Maria Carolina Santiago, a name for each gold medal won at the Paralympic Games in Tokyo 2020. The swimmer emerged as the biggest winner among the 260 Brazilian athletes who traveled to Japan to climb the podium in five of the six events in which she competed. Santiago won the 50m freestyle, the 100m freestyle and the 100m breaststroke, breaking two Paralympic records, and was also silver in the 4x100m mixed freestyle relay and bronze in the 100m backstroke. All tests disputed in classes for the visually impaired. A devastating start for the 36-year-old from Pernambuco, who, in her Paralympic debut, has already entered history as one of the most awarded Brazilian athletes in history and heads the best swimming performance in the country in this competition.
Born in Recife, Maria Carolina grew up in Caruaru, a city in the interior 130 kilometers from the capital of Pernambuco. She has the syndrome called Morning Glory, a rare condition that affects the nervous system and has reduced her vision to 30% capacity. He began to practice swimming at the age of four because of the low impact that the sport would have on his impaired vision. At 12, he already competed in competitions for athletes with disabilities and in open water. However, five years later, she was completely blind for eight months due to the accumulation of water in her retina. He healed, but abandoned the sport. He only went back to a swimming pool ten years later, when he was 27.
The break explains the debut late of Santiago in a Paralympics, at 36 years old. Although Paralympic sport is known for enabling competition between athletes who are older than the conventional, the case is not quite common in swimming —Daniel Dias, the sport’s biggest idol, announced his retirement at age 33 after four Paralympics. It is the same age at which Carol first joined a Paralympic swimming club, Grêmio Náutico União de Porto Alegre, in 2018.
From there, she quickly ascended to the top of sport. The following year, he competed in the Parapan-American and the World in London. In Parapan, four diamonds: 50m freestyle, 100m freestyle, 400m freestyle and 100m backstroke. At the Worlds, two more gold medals, in the 50m and 100m freestyle, and two silvers, in the 100m backstroke and 4x100m freestyle relay. Despite the year 2020 without attending competitions, Carolina returned to the Brazilian Paralympic selective in June 2021, breaking the world record of the 50m freestyle and qualifying for six Paralympic events.
To warm up, the Brazilian’s first final at the Tokyo Paralympics ended with a bronze medal, in the 100m backstroke of the S12 class. The second, two days later, was concluded with gold and a new Paralympic record: 26s82 in the 50m freestyle S13. First place broke a 17-year fast without a Brazilian woman winning a Paralympic swimming event. The last one had been with Fabiana Sugimori, in Athens 2004. Later, Santiago took his second gold, in the 100m freestyle S12, and, on the same day, was silver in the 4x100m freestyle mixed 49 points. Finally, he closed his participation with another gold medal and a Paralympic record (1min14s89), in the 100m breaststroke S12, on the 1st of September. The only final that didn’t make it to the podium was the 100m butterfly S12, which finished in sixth place.
“I have always been passionate about swimming. It’s where I feel best, where I feel happy. I feel this feeling of being where I wanted to be. It’s my best version”, declared emotionally live on Meeting with Fatima Bernardes, TV Globo program, after its last gold medal. “I have been living the best moments of my life. May these important results in women inspire new athletes. Let other girls see that it’s possible”, she wished.
Both S12 and S13 are swimming categories for the visually impaired. This Paralympic sport is home to the functionally disabled from S1 to S10, visually impaired from S11 to S13 and intellectuals in S14. Carol is not totally blind (like S11), so she is allocated to S12. She competed in the 50m freestyle in S13 because there weren’t enough S12 athletes to form the event in this category. In the case of the 4x100m free mixed 49-point relay, the modality is played in such a way that the sum between the classes of the four athletes involved is equal to or less than 49. Brazil, for example, competed with Wendell Belarmino (S11), Douglas Matera ( S13), Lucilene da Silva (S12) and Carol (S12), all visually impaired, totaling 48 in the sum of the classes.
Maria Carolina heads a historic performance of Brazilian swimming in Tokyo. On the eighth day of competitions, the sport has already awarded 20 medals to Brazil, surpassing the records of Rio 2016 and Beijing 2008, when the country rose to 19 podiums in the modality. So far, there have been six golds, five silvers and nine bronzes. An important highlight for the sport that lost the legend Daniel Dias, but gained, in addition to Carol, prodigies such as Gabriel Bandeira and Gabriel Araújo, who became champions at the age of 21 and 19, respectively. Santiago is also the most victorious Brazilian swimmer in the history of the Paralympics.
But Carol’s laurels go beyond swimming. Among all the athletes competing in Tokyo 2020, she only won less than the Belarusian Ihar Boki (five golds) and the Chinese Thao Zeng (four golds), both swimmers. Among women, it is the first. The results also place her on the Olympus of Brazilian athletes. She now attends the same table as Ádria Santos, who won four gold, eight silver and one bronze medals in athletics between 1988 and 2008; and Terezinha Guilhermina, another from athletics, owner of three golds, two silvers and three bronzes between 2004 and 2016. Ádria, Terezinha and Carolina are now the three most awarded Brazilian women in Paralympic Games, with the difference that Santiago got his collection in one edition. And she promises not to stop there. “We saw that it really works, and I’m really excited for Paris 2024. I want to go through this preparation in a less difficult way than Tokyo was [por conta da pandemia]”, said she, who will be 39 years old in the next Games.
Finally, the swimmer’s medals crown a special campaign for women’s sports in Brazil. Adding the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Games, only three women were individual Paralympic champions representing Brazil. In Tokyo 2020, there are already five: Silvânia Costa (long jump), Mariana D’Andrea (weightlifting), Alana Maldonado (judo), Beth Gomes (disc release) and Maria Carolina Santiago.
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