Vanderson Chaves during a wheelchair fencing match.  Comitê Paralímpico Brasileiro

Paralympic fencer Vanderson Chaves has lost everything he had —his home, medals, equipment, uniforms, passport, everything— just days before he vies for a spot in the 2024 Summer Paralympics. Chaves is one of the displaced persons affected by the heavy rains and severe flooding in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul that has left at least 100 dead, hundreds injured and thousands more homeless.

His ground floor apartment, ideal for the wheelchair user, remains submerged and with it, everything he needs to train and compete. “There’s no way this wouldn’t affect me. To compete and to train well, you need to be well psychologically. And I’m not,” Chaves told The Associated Press at the Gremio Nautico Uniao, the makeshift shelter he’s been living in since the flooding began. 

“I come from an impoverished area of Porto Alegre. Everything for me is more difficult to achieve. I am Black, I am disabled. And now this.”

The 29-year-old is no stranger to adversity. Chaves had hoped to be a professional football player but lost the use of both of his legs after being hit by a stray bullet in 2006. He discovered wheelchair fencing it gave Chaves a chance to “live a dream that he had not dreamed of.”

Now, the two-time Paralympian faces some of the most fearsome challenges in his life with more storms and floods on the horizon, shortages of essential supplies including drinking water, and with limited access to the rest of the country, getting to his next competition is somewhat of an odyssey.

With Porto Alegre’s airport flooded, Chaves will have to travel from Porto Alegre to Florianopolis on Tuesday in a minivan for about six hours and 460 kilometers. Then he will take a short flight to Sao Paulo, so he can compete from next Thursday into the weekend. His main rivals, who come from Argentina and the U.S., will be training and fine-tuning until then as they seek to overtake the Brazilian in the world rankings and qualify for Paris, AP reports. 

On top of that, Chaves will have to count on donated gear which provides some challenges on its own. 

“He will have new gloves. For a soccer player, that’s like having new boots. He could get blisters with that, the gloves won’t be softened. His outfit also needs to be softened, and he won’t have time to do that and get used to moving around with it. Those little details will affect him. But he can overcome all that,” Chaves’ coach, Eduardo Nunes explained. “The toughest thing will still be his mental health. To focus on what he needs to focus.”

Chaves believes his challenges can be turned into positives if he qualifies. He still hopes he can find some of his medals.

“I know that a lot of children, a lot of wheelchair fencers, get inspiration from me,” Chaves said in an emotional tone to AP. “I motivate them. I can use this to encourage them, and I can use it to encourage myself to go after this, too.

“I like to wake up watching the medals, thinking that the following week there’s going to be more medals there,” he said. “That’s something that gives me extra motivation. And that’s because I know that I still have it all there under water.”