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Brazil's Top Paracanoe Athlete Sets Sights on Gold in 2016 Rio Olympics

Fernando Fernandes may be in a wheelchair, but that’s only pushed him to work even harder as he trains for the 2016 Olympics.

“My gift is this sport,” said Fernandes from his training facility in Sao Paulo. “I was determined to do this in a different way, in a way no one has ever seen before.”

When he hits the water at the Rio games, it will be the first time that paracanoe is included in the Paralympic program.

“People see a wheelchair as a weakness, as the lack of capability. The sport is slowly changing this,” said Fernandes.

Sports have always been a part of his life. He was a professional soccer player when he was 17, and then he landed a modeling career becoming the face of major campaigns, including Dolce & Gabbana.

“[I thought] In four years I could retire my modeling career, come back and start working with sports again.”

But on July 4, 2009 everything changed when he severed his spine in a car accident.

“I woke up in a hospital bed. I ran my fingers through my body but felt nothing. When I got to my legs they didn’t respond. I thought what if these legs don’t work again? A guy that is a model, an athlete. What am I going to do with my life?”

Fernandes said he was faced with a decision.

“I realized that even though I had no idea what I was going to do, I had to rehabilitate my life. I am ALIVE.”

While in rehab he sat inside a canoe for the first time, and has since become a four-time World Champion canoeist.

“To me, that was a gift from God. I set my mind to do the same things I did before the accident. But now, just in a different way.”

He’s now helping others do the same through the Instituto Fernando Fernandes Life, his foundation that empowers kids with disabilities through sports.

“I would not change anything in my life. What’s happened has happened. And thank God I have been able to learn with each step.”

Credit: Pedro Andrade, Joanna Suarez, Darwin Phillips, Bradley Black

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