Susana Schnarndorf was diagnosed with multiple systems atrophy (AMS) in 2005, aged 37 years. The disease, which paralyzes all the muscles of the body, meant that doctors at the time did not expect the athlete to live more than three years. It’s been 16 and Susana remains firm, strong and Paralympic. At 53, the athlete from Rio Grande do Sul and mother of three is the oldest swimmer in the Brazilian delegation at the Tokyo Paralympics, where she competes in search of the second Paralympic medal of her career. At Rio 2016, the Brazilian won a silver. In Japan, he finished far from the podium he dreamed of in his debut (the 150m medley SM4, his specialty), but still ended up with the eighth best mark among the competitors. The athlete still has a chance of medal in two other events at the Aquatic Center in Tokyo and remains firm in her intention to climb the podium and continue to prove herself competitive against an irreversible pathology.
Born in Porto Alegre, Susana follows as a Paralympic athlete a routine she was used to before the illness. She was four-time Brazilian triathlon champion between 1993 and 1997, and competed in the Pan American Games in Mar del Plata, Argentina, in 1995. She also completed 13 ironmans, one of the most famous endurance events in the world sport, which involves 3,800m of swimming, 180km of cycling and a marathon running (42km). Of the 13 that participated, she won six.
The first symptoms of AMS came in 2005, with difficulty breathing and swallowing saliva. In the same year, the diagnosis of the disease was confirmed after doctors disregarded brain tumor and multiple sclerosis. AMS is a pathology that causes multiple degeneration of the nervous system and, consequently, of muscle stiffness. Thus, it impairs the functioning of vital organs in the body, such as lungs and heart. The damage is irreversible and permanent. At the time, she was not expected to survive longer than three years. “I’m fourteen years old there, so I’m on my bonus, right?”, she joked in an interview with Olympics every day, in 2019.
The news of the diagnosis hit the athlete, who faced depression after the news. She saw her three children, Kaillani, Kaipo and Maila, move in with her ex-husband and even lost motor coordination on the left side of her body. Swimming reappeared in her life as a rehabilitation, but it did not take long to awaken the competitive spirit that has accompanied it for decades. In 2010, she joined the Brazilian Paralympic swimming team. Already dedicated to Paralympic sport, Schnarndorf was champion and Brazilian record holder in the 50m, 100m, 400m freestyle, 100m breaststroke and 200m medley between 2010 and 2012. She also competed in the Parapan de Guadalajara, in 2011.
The first Paralympics were London 2012. “Paralympic swimming for me is that struggle to remain competitive even with my illness getting worse,” he said. “Because you say: man, everyone said I was going to die and look where I am now. In 2012 I fulfilled the dream of my life which was to participate in my first Paralympics, and I always had the dream of going to an Olympics. I didn’t make it as a conventional athlete and in 2012 I made this dream come true with a different meaning”. The Brazilian was fourth in the 100m breaststroke in the S7 category and fifth in the 200m medley S7. The following year, she was world champion in the 100m breaststroke in the S6 class, in Montreal, Canada.
In Paralympic swimming, athletes with physical disabilities are between classes S1 and S10. The smaller the number, the greater the impairment that the disability causes in the athlete. Thus, Susana’s reclassification over the years is evidence of the worsening of her pathology. She entered as S8 in 2010, moved to S7 in 2012 and was at S5 in 2016. Now she competes in S4. “Every two years I go through the reclassification, it’s a pretty stressful thing, but I only have plan A, I don’t have plan B. So I move on, one day at a time,” she says.
More than 10 years after the AMS diagnosis, Susana won her Paralympic medal at the Rio 2016 Games. She was a silver medal in the mixed 4x50m freestyle relay, which swam alongside the references Clodoaldo Silva, Daniel Dias and Joana Silva. A year later, the athlete created the Susana Schnarndorf fund in partnership with the North American NGO Defect MSA, which funds medical education, patient support, and scientific research toward a cure for multiple systems atrophy.
The swimmer arrives for Tokyo 2020 as one of the three oldest Brazilian athletes. She is only behind the shotgun Beth Gomes (56 years old) and Fabiola Dergovics (54 years old), who compete in archery. By having sports and categories that require less mobility and agility than the Olympics, the Paralympic Games usually have older athletes. The Brazilian delegation in Tokyo also includes Helcio Luiz Gomes (archery), Antônio Tenório (judo) and Mauricio Pommê (wheelchair tennis) among the fifty.
Susana was out of the podium in the competition in which she is a specialist, the 150m medley of the S4, but there are still two other competitions left: the 50m freestyle on Wednesday (September 1) and the 50m backstroke on Thursday (2). Eighth place in the dispute, she was not discouraged by the absence of a medal. “I’m the eighth best in the world in the medley!”, highlighted the swimmer, remembering that not only are great champions made from podiums.
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