STRONG-WILLED: Giusy Versace says the question to ask is not why me, but why not me? Photos Najeer Feroke
Italian para-athlete Giusy Versace tells Anand Holla that, all things considered, love at home is enough — to be with your family, friends and do the simple things you love doing
Going over what could very well be a shortened foreword to her life story, Italy’s champion para-athlete Giusy Versace is staring into space. She then draws words out of thin air, and says, “It is not easy… it’s never easy.”
After a while, nobody talks about the physical pain that comes with a disability like hers — both legs severed below the knees — she feels.
“It’s hard to confront yourself with the daily physical pain. Prosthetics, after all, aren’t your legs. So you wake up with a biting pain in different parts of your body,” the 30-something Italian says, pointing at her tummy and hips, “You can’t walk exactly like you walked yesterday. It’s different, every day.”
It sure must take a will of steel to cut through the obstacles and embrace sports to overpower one’s disability.
“You look at a video of us para-athletes running like machines. But trust me it’s not as easy as it looks.”
Nine years after losing her legs in an accident, the rising track star is busy realising her many dreams — both on and off the field. Securing a bunch of gold medals, and an Italian record isn’t enough for Versace, who is also the President of the non-profit organisation Disability No Limits.
On a constant lookout for ways to raise funds to donate high-tech aids for the disabled who can’t afford them, Versace is in Doha for four days to raise awareness of disability sport in Qatar.
“I know how difficult things are for the disabled,” she tells Community on Sunday, at the office of International Centre for Sport Security (ICSS), “I tell everybody I meet — don’t give up. Crying or mourning is not a solution. You have to walk on, look ahead and believe that the sun will come up.”
Not for nothing is it said that a change in attitude can change your life. Versace has earned the authority to inspire others by turning a tragedy on its head.
One fine day, she stopped seeing herself as a victim of circumstance. With that, she stopped asking herself the question that reeks of hopelessness and despair — why me?
“I think you look at things completely differently if you ask yourself — why not me? I believe in God, and I wondered if He was asking me — why not you? This could have happened with anybody, but it had to happen to me.”
In fact, Versace was brave enough to look at her prosthetic legs as a great opportunity to live a new life. “I needed time to accept them, but I eventually didn’t see them as a bad thing,” she says.
A long look at the mirror post-accident, told Versace that all wasn’t lost yet. “I told myself — okay, I can’t play tennis or swim anymore, but I certainly can try running. I was curious,” she says.
“I wanted to just feel the sensation of running because my mind had forgotten how it felt.” That curiosity, fortunately, turned into an obsession.
Earlier in the day, at the ICSS office, while lauding ICSS’ Save The Dream initiative, which seeks to promote and protect integrity and ethics in young players, Versace pointed out, “The first time I walked, I cried out of terrible pain. When I ran, I cried again…but out of joy.”
During a round of questions, she was asked what makes her cry now.
“I like miniskirts or high heels, but I can’t wear them anymore. So that’s sad. But the beauty of a lady is not in how she dresses, it’s in her eyes,” she said.
“If I see a beautiful pair of shoes in a store’s window, I cry,” she continued, “So I buy them anyway and give them away to my friends.”
But for the girl from Reggio Calabria in southern Italy, fashion defined life. She was content being immersed in her hallowed world of Haute couture.
“With that surname, what else would I do?” she asks, laughing about her previous job as a retail specialist for a major fashion company at London and later Milan. And yes, she is related to the famous Versace family.
“I had a great job, lovely family, a happy life, and in one second, I lost everything.” Or so it seemed.
In 2005, while driving on a highway in Italy, Versace was caught in a terrible storm. Her car gave into aquaplaning (a condition in which the water gathered on the road causes the car’s moving wheel to lose contact with the road, causing major skidding).
“My car skid, spun and hit the crash barriers so hard that those rods tore through my car and sliced through my legs. My mangled legs, the gush of blood… I remember it all,” she says.
She then adds, “Today, it’s easy for me to talk about it. Five years back, if you’d ask me, I would have broken down.”
At the forefront of Versace’s inspirational fightback were two men. “People told me you won’t ever be able to run… you’ll fall. And I did fall down, many times.”
“But my brother and boyfriend kept telling me: Don’t worry if you fall down. We are here to get you up,” she recalls of her run-up to the arena of competitive sprinting, four years ago.
As much a pillar of support has been her coach Andrea Giannini,
and Fortunato Vinci of the Italian Paralympic Committee who kept her driven.
“You have to train, train, and then train some more,” says Versace, laughing. That’s why her week is divided between three days of running and three days of strength training at the gym.
With time, she has become used to running with the J-shaped carbon-fibre prosthetics called the Flex-Foot Cheetah — made popular by the fallen Paralympic athlete Oscar Pistorious. But since her left limb is short, she suffers on the curve while running the 200m race.
“After the accident, I was desperately trying to do things that I did before. It took me nearly a year-and-a half of intense training to learn to walk again, regain my balance, or drive a car again,” she says.
Instead of being supportive, her workplace turned cold on her. “My desk was gone. I was given work that wasn’t challenging. My higher-ups treated me like I had not only lost my legs, but my head as well,” she says.
In sports, Versace found a healer of all such hostilities. “Sports should be approached like therapy,” she says with an unshakeable conviction. “Not only does it boost one’s self-esteem, it helps… it heals.”
She has a bagful of reasons to say so. Two years ago, Versace donated a prosthetic leg to a boy who hadn’t stepped out of home for 11 years.
“Just because he had lost his leg in an accident, he didn’t feel like going out again. When he got the leg, he felt like he was born again,” she beams. “He started playing, going out, and he still calls me to say: Thank you so much.”
It has been an uphill task for Versace to raise awareness about disability sport. “It’s only now that have people begun talking about it. Everybody can donate wheelchairs and prosthetic legs, but few can truly inspire others through talks and events. That’s what I want to do,” she says.
“Sports are a big opportunity for the disabled to find meaning in their lives. And more so for women, who just don’t leave their homes,” she says.
Simplifying her point further, Versace says that all you really need is your head and heart. “If you have those, you can go anywhere,” she says.
That also happens to be the title of her autobiography which was released last February in Italian: With the head and heart, you can go everywhere.
“I really like life, you know. I believe life is easy,” Versace says, her eyes crinkling with a smile, “All of us change it into something else and complicate it way too much. It’s enough to be with your family, friends, and do the simple things that you love doing.”
We forget to say “I love you” to people who matter, she feels. “Everybody is fighting for stupid, unimportant things. An accident like mine makes one realise the value of these things,” she says, matter-of-factly.
That’s perhaps why beneath the multiple layers of grit, guts and gumption, lays Versace’s sincere affection towards family.
“The first few days after the accident were the toughest. I returned home from hospital only to ask myself — where’s my life?” she says, “But there was so much love at home.”
Despite being divorced, Versace’s parents joined hands in helping her. “They often fight with each other. But only for me, they were together. To help me with the most mundane of tasks, always smiling and telling me to be patient and not feel desperate,” she recalls.
“Nothing has been easy,” she repeats.
And then in a random moment of mellow, Versace says, smiling, “But I was so impressed to feel all this love which, in the past, I just couldn’t see.”
For a woman self-taught to look at the bright side of everything, that’s one task that should be relatively easy.
1) LIFE ON HER TERMS: Despite the tragedy, Versace not only picked herself up to regain glory, but is now a motivational speaker. Here she is showing her work.
2) RUN, GIUSY, RUN: Versace is a picture of courage, endurance and, above all, inspiration.
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