Brazil’s star Paralympic swimmer Daniel Dias tore off to a gold winning start in Rio, but don’t call him another Michael Phelps — Dias is busy writing his own name in history.
With a gold late last night in the 200 meter freestyle S5, Dias, who was born with congenital malformation of his arms and right leg, now has 16 medals and is closing in on becoming one of the most decorated Paralympians of all time.
At stunning speed, the 28-year-old delighted the raucous Brazilian home crowd by beating US swimmer Roy Perkins by 10 seconds. What’s scary for opponents is he has eight more events to go.
That’s where the Phelps comparisons come in. The US swimmer — the most decorated Olympian in any sport — retired at the close of the Rio Summer Games in August with a haul of 28 medals, 23 of them gold.
Dias is catching up, but says he has his own story to tell.
“I’m Daniel Dias and I want to build my own legacy. But I’m happy to be compared to a great athlete,” he told AFP.
It’s possible that Dias will go all the way in Rio, reaching 24 medals. That would take him past the current record holder for Paralympic male swimming medals, Australian Matthew Cowdrey, who has 23 — although way off the astonishing 55 medals for the now retired US swimmer Trischa Zorn.
If Dias competes again in Tokyo 2020, he’d even have a chance to overtake Phelps.
“I never think about this,” he says. “That’s true. I just try to do my best and to swim well. The medal is the consequence of that work.”
Dias became Brazil’s most successful Paralympic athlete during the London 2012 Games. And the emotion in the swimming arena on Thursday was intense.
“He is the champion!” chanted the delirious crowd — including his two sons, wife and parents — before breaking into the national anthem.
“It was more emotional than I could have imagined,” he said afterwards.
Coming up next are the 50m and 100m freestyle, 50m butterfly, 100m breaststroke, 50m Backstroke and three relay events. They’re likely to be the hottest tickets in Brazil.
“This is unique. We’ll never have something like this again,” said the national hero of the home event. After an evening’s work, it was back to the Athletes’ Village and bed for Dias — and the medal went with him. “You don’t want to let go of it,” he said.
Daniel de Faria Dias was born in Sao Paulo state on 28 May, 1988, and right away his mother Raquel Dias knew something was wrong.
She recalled “crying without knowing why” right after the delivery, she wrote on the athlete’s website.
“Later they told us that our son had been born with no hands or feet,” she remembered, although he does have one leg.
He discovered swimming at 16, inspired by Paralympic swimmer Clodoaldo Silva, who has his own medal collection from Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London and lit the cauldron during Rio’s opening ceremony on Wednesday.
Dias’ life didn’t suddenly become easier. He had much suffering to overcome and prejudice, including the teasing by fellow students who he remembers “touching me to see if I was real.”
But he did find his place, first in the swimming pool and now in Brazilians’ hearts.