The journey to Paralympia

By Laura TomassiniAnouk Flesch Switch to German for original article

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Dubai, London, Rio - Tom Habscheid has already stood in many athletics facilities, as the shot-putter is currently one of the international top riders in his category. The 34-year-old now again showed that he can do quite a bit despite his handicap when preparing for the Paralympic Summer Games in Tokyo starting tomorrow.

"Are we supposed to feel sorry for you now, or are you doing this voluntarily?" With a serious expression and a slight twitch at the corner of his mouth, Fernand Heintz teases his sports protégé as he stands sweating in front of the weight bench after a round of hurdling. In preparation for the Summer Paralympic Games 2021, Tom Habscheid trains three times a week with his coach at the HPTRC (High Performance Training & Recovery Center) at the Coque, in addition to his shot put training on the field in Dudelange. The 34-year-old and his mentor have been a team for six years, and have both spent the past weeks and months to prepare physically and mentally for the Summer Paralympic Games in Tokyo from August 24th to September 5th.

"The weeks before the meeting are crucial, then we do a lot of explosive training with short sets and light weights", Tom explains the planning. On his smartphone, the athlete can see exactly what exercises his coach has planned for the day, because they are precisely tailored to his performance. First indoor cycling to warm up, then deadlift series and then hurdle race and bench press to build explosiveness and strength. "Tom trains as a Paralympic athlete no differently than anyone else, he practices runs, jumps, builds muscle and goes to training camps. Only endurance, we can't get that with him and his leg", Fernand says.

From football player without a license to para-athlete

The retired athlete was himself a long-time competitor and brought home the national championship title a total of 19 times. However, he and his athlete have not made it onto the podium together, yet the "oldie" still knows a thing or two about teaching the youngster. "Once, Tom eagerly announced on Facebook that he would flatten his coach. That didn't work out so well, though", Fernand reveals with a smile. "He's just an old fox", Tom admits with a shrug of his shoulders, "but when I'm a coach someday, I'm going to beat up my athletes just as much as he's beating me up now."

The duo knows each other inside and out, because as a world-class athlete, Tom spends almost more time with his coach than he does at home. His career as a semi-professional shot putter started rather in a roundabout way, because almost ten years ago, participation in the Paralympics was still a long way off. "I always played soccer as a youngster, but never got a license because of my handicap, so I could never really play sports officially", he recalls. In 2012, the Useldange native saw the campaign for the Paralympic Games in London on television – and was thrilled. "That didn't exist to that extent in Luxembourg at all."

Playing soccer with a disability seemed tricky to the young athlete, as it would have required an entire team of Paralympic players right away. Athletics, with all its individual disciplines, on the other hand, was a more real option, so Tom turned his attention to discus throwing. The closest club was Diekirch and it was here that the budding athlete took his first steps towards high-performance sport. "Of course, it didn't work out right away", admits the 34-year-old. However, during regular training, the young Luxembourger quickly realized that he had a certain feeling for the sport with the discus and after just two months he found himself competing in Dampicourt, France.

In 2013, Tom then unknowingly threw the minimum distance for the Olympics with 36 meters – and opened new doors for himself: "We then requested a wildcard from the Paralympic Committee and a short time later I was allowed to go to the World Championships in Lyon, where I threw my best performance of over 39 meters and finished fifth." From then on, everything happened fast all at once: through his coach, Tom got in touch with coaches in Bruges, where he received professional mentoring from that moment on. In 2014, he finished second at the European Championships, followed by another appearance at the World Championships a year later. "I didn't have time to react at all, I just did it", says the athlete.

At the Games in Birmingham, one day after the European Championships in Swansea, Wales, the athlete met the true greats of international athletics for the first time, because not only the crème de la crème of the Paralympic scene was here, but also the upper league of "normal" athletics: "You no longer understand the world when suddenly Usain Bolt, Christina Schwanitz or Robert Harting run past you." However, 2014 was to be the year of a personal turnaround for the discus thrower, as the discipline was dropped from the program in his category. That same year, Tom therefore tried the other kind of shot put for the first time and in 2018 he decided to focus completely on the shot.

