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One-armed table tennis player eyes both Olympics and Paralympics

SANTIAGO, CHILE (AP) – Bruna Alexandre wants to break barriers and spend a lot of time in Paris next year.

The one-armed table tennis player, who starts competing at the Pan American Games on Thursday, is trying to make Brazil’s team for both the Olympics and the Paralympics in Paris, meaning she’ll be in France training and playing from late July until early September.

Alexandre, 28, wants to join a group of five other athletes who, according to the International Paralympic Committee, have participated in both competitions in the same year: Archer Neroli Fairhall of New Zealand; Polish table tennis player Natalia Partyka; swimmer Natalie du Toit and sprinter Oscar Pistorious, both of South Africa; and Iranian archer Zarah Nemati.

Brazil’s Bruna Alexandre trains during the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, October 29. The one-armed 28-year-old athlete, who starts competing at the Pan American Games on Thursday, is pushing to make it to Brazil’s national team for both Olympics and Paralympics. PHOTO: AP

Brazil’s No 3 women’s table tennis player, Alexandre will be the first athlete from the Americas to join that exclusive group it if she is picked for the Olympic team. Her spot at the Paralympics is already secured.

She won her two doubles matches played on Thursday with Giulia Takahashi, and advanced to the quarterfinals of the tournament.

Several other athletes have competed in both the Olympics and the Paralympics, but not in the same year; Belgium’s Sonia Vettenburg, a wheelchair racer who also competed in shooting; archer Paola Fantato and vision-impaired shot putter Assunta Legnante, both of Italy; and American vision-impaired track and field athlete Marla Runyan.

Alexandre says she never knew what it is like to have a right arm: She lost it when she was 3 months old due to thrombosis. She has always done what she wanted and gone wherever she wanted.

“I always had sports in my life, like indoor soccer, skateboarding, cycling,” Alexandre told The Associated Press in Santiago this week. “I started at table tennis at age seven just because my brother was playing and I had to call him back home.”

She is among the top five Paralympic table tennis players in the world, but is 220th in the Olympic rankings. She hopes to be among the top 80 so she can qualify for the Paris Games.

Brazil’s Bruna Alexandre trains during the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, October 29, 2023. Alexandre is a top five Paralympic table tennis players in the world, but nearing the 220th place in the Olympic rankings, which she started taking part of in January. PHOTO: AP

During practice in Santiago, analysts said Alexandre doesn’t have as much mobility and footwork as other players and her one-handed serve is not as effective. But she has powerful hits and plays defence well.

“Being in the Olympic national team I can also get a push for the Paralympic team,” Alexandre said. “At the Paralympics I can manage, give the ball to the opponent more frequently. At the Olympics I can’t do that, I have to attack more, be quicker and more active.”

She has played Paralympic sports since age 13. She moved from southern city of Criciuma to Sao Caetano near Sao Paulo at age 16. She has worked with Brazil’s Olympic team, which currently has one of the few players in the world who can challenge the top Chinese players, Hugo Calderano.

Alexandre already has one silver and two bronze medals from the Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo. She is aiming for gold in France with the help of Brazilian music, South Korean dramas, and inspiration from China, the dominant force in the sport.

“I am hoping for gold at the Paralympics, but the Olympics do make me dream,” she said. “I can barely believe this could happen. I have to work on my mindset to get it done. Very few athletes can do that, it is very hard for someone like me to reach the Olympics.”

Brazil’s Bruna Alexandre trains during the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, Sunday, October 29. The Brazilian now wants to be part of a group of five other athletes who, according to the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), competed in both the Olympics and Paralympic games in the same year. PHOTO: AP

The International Paralympic Committee said in a statement to The Associated Press that it is too early to say whether any Paralympic athletes will compete at both competitions in Paris and its focus “is purely on athletes excelling at the Paralympics.”

Alexandre’s mind is set as she competes in Chile. She could play at the Parapan American Games later this month, but opted not to.

“I want to show that everyone with a handicap can do anything. I want to leave that image of me playing the Olympics one day,” she said. “That could be a great image for anyone with a handicap, not only those in Brazil. Anything is possible, and I want to prove that.”

 

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