disciplines as possible. Even if athletics might not be the sport they choose, it will be a very good foundation for other sports later on, because they will be exposed to versatile training and a form of movement that might not be found in other sports. Those who are already involved in athletics should always set themselves a goal to improve. This could be to improve their individual record or individual score, either in training or in competition. We need to have goals and motivations in front of us to help us push through the tough days. Love what you do because that's the most important thing. If you have that, that's the biggest motivation.