Neymar face of Rio Olympics, but Daniel Dias has his own platform at Paralympic Games

Brazilian is on the brink of greatness in the swimming pool, writes Gary Meenaghan in Rio de Janeiro.
Brazil’s Daniel Dias competes in the men’s 200-metre freestyle S5 final on his way to another gold medal. Dias holds 10 Paralympic world records. Leo Correa / AP Photo
Brazil’s Daniel Dias competes in the men’s 200-metre freestyle S5 final on his way to another gold medal. Dias holds 10 Paralympic world records. Leo Correa / AP Photo

When the curtain falls at Sunday night’s closing ceremony, inside the same venue where Neymar secured his standing as the face of the Rio Olympic Games, there is little doubt as to who will be cast forever as the poster boy of this Paralympics.

Daniel Dias arrived having already won 15 Paralympic swimming medals, of which 10 are gold.

He arrived after having registered to compete in nine events across two impairment classifications. And he arrived having not shaved for more than 100 days. “It is a joke between me and my coach,” Dias told the official Paralympic website before his first event. “It is just a way to have fun and not let the stressful environment take over.

“My coach has very nice hair, so our deal is to shave my beard and my coach will shave his head. We will both be bald during the Paralympics.”

True to his word, when he entered the pool on September 8, the hair was gone.

Dias is proudly religious, often crediting his achievements to God, but Samson he is definitely not.

Shorn of his locks, he still won his first event by more than 10 seconds and has since claimed medals in each of his five races since, taking his medal haul to 21 with three events remaining.

Born in Sao Paulo state without hands and only one foot, Dias’s family treated him “like any other child”, to the extent that growing up, he could often be seen wearing and – to the chagrin of his mother – breaking his prosthetic limbs while playing football in the street with friends.

In 2004, he watched on TV as compatriot Clodoaldo Silva won six gold medals while swimming at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens and decided he might like to switch the pitch for the pool.

Four years later at the Beijing Games, he won four golds, four silvers and a bronze.

As one Brazilian news outlet remarked, “Instead of mechanical legs, now Daniel just breaks records.”

He holds 10 Paralympic world records and shows no signs of slowing down.

Last Friday, he competed alongside Silva in the 4x50-metre freestyle, helping secure his mentor a silver medal in the 37-year-old Brazilian’s final Games.

Yet Dias is not only prodigious in the water, but also personable out of it.

He is regularly spotted in the stands while watching his beloved Corinthians football team and told Globo Esporte he has been “a very happy, active person” since childhood.

“I always had in mind that if God made me this way, it was for a purpose,” Dias, 28, said. “I always accepted it and I was happy as well. It is a matter of choice – and I chose to be happy. The rest we seek with determination and faith.”

Such determination and demeanour coupled with being seemingly destined to surpass Australian Matthew Cowdrey’s 23 medals and become the most decorated Paralympic male swimmer of all time, has resulted in him transcending his sport.

With close to 10 personal sponsorships, he is one of few impaired athletes able to live off his sporting success.

And with that comes more responsibility.

During English-language media commitments, he prefers to work with an interpreter, but some words do not need converting.

When the organisers asked him for the Paralympics website about comparisons to US Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, the Brazilian laughed, interjecting before the end of the translation.

“I am very happy to be compared to such an amazing athlete, but I am Daniel Dias and I want to do the best for Paralympic sports,” said Dias, who will today compete in the 100m freestyle on Saturday.

Another medal would take him a step closer to being the third-most-decorated Paralympian athlete of all time, but he will not be found speaking of such ambitions.

Instead, he prefers to focus only on the process. “Medals are consequences of good work,” he said. “I never promise medals. I believe it is a consequence of my good work in the water.”

Whether it is in the water or pinned up on a wall, the poster boy of the Paralympics is ensuring the Games will be deemed a success for the host nation when the curtains close on Sunday.

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Published: September 16, 2016 04:00 AM

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