"You no longer understand the world when suddenly Usain Bolt, Christina Schwanitz or Robert Harting run past you."

Tom Habscheid, shot-putter

"He was more talented in discus throwing, but his second leg allowed Tom to continue competing internationally and thus reach the very top", says coach Fernand. He and Tom have now been paving the way to Tokyo since 2019, as a convention with the state allowed the athlete to turn his career around to become a semi-professional. The rhythm of 20 hours of training and 20 hours in his job at the reception of the Dudelange CNA (Centre National de l'Audiovisuel) get the athlete well, as shown by the outstanding results of recent years. Back in November 2019, the shot-putter competed at the Outdoor Grand Prix in Dubai and promptly left the meeting with a new world record.

Since then, however, it has been a little quieter around the para-athlete of the F63 class – "F" for "field" and the number 63 as the degree of his disability – this due to a recent knee injury and Corona. "Before 2020, we had a full year's schedule, with fast and build-up phases. However, from February, this completely evaporated and during a whole year there was no competition phase at all", explains Fernand. However, he says the coach-athlete duo used the time to touch up physical deficiencies, such as Tom's core stability, and work on the 34-year-old's weight. "Corona's timing was really ideal, so I was fortunate", Tom says.

The right prostheses for every exercise

Edema in his knee had developed from years of unilateral loading and an untreated cartilage tear, but with the help of the imposed break and LIHPS' (Luxembourg Institute for High Performance Sports) "Injury Prevention, Return to Sports and Performance" expert Jérôme Pauls' exercises, it was cured in such a way that Tom can now train at full strength again. The fact that the para-athlete has to face different hurdles than his teammates from Cercle Athlétique Dudelange is shown by his trainer's explanations: "When there's only one leg, you can't compensate for an injury with the other or walk on crutches for a month."

Tom also has to keep a few things in mind when using his prostheses, because not every leg fits every activity, according to the athlete: "For strength training, I always use my old prosthesis. The carbon foot is actually only standardized for a weight of up to 150 kilos, but I alone already weigh 95 or 96 kilos, and if I then put on another 100, the prosthesis suffers quite a bit." He also has a different leg for discus than for shot put, because, "my discus foot is slightly pointed and you can adjust it, because you have to be able to turn when you throw the discus. The shot put foot, on the other hand, is flat and has a rotational joint."

His everyday prosthetic for his shortened left leg, which Tom also used for training in the beginning, is adorned with characters from the anime series Dragon Ball Z, while his right leg is decorated with a tattoo portrait of British ski jumper Michael Edwards. "Eddy the Eagle always came last in competitions and many obstacles were put in his way. Nevertheless, he never gave up and I find that admirable", Tom explains the choice of motif. His great role model, however, is his coach, who always motivates him anew with his knowledge and his well-intentioned insults – and this despite the fact that Tom has not received any compliments from Fernand to date for his meticulous "pain monitoring", i.e. assessing the degree of pain during his injury phase. "After all, no one says thank you to me for my work", the trainer counters teasingly.

The conditions for the correct shot put technique, which Tom trains three times a week on the athletics field in Dudelange before the Paralympic Games, can only be poorly simulated in the Coque, as the track is currently being renovated here and the shot circle and beam ("butoir") are therefore missing, says Fernand. In exchange, however, the athlete has discovered new, additional training options among his fitness tables. "I started yoga last year to make this Adonis body more supple", Tom says with a laugh. In addition, he is accompanied by a mental coach, his physiotherapist, who is provided by the Federation for the first time this year for his training camp before Tokyo, and his nutritionist, who provides the right "fuel".  The fact that the young para-athlete sometimes treats himself to pizza, burgers and fries after a hard abdominal workout is the least of her problems.

The story of the "wrong foot"

"Before a competition, I always really get on my team's nerves", Tom reveals. "The energy just wants to get out. It's not even stage fright or nervousness, I'm just fully charged on the first day of a meet. Through all the training, you feel like you can move mountains, especially since my coach doesn't let me train to exhaustion just before the end and then I have energy in abundance." The fact that the odd mishap can happen in the heat of the moment is something Tom and Fernand can back up with a whole range of anecdotes. "I remember a scene in Dubai when Tom left his prosthesis in the cab, right before the meeting", reveals the coach.

