The fastest woman on blades helps the next generation of para-athletes
Paralympian Marlou van Rhijn breaks down barriers preventing disabled children from participating in sports.
Three-time Paralympic gold medallist and world record holder Marlou van Rhijn knows the joy of trying on a new pair of running blades. With her new initiative, Project Blade, Marlou is working to bring that joy to young athletes with disabilities by making running blades and bionic legs more accessible.
Born without her lower legs, Marlou began her athletic career as a swimmer. She competed in the 2006 World Championships, but decided to step away from the sport to focus on her studies. “As an athlete your career won’t be that long. So it’s important to think about your future,” Marlou says of choosing to complete her education. “At that time I didn’t enjoy swimming as much anymore so I felt the need to look a bit further.”
Marlou later took up running and won a silver and gold medal at the 2012 Paralympics in London. She remembers returning home a hero: “When I got back to the Netherlands, Paralympic athletics was very popular so I was very proud and told everyone that even if you miss a leg, you can still run. However it appeared not to be so easy because running blades are expensive and difficult to get by.”
For young para-athletes, expensive equipment often prohibits them from participating in sports. Marlou envisioned making the process easier: “I wanted children that needed blades to have the same experience as every child. And that is to just go into a store, get someone to help you find your perfect shoe, go out and run.” So she went to her sponsors — Nike and Otto Bock, the manufacturer of blades — for help. The result is Project Blade, a new initiative to encourage children with disabilities to play sport.
With Project Blade, Marlou recently took over an entire floor in the Nike store in Amsterdam and stocked it with Nike and Otto Bock professionals to help fit children with blades. Marlou also led a clinic where children had the opportunity to try out their blades. “They could also bring friends throughout the whole experience because it was very important to me that the project was as inclusive as their daily lives are,” Marlou says of the events. “It was a great experience, because as soon as everyone had their blades it was just all about sports. As it should be. Everyone had fun running and enjoyed themselves with their friends.”
Having a good time is at the core of Marlou’s own athletic success. “I have learned that fun is the most important thing in everything you do,” she says. “If you come on the track not having fun, you won’t perform.” With Project Blade, Marlou is determined to make sports fun and inclusive for all young athletes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tess Thomas is editor of Assembly, a digital publication and newsletter from Malala Fund. She loves books, cats and french fries.