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The home games: 5. Felipe da Sousa Gomes

Buda Mendes/Getty Images

Felipe da Sousa Gomes, sprinter
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

When the government of São Paulo enacted a statewide lockdown in March, Felipe da Sousa Gomes was convinced it would only last a couple of weeks. At the time, the 34-year-old was based in the city, where he held daily training sessions at the National Paralympic Centre. But as the virus spread and other states implemented lockdowns, it soon became obvious that the road ahead would be a long one.

“It was sad because I was at the final stage of preparations for the Paralympics,” laments the Brazilian sprinter and two-times gold medallist. As the situation worsened, da Sousa Gomes was forced to readjust his expectations about racing in Tokyo. “During lockdown my strength and speed started to decay and I put on a little weight,” he says. “I had to create new goals without knowing when I would be competing again.”

With his partner, fellow Paralympian Viviane Soares, da Sousa Gomes moved to Rio de Janeiro and alternated between his place in the favela Complexo da Maré and his mother-in-law’s apartment in Bairro Anchieta, at the city’s north-western border. Faced with the closure of local training facilities, he set up a makeshift gym on a balcony at Viviane’s family home. “Every morning, I’d warm up on a treadmill and then perform some jumps and sprint-specific exercises,” he says. “My guide was a clothesline that I held on to or simply touched with my head or neck.”

For da Sousa Gomes, who lost his sight as a child due to congenital glaucoma, everyday life in Maré became more challenging during lockdown. In Rio’s overcrowded favelas, home to 1.5 million people, the virus spread like wildfire. Nearly one in four people were infected, according to a survey led by the state’s mayoralty. Numerous families living in cramped spaces and a lack of proper sanitation make these slums a high-risk environment. “There was a lot of insecurity in the community,” says da Sousa Gomes. “A lot of people didn’t take the virus seriously. Many didn’t protect themselves or others; they didn’t stay at home, even with all the information on television. It’s unfortunate, but people make up their own laws where the state is absent.”

Brazil also had a false start in the battle against the new coronavirus. Since the early days of the pandemic, President Jair Bolsonaro routinely downplayed the effects of the virus and made his stance clear by opposing a national lockdown. He also launched attacks on state governors who put confinement measures in place, while sowing social divisions that ended up further delaying a coordinated reaction. Brazil is currently approaching five million cases with more than 140,000 deaths. “We’re still far behind,” says da Sousa Gomes. “The numbers continue to rise. Years from now, we’ll still be suffering the aftermath of the pandemic. But we have to bounce back somehow.”

Da Sousa Gomes is confident that Tokyo 2020 will take place next year. It will be his fourth Games, and perhaps his last. “It’s a bit scary to think about it,” he says. “All I know is how to be an athlete, a sprinter. Reaching the end of my career is unsettling, but it’s a decision I’ll have to make at some point. Until then I’ll keep giving my all, training and competing to be in Tokyo and reaching for the medals.”

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