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The home games: 3. María Angélica Bernal

Photo: Guillermo Legaria/Getty Images

María Angélica Bernal, tennis player
Bogotá, Colombia

María Angélica Bernal was just about to start a tournament in the US when Covid-19 intervened. “The organisers said we had to get home as soon as possible,” the 25-year-old Colombian paralympian says five months later. “I suddenly went from playing tennis to desperately searching for flights online before they closed the airports.”

When Bernal made it back to Bogotá she had to go into quarantine at her parents’ home, and shortly after that had finished the whole country was put into lockdown. “I made the most of my time,” she says. “I trained but I also taught myself how to make desserts and how to paint from internet videos. And I got to spend a lot of time with my little dog, Lucky, who always comes with me on training sessions.” Bernal incorporated Lucky into certain exercises, using her pet as an improvised dumb-bell.

In August Bernal temporarily moved to Fusagasugá, a small town south-west of the capital, where she could train on her own Covid-secured court. She spent her days studying for her degree in international relations and preparing for the delayed Paralympics, which will be her third outing. “I could see as early as January that there was a strong chance the Games wouldn’t happen,” she says. “So I took the news of the postponement well. I hope we can compete in front of spectators next year; I think that in tennis the support of the crowd can make such a difference.”

Born without a right leg, Bernal began playing tennis at the age of 11, and is currently the women’s world number ten. When she was 15, she and her family set up Semillas sin Barreras, a wheelchair tennis school for disadvantaged kids in Bogotá. “I wanted to spread the message that disability should not be seen as a limitation but rather as a different ability, and that with discipline and determination everything is possible,” she says. Keeping the school going via online sessions during lockdown was not easy. “These are really little kids, some as young as eight, and so having them in front of a screen doing exercises was difficult. A lot of them don’t have much space in their houses and some didn’t have rackets.” Bernal and her parents set to work calling up sports companies and getting them to lend rackets to those kids who needed them: she hopes to see them back on the courts before long.

While Bernal is anxious about the Colombian economy, which registered a 20.6 percent year-on-year fall in June, she can see silver linings to the lockdown. “It has led to more empathy and more solidarity and has given people a chance to focus on their health, and to realise how materialistic and fast our lives had become,” she says. “We had lost the essence of things. I hope we can hold on to it when things start to go back to normal.”

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