"Or the wrong foot, " he says, and is joined by the clumsy one in question: "That was in Tunisia, we had kind of talked past each other and I thought I was going to throw discus. After the warm-up, Fernand asked me when I was going to put on my shot put foot and I was just like: Huh?!" Eight years of competing, now that means numerous medals, but also numerous meets where things didn't go so well, he said. "In Doha, we were twelfth in my category, which is why I came out ninth. That was the worst competition I've ever had and that too at a World Championships!"

In general, however, the athlete remembers mostly the good throws, especially those in England. "Those are the most awesome meetings, because the British are a nation of sports enthusiasts", Tom said. The 2019 World Championships in Dubai, the 2018 Grand Prix in Berlin, London 2017 and Rio 2016, when he only finished seventh but threw his personal best, are all moments he thinks back on fondly. "You reach a certain peak every season, but of course you never know how the other athletes are doing. You have no influence on that."

Coach and coached always pursue realistic goals, according to Tom: "We always look at what the statistics give. However, I would already say that as runner-up and record holder in my category, I can keep up with the front. The rest is then bonus." You don't know the definitive start list until just before and, especially since Corona, the competition is increasingly like a surprise egg, as you simply don't get to see anyone anymore due to the cancellation of numerous Grand Prix, the coach emphasizes.

Tom's determination to make a real splash at Tokyo is nevertheless plain to see for the young father of two sons. Underneath the ski jumper's tattoo, the Olympic rings adorn the para-athlete's leg, because the "adapter man", as Tom calls himself and other Paralympic athletes, knows what you can do even with a disability. After the training camp in Lanzarote, the delegation – consisting of four people – is now ready to roll in Tokyo. "The Three Musketeers", as Tom calls the trainer-athlete-mission chief trio, as well as a Corona representative, belong to the smaller part of the Games, because while the Olympic Village is always filled to bursting with "normal" athletes, the small alleys and houses tend to be empty during the Paralympics.

"Tom trains as a Paralympic athlete no differently than anyone else, he practices runs, jumps, builds muscle and goes to training camps. Only endurance, we can't get that with him and his leg."

Fernand Heintz, trainer

But Tom appreciates the privilege of being there: "Not many people get the opportunity to be a part of the Olympics or Paralympics, so that's a cool experience in itself." His own meeting won't take place until the very last day of the competitions, which is September 4th. However, the trip to Japan was already made on August 22nd, because Tom was designed to carry the Luxembourg flag here. "Fifteen days is a relatively long time, though, because on site you live in a bubble and don't have the same freedom of movement as usual", Fernand says. However, being the only Paralympic athlete on the Luxembourgish team also means being the only option this year to represent the country both for the Opening Ceremony joined by approximately 7,000 participating para-athletes, and the Closing Event.

What will be after the Games, Tom does not yet know, because his convention as a semi-pro is only for the Olympics. Maybe more time for his family and his hobby geocaching, because there is little time for that as a high-level athlete. "The price you pay as an athlete is high. You have to constantly watch out that you don't hurt yourself, even in your free time, and my life partner and two children also have to have a lot of understanding for the fact that I'm often not at home", says Tom. However, the support of family, friends and fans is at the same time a push to keep going, because Tom loves to feel their attention: "I am someone who likes to be carried by the spectators. It gives you a certain adrenaline rush."

However, the fact that there will be no audience for the Summer Games this year due to the current Corona rules is something the athlete sees with mixed feelings: "I'm already partly used to it from here, because the track and field meetings in Luxembourg are not always very well attended either." For now, it's a matter of concentrating on the essentials anyway, namely pushing the ball as far as it can go. Asked if Tom performs a certain ritual before competitions, the 34-year-old answers with a wink: "Drinking an energy drink, having my start number and making sure I don't forget anything. Especially not my prosthesis in a cab